North Korean defector ‘treated like dirt’ in South, fights to return

Kwon Chol-nam fled North Korea for China in 2014 by wading across a river border at night and then crawling over a barbed-wire fence. After a perilous trek that included walking through a jungle in Laos, he reached Thailand, where he was allowed to fly to South Korea to start a new life.

After all that trouble and danger, Mr. Kwon now wants South Korea to allow him to return home to the North.

“You have to ride a horse to know whether it’s the right mount for you,” Mr. Kwon said in an interview in Seoul. “I have tried, and the South is not for me. I want to go home to the North to reunite with my ex-wife and 16-year-old son.”

Mr. Kwon says he has grown disillusioned with life in the capitalist South, where he says North Korean defectors like him are treated like second-class citizens. “They called me names, treating me like an idiot, and didn’t pay me as much as others doing the same work, just because I was from the North,” Mr. Kwon said, his voice rising in anger. “In the North, I may not be rich, but I would better understand people around me and wouldn’t be treated like dirt as I have been in the South,” he said.

To press his unusual demand, he has held news conferences, submitted petitions to the United Nations and demonstrated with signs in front of government buildings in Seoul.

Mr. Kwon tried to find his own way back to the North, but that effort only landed him in jail in the South for a few months. Like all defectors, he became a South Korean citizen upon arriving here, and it is illegal for any South Korean to visit the North without government permission. Now, he is openly asking the South to repatriate him, only the second defector to make such an appeal.

More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since a famine hit their homeland in the 1990s. Of them, 25 have mysteriously resurfaced back in the North in the past five years.

[New York Times]

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