Appeared in The New York Times: “North Korean Defector in South Seeks Vietnam’s Help to Return Home”

“North Korean Defector in South Seeks Vietnam’s Help to Return Home”

Kim Ryen-hi, shown last year at the factory where she works in Yeongcheon, South Korea. She has asked Vietnam for political asylum as part of her effort to return to North Korea. Credit Jean Chung for The New York Times

— The only North Korean defector in South Korea who has publicly said she wants to return to her home country, insisting that she arrived here by mistake, applied for political asylum at the Vietnamese Embassy in Seoul on Monday.

The woman, Kim Ryen-hi, 46, walked into the embassy and asked it to accept her as a refugee and to help her return to North Korea, said Christian pastors who accompanied her. More than two hours later, South Korean police officers, who entered the embassy at its request, escorted her out.

“I told embassy officials that I wanted to stay in until they gave me asylum, but they insisted that I should wait outside until their government makes a decision,” Ms. Kim said after emerging from the building.

Breaking into tears before a group of reporters in front of the embassy, she said she feared that her request would be turned down, given her unwelcoming reception.

At one point, she rushed back to the closed embassy gate and pounded on it, yelling, “I just want to go home to my old parents, to my daughter, to my husband.”

Kim Ryen-hi, recalling her family in the North, wept in the dorm room where she lives in Yeongcheon, South Korea. Credit Jean Chung for The New York Times

The South Korean police said they planned to summon Ms. Kim to investigate whether she had stayed in the embassy illegally.

“Our officials are trying to identify what is the problem, why she entered here,” Thuy Tran, a secretary to the Vietnamese ambassador, said by phone.

The episode on Monday was the latest twist in Ms. Kim’s life. More than 28,700 North Koreans have defected to the South since a deadly famine in their country in the mid-1990s. But she is the first to have entered a foreign embassy in Seoul in an attempt to obtain passage back.

Ms. Kim, who was a dressmaker in the North, says that while on a trip to China in 2011, she met smugglers who promised to take her to South Korea, where they said she could make money quickly before returning home.

But as soon as she arrived in the South, she demanded to return home. She said she had been cheated by the smugglers. With the help of sympathetic Christian pastors, she began a public campaign last year asking the South Korean government to let her go back to the North.

South Korea maintains that Ms. Kim became a South Korean citizen because she signed papers of defection before and after her arrival here. Under South Korean law, it is illegal to help a citizen flee to the North.


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