The strange case of North Korean defector Kim Ryen-hei

North Korean defector says she came to the South to earn money for medical treatment, but now can't return home.

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    The strange case of North Korean defector Kim Ryen-hei
    Kim Ryen-hei has asked for help from the Red Cross so she can reunite with her family in the North [Musun Kim/Al Jazeera]

    The division of the Korean peninsula has spawned no dearth of sad, tragic, and often tearful stories.

    Of all, the most heartwrenching stories would be those of hundreds of thousands of families torn apart in the wake of the 1950-1953 war.

    On Monday, representatives from South Korea and North Korea are meeting in the truce village of Panmunjom at the border, to iron out details of a proposed reunion for families split between the two nations  - possibly to take place around the same time as the upcoming harvest festival in late September.

    Among those looking to take part in the event is Kim Ryen-hei, who is living in the South, but says she is a North Korean citizen.

    The 45-year-old's tale is extraordinary and very strange.


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    Kim told Al Jazeera that she came to the South against her will, and she desperately wants to go back to her home to reunite with her family in Pyongyang, a request refused by the South Korean authorities.

    "I am from Pyongyang. I was tricked into coming to the South. I begged [South Korea's] National Intelligence Service in tears to send me back. I even staged a hunger strike, to no avail," she said.

    In 2011, Kim travelled from North Korea to China to get treatment for her worsening liver cirrhosis. However, she found out that her medical expenses were too high.

    She was told that she could make enough money to cover her medical expenses and go back to China if she worked in South Korea for two to three months.

    So, she decided to "defect" to South Korea briefly, but was later told by other fellow defectors on the way to the South that it takes much longer to come back out of the country.

    Unfortunately, it was too late for her to reverse her decision. Her brokers refused to give her North Korean passport back.

    She then decided to ask South Korea to send her back, but there is no mechanism or precedent in place for South Korea to send back North Korean "defectors" in such cases.

    'Espionage' activities

    After a long questioning process by the intelligence authorities, and rehabilitation training for new North Korea defectors, she finally applied for a South Korean passport, which was rejected and her name was added to a watch list by the intelligence authorities.

    "I attempted to stowaway on a boat and managed to get a false passport. I even spent time in jail," Kim said.

    In the hope of getting deported, she says she started to collect private information about North Korean defectors in the South, while reporting her "espionage" activities to the authorities, which got her convicted of violating the National Security Law.

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    Pastor Choi Jae-bong of a Christian group helping Kim told Al Jazeera: "This whole situation does not make sense. She is from North Korea and she got convicted for espionage. But, the South Korean government has been providing her with [the same] housing and living allowance for North Korean defectors."

    Now, her only hope is the proposed family reunion event in September. But getting onto the list is close to impossible.

    Of the 66,000 South Koreans on the waiting list, more than half of them are in their 80s and 90s, and only a few hundred will get a chance each time.

    Kim said she understands the reality, but she added: "I just want to be with my family."

    Before submitting her application to the Red Cross in Seoul, she implored in tears: "The state should not sever sacred family ties. I came in a sincere hope that the South Korean Red Cross would tell the North Korean Red Cross about my story so that my family living in the North can at least see my face in the truce village of Panmunjom."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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