South Korea probes North Korean celebrity defector who 'returned home'

A video screengrab showing North Korean defector Im Ji Hyun speaking on North Korean propaganda television at an unknown location in the North. PHOTO: AFP/WWW.URIMINZOKKIRI.COM

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea is investigating the case of a North Korean defector who became a celebrity refugee in Seoul, but recently appeared on Pyongyang television to claim she had returned home from the "hell" of the capitalist South.

Im Ji Hyun, a female defector in her 20s, arrived in Seoul in 2014 and soon became a public figure after starring in several South Korean TV shows featuring escapees from the North.

But on Sunday she abruptly appeared in a video on the North's propaganda network, describing how her "fantasy" about the wealthy South had been shattered.

In the video, posted on the North's Uriminzokkiri website, Im says she had "returned home" last month and was now living with her family in the western city of Anju.

It is unclear whether Im returned voluntarily, with South Korean media speculating that she might have been kidnapped at the Chinese border with the North while trying to reunite with her family.

Seoul police sources who probed Im's home and financial accounts in Seoul told the South's JoongAng Ilbo daily there was little sign of her trying to wrap up her life in the country and move elsewhere.

"Relevant authorities are investigating the North Korean defector Im Ji Hyun," said Lee Yoo Jin, deputy spokeswoman of Seoul's unification ministry handling North Korea affairs. Seoul's spy agency declined to comment.

In the video, Im identified herself as Chon Hae Song, which she said was her real name in the North.

Wearing a traditional silk hanbok and red badge bearing the images of the North's two former leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, Lim tearfully detailed her "miserable" life in the capitalist neighbour where "money is all that matters".

"I went to South Korea harbouring this fantasy that I would able to eat and live well there, but the South was not the place I imagined," she said, adding she wanted to become an actress in Seoul.

"Every single day in the South was like hell. Every night ... I cried thinking about my motherland and my parents in the North," she said.

Im also accused a Korean TV station of pushing her to lie about her life in the North to make it sound more miserable than it actually was.

"Everything I said on TV was scripted ... to make North Koreans look barbaric, ignorant and stupid," she said, describing herself as "human trash".

Other defectors who have reappeared in the North have been displayed on similar programmes, prompting speculation they had been kidnapped by Pyongyang or coerced into returning by threats to their families.

Lee So Yool, another North Korean defector and TV celebrity in Seoul, however said Im would have been broadcast criticising the South regardless of whether she had returned to the North voluntarily or forcibly.

"She has to do it once she is back in the North. She has no choice in order to survive," Lee said during a live Youtube broadcast on Monday.

Lee said the North Korea-themed TV shows aired on South Korean TV - including ones that featured Im - are hated by the Pyongyang regime for freely discussing issues that are taboos in the North.

"These TV shows let the refugees freely talk about things including the luxurious lifestyle of the ruling Kim family - which is totally banned in the North," Lee said.

Many defectors who reach the South hire brokers to take their remaining family out of the North through the border with China, and some even visit the Chinese border areas themselves - a dangerous move in a region monitored and frequented by North Korean agents.

The North has tightened border security since young leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, sharply reducing the number of defectors and increasing the cost of hiring brokers.

More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to the South since a widespread famine hit their isolated and impoverished country in the late 1990s.

Nearly all of them travelled through China, but some have defected through the heavily guarded land or maritime borders separating the two Koreas.

But many defectors complain of lack of opportunities, discrimination and difficulty in adjusting to the cutthroat, ultra-competitive society. A recent survey showed more than 60 percent of defectors consider themselves "low-class citizens," with the average suicide rate among them at 15 percent - nearly three times the South's national average, which is already the world's highest.

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