Why some North Korean defectors tend to exaggerate

In the past in South Korea, when defection from North Korea was rare, we used the term “returned hero” to refer to a North Korean defector. The South Korean government offered a lot of money and support for their resettlement. That kind of support doesn’t exist anymore.

When they’re in China or in Russia, North Korean defectors tend to think they would be fully satisfied if they just had freedom. But when they arrive in South Korea they find it hard to accept the reality that they’re no longer treated as returned heroes but instead have to settle down to life as second-class citizens.

In this situation, some people exaggerate their stories. Why do they exaggerate?

Exposure to media leads to opportunities for speeches at churches in South Korea and the U.S. A defector gets paid. As the world started to pay more attention to North Korean defector issues, more defectors seek fame. Some end up believing in their exaggerated stories, and the media plays an important role in this process.

North Korean defectors have [experienced] serious trauma and they tend to maximize their damages. Media outlets look for more sensational stories. In other words, they want North Korean defectors who are selling attractive stories. NGOs, the South Korean and American governments want sensational stories as they believe they can put more pressure on North Korea about its human rights issue with a symbolic figure.

It is sad because the North Korean defector situation deserves international attention by itself.

I did a lot of my interviews in border areas between China and North Korea.  … People don’t tend to lie about themselves when they’re in imminent danger. I believe they were pure and honest at that moment. … Maybe that is why defectors I’ve interviewed tend not to exaggerate.

[Excerpts of a Washington Post interview with Lee Hark-joon, a journalist for the Chosun Ilbo]

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