North Korean defectors offered cash to return home
People who have fled one of the world's most secretive states are being tempted with money and even the chance to appear on television
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is taking a new approach to defectors who have fled his impoverished and repressive state, promising they will not be harmed if they come home, and even offering cash rewards, according to exiles.
For some who return from South Korea there's even the chance of a stage-managed performance on state television, although what happens to them after their prime time appearances is not known in a state where 200,000 people are imprisoned in gulags and where punishment extends to three generations of a family.
One woman last year apologised at a televised press conference in Pyongyang for betraying her motherland and thanked Kim for bringing her under his "profound loving care" while another dubbed South Korea a "shitty world with no love". That's in sharp contrast to the approach taken by Kim's father, who during nearly 20 years in power hid the issue and severely punished the families of those who defected, fearing they would undermine the state with their tales of the prosperous South.
North Korean security agents have been visiting families in the reclusive state for at least the past year, telling them it would be safe for their loved ones in the South to come back, several defectors in Seoul said.
Some said they had even heard of people posing as defectors trying to tempt North Koreans in the South this year with a promise of 50 million South Korean won (HK$347,000) and an opportunity to appear on television in Pyongyang if they come back.
"My mother said, 'If you have money, come back. General Kim Jong-un will treat you well'," said one defector in her 30s who lives in Seoul, recounting a recent telephone conversation with her mother who called her from a North Korean town on the border with China.
"Other defectors are getting that kind of phone call," said the defector, surnamed Lee, who asked that her full name not be used because she feared reprisals against her family in the North.
It is impossible to verify how many of the 25,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South have returned. One high profile case this year involved a fisherman who stole a trawler and returned to the North for the fourth time.
Experts said Kim could be trying to show his people that instead of living happily in South Korea, defectors are miserable, have menial jobs and struggle to fit in - something some defectors in Seoul say is not far from the truth.
While offering an olive branch to some defectors, Kim has also made it harder for North Koreans to escape by tightening security along the country's land border with China and defectors and their families still fill the country's prison camps, experts said.
While it's impossible to verify what happens to North Koreans who return, a diplomat in Pyongyang said a group of nine defectors who were sent home after being detained in Laos in May while trying to get to South Korea had not been harmed.
"They actually have been quite well treated since they have been back here," said the diplomat. Amnesty International also said there were no reports they had been harmed.
"When defectors come back they are not all trucked to prison. What can happen is they are put on TV ... for propaganda," the diplomat added.
The move comes as pressure over human rights is mounting on Pyongyang with the recent appointment of a UN commission that will spend a year investigating possible crimes against humanity in North Korea.
Defectors will testify at public hearings in Seoul this week as part of that investigation.