As living examples of some of North Korea’s worst abuses, defectors have long been the public face of campaigns to pressure Pyongyang to change its ways. But amid international efforts to improve ties with North Korea, many of the 32,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea say they feel like political pawns, suddenly discarded.
One veteran journalist at the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, was last month denied access by the South Korean government to cover a round of negotiations with North Korea because he was a defector. An official at the newspaper referred to an editorial saying the ban on the journalist was part of the government’s censorship and maltreatment of defectors for the sake of the inter-Korean thaw.
And the South Korean government has cracked down on defector groups who use balloons to send contraband and anti-Kim leaflets into North Korea.
And Choi Sung-guk, a defector who now draws cartoons about the life in North Korea, said he was asked to leave a radio show at TBS, a Seoul City-owned network supportive of the Moon administration, less than five minutes after criticizing Kim Jong-un.
“They asked how I felt about Kim coming to the South, and I said we should not be deceived by him because I don’t think he has changed,” Choi said. “But then my air-time was suddenly cut to one first sentence from what would have been a regular one hour otherwise.”
“The Moon administration is … unfortunately, cutting support for these marginalized groups and even trying to censor their voices,” said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, who met dozens of defectors during a visit to Seoul last month.
Another defector, Heo Seong-il, sought asylum in the United States in August, after facing years of what he says was harassment by the South Korean government, including a three-year jail term on espionage charges he says were false. Heo had hoped for a better life after Moon was sworn in, only to realize things would get worse for defectors as the president pushed for peace with the North.
“When I was in the North, the South was my emotional support. I didn’t know it is a country where the government… can completely ignore a citizen’s life,” Heo, 36, told Reuters from the United States. “I would rather live like a hobo here [in the USA]. I don’t see a future in South Korea.”