PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — In a rare news conference by a repatriated North Korean defector, a woman claimed she was tricked into defecting six years ago by South Korean agents but was welcomed by the North when she returned in May.
Pak Jong Suk made the account to local and foreign reporters Thursday at the People's Palace of Culture in Pyongyang. The 66-year-old's story could not be independently confirmed.
"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," Pak, clad in a pink traditional Korean dress, told reporters in Pyongyang.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said Friday that the woman lived in a neighborhood in eastern Seoul under a different name, Park In-sook, but would not provide further details.
North Korean defector and activist Park Sang-hak said in Seoul that he and the woman lived in the same apartment complex. He remembers her only as an "ordinary woman" who made no political comments to him.
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 Pak spoke on government orders or of her own volition, but her comments are in line with North Korea's efforts to rebut recent claims by rights activists and the U.S. that it abuses repatriated defectors.
A Unification Ministry spokeswoman, Park Soo-jin, said during a briefing in Seoul that there was at least one other known case of a North Korean defector returning to Pyongyang from the South and giving a news conference: A defector surnamed Yoo entered South Korea illegally in 1998, then returned to Pyongyang in 2000 and spoke to the media before coming back again to the South in 2001. The defector now lives in South Korea.
During her news conference, 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 her father, who went to the South during the Korean War. She said that three months later, after paying smugglers, she was tricked by South Korean intelligence agents into boarding a boat that landed in South Korea.
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 said 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 were later broadcast on state television.
"When I deplaned, quieting my thumping heart, I was stunned by the cordial reception," 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 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's constitution, but 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," Pak said at the news conference.
Kim Jong Un became North Korean leader after the December death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
The transition of leadership to Kim 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.