PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — A North Korean woman said Thursday that she was tricked into defecting six years ago by South Korean agents who offered to arrange a reunion with her father, who went to the South during the Korean War.
The rare public account that 66-year-old Pak Jong-suk told to local and foreign reporters at a news conference at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang could not be independently confirmed. South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it was investigating and would release its findings later. It didn’t elaborate.
“I am an ingrate who had betrayed my motherland to seek better living while others devoted themselves to building a thriving nation, tightening their belts,” said Ms. Pak, clad in a pink traditional Korean dress.
It is unusual for North Korea to hold and televise a news conference for foreign as well as local media featuring ordinary citizens — particularly a former defector. It was not possible to immediately verify whether Ms. Pak spoke on government orders or of her own volition, but North Korea has bristled in recent weeks at allegations of rights abuses and maltreatment of repatriated defectors.
Ms. Pak said she slipped undetected across the Tumen River from the North Korean city of Chongjin into China in March 2006 after being promised that she would be reunited with her father in the Chinese city of Qingdao. She said she hoped to get money from him. Three months later, after paying smugglers, she said she was tricked by South Korean intelligence agents into boarding a boat that landed in South Korea.
Ms. Pak said her father was unconscious because of brain surgery and did not speak to her before he died, two months after her arrival. She lived in South Korea before returning to North Korea by plane on May 25 this year because she had become disillusioned with life in the South. She said defectors are paid by South Koreans to slander North Korea.
The circumstances of how she returned to the North were not clear. She said she lives now in Pyongyang with her son, a teacher, and his wife, who appeared at her side at the news conference, parts of which later were broadcast on state television.
“When I deplaned, quieting my thumping heart, I was stunned by the cordial reception,” Ms. Pak said, revealing her surprise that she wasn’t treated more harshly upon her return.
The U.S. State Department said in its annual human rights report last month that the relatives of defectors face “collective punishment” if a family member defects and that defectors face harsh punishment if repatriated to North Korea.
Pyongyang denies the allegations of human rights abuses.
The Korean Peninsula has remained divided by a heavily fortified border since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953. Since then, more than 23,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea, mostly by crossing into China and then making their way to a third country before being sent to the South, according to the South Korean government.
North Koreans automatically are granted South Korean citizenship under the South Korean Constitution, but they undergo rigorous questioning after arriving in the country.
“I deserve punishment. But Kim Jong-un did not blame me but was so kind as to enable me to enjoy the greatest happiness,” Ms. Pak said at the news conference.
Mr. Kim became North Korean leader after the December death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
The transition of leadership to Kim Jong-un is taking place amid concerns about North Korea’s ability to feed its 24 million people. The United Nations said in a recent update on the North’s humanitarian situation that the food supply remains tenuous for two-thirds of the population, and many North Korean children are not getting the food, medicine or health care they need to develop physically or mentally.