For Kwon Chol-nam, yesterday’s talks were the best news he has had in years. The 44-year-old North Korean made the risky crossing through China in 2014 after his marriage disintegrated, but says after years of discrimination and loneliness in the south, he just wants to go home to his wife and son.
“I came because I thought I could build a better life here but one has to ride a horse to know whether it’s a good one or not,” he said.
“You go to work, you remain silent all day and then you come home. Defectors can’t speak of their feelings here because you never know who might report you as a North Korean spy. People here think we are ignorant fools.”
Like all defectors, Mr Kwon has been granted South Korean citizenship but the country’s national security act prohibits all citizens from making any contact with the North without permission. Mr Kwon has managed to do so, paying hefty commissions to brokers to funnel money to his wife and connect them by telephone. He believes there is an “80 to 90 per cent chance” of reviving his marriage if he returns.
But there is no legal way to do so and last June he was jailed for two months after intelligence agents got wind of his plans to reverse-defect. He reckons at least 60 per cent of defectors feel as he does but are scared to speak up.
“It feels unfair that I can’t go back,” he says. “Why stop me from going back to the place I was born and raised, where I want to be?”