This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean authorities, who recently vilified a man who returned to the North in July after three years living in South Korea as a potential coronavirus carrier, are now using him as propaganda to extol the benevolence of leader Kim Jong Un, sources in country told RFA Wednesday.
The refugee, identified by South Korean authorities as a 24-year-old man from the Kaesong area surnamed Kim, had swum across the inter-Korean border in 2017, only to swim back across on July 19. North Korean authorities are now walking back their initial claim that he was showing COVID-19 symptoms.
“On August 25, the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] gave notice to the provincial party committee and law enforcement agencies here in North Hamgyong province, confirming the ex-refugee had not been infected with the coronavirus,” a North Hamgyong official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The notice says the escapee, who returned to Kaesong, tested negative for coronavirus. The notice was distributed to local party committees and law enforcement agencies simultaneously,” the source said.
Shortly after his return, authorities declared a national maximum emergency, placing Kaesong on lockdown and banning travel between provinces.
South Korean authorities at that time said it was unlikely that Kim had contracted the virus. The South has a robust COVID-19 contact tracing system in place and Kim was never tested, was not known to have had contact with anyone infected with the virus, and two people he had frequent contact with had tested negative.
North Korea nevertheless used the returning refugee as a prop in a campaign to discredit refugees and defectors in the South. In the previous month, after groups based in South Korea floated anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border on balloons citizens were made to participate in rallied that denounced escapees as “treasonous defectors.”
But now the ex-refugee Kim has been personally forgiven by Kim Jong Un, according to the Central Committee’s notice.
“The Central Committee decided to forgive the young man who had fallen into the clutches of our enemies and returned to the open arms of his homeland,” the source said.
“This decision was based on the Highest Dignity’s course of action that the party should forgive and take care of those who repent and reflect on their past wrongdoings,” the source said, using an honorific term for Kim Jong Un.
Even though the government is no longer scapegoating him as the cause of the national emergency, authorities ordered everyone not to let up their guard.
“The directive also says that although the coronavirus was not found in the young man, all agencies and units should continue to stay alert in order fully prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” the source said.
“When the escapee first returned to Kaesong, the authorities accused him of being a suspected coronavirus carrier and labeled him a traitor who put his country in danger. Now they are using him to promote the great generosity and greatness of the Highest Dignity,” the source added.
A resident of Ryanggang province told RFA that authorities there were using the story of the returning refugee to actively promote Kim Jong Un’s mercy in lectures to the citizens.
“On the 27th, a lecture was held in the city of Hyesan regarding the escapee who returned to North Korea. During the lecture they said [he] was not infected with the coronavirus,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“Authorities confirmed the returnee was neither a coronavirus patient nor a spy, with the lecturer explaining he was closely investigated by the Ministry of State Security while living in isolation in Kaesong,” the second source said.
According to the lecture, the returning refugee would have been put to death under normal circumstances.
“The lecturer explained why the [authorities] should have killed the man who returned home after experiencing the decadence of rotten and diseased capitalism. But thanks to the generosity of the Supreme Leader, they are now showing him love and care without blaming him for his wrongdoings and are helping him to find work where he wants,” the second source said.
“Authorities were accusing him of being a suspected coronavirus infectee, and used him as an excuse to completely lock up Kaesong and the border [with China], but now that the international community and the citizens know of his existence, they seem to have turned to using him to promote the regime instead of punishing him,” the second source added.
But the Ryanggang resident said the North Korean leader’s benevolence has its limits.
“The authorities are not just going to leave him alone. He has already enjoyed the rich taste of capitalism. I don’t know how long they are going to use him to promote the regime, but if one day he fades away from [our] attention, they will make up a reason to punish him.”
The leader of Washington-based rights group shared this concern, citing Pyongyang’s recent anti-refugee rhetoric.
“The Kim regime is putting pressure on North Korean escapees. It has even persuaded the [South Korean] government to ban leaflet balloon launches and put pressure on North Korean human rights defenders and activists,” Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) told RFA.
“This particular escapee will be used and abused for propaganda purposes. Once the world has forgotten about him, he will be punished for his trespasses.”
North Korea still has not confirmed a single case of the coronavirus, even though it has taken extensive measures against its spread, including firing the leaders of its national coronavirus response team in July for their failures to contain COVID-19. Pyongyang reported to the WHO that as of Aug. 20, 2,767 people were tested for the virus, all with negative results.
North Korea has not yet made an official statement on the returned refugee.
Though it is not clear why the refugee Kim chose to return to North Korea, The New York Times reported that, a police department in South Korea said July 27 that a warrant had been issued for his arrest on a rape accusation prior to his escape to the North.