The tale of 45-year-old Kim Ryen-hei, a North Korean living in South Korea, is both extraordinary and strange. Kim told Al Jazeera that she came to South Korean against her will, and she desperately wants to go back to her home to reunite with her family in Pyongyang, a request refused by the South Korean authorities.
In 2011, Kim traveled from North Korea to China to get treatment for her worsening liver cirrhosis. However, she found out that her medical expenses were too high. Her brokers refused to give her North Korean passport back. She was told that she could make enough money to cover her medical expenses and go back to China if she worked in South Korea for two to three months.
She then decided to ask South Korea to send her back, but there is no mechanism or precedent in place for South Korea to send back North Korean “defectors” in such cases. After a long questioning process by the South Korean intelligence authorities, and rehabilitation training for new North Korea defectors, she finally applied for a South Korean passport, which was rejected and her name was added to a watch list by the intelligence authorities.
“I attempted to stowaway on a boat and managed to get a false passport. I even spent time in jail,” Kim said. In the hope of getting deported, she says she started to collect private information about North Korean defectors in the South, while reporting her “espionage” activities to the authorities, which got her convicted of violating the National Security Law.
Pastor Choi Jae-bong who is helping Kim told Al Jazeera: “This whole situation does not make sense. She is from North Korea and she got convicted for espionage. But, the South Korean government has been providing her with [the same] housing and living allowance for North Korean defectors.”
Now, her only hope is a proposed family reunion event this month. But getting onto the list is close to impossible. Of the 66,000 South Koreans on the waiting list, more than half of them are in their 80s and 90s, and only a few hundred will get a chance each time. Kim said she understands the reality, but she added: “I just want to be with my family.”