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Behind North Korea’s propaganda star, a darker story

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SEOUL — This summer, a 66-year-old woman surfaced at a news conference in North Korea to tell of her jubilant homecoming after six years in the “miserable” South.

As a private citizen and a defector, the woman, Pak Jong Suk, made for an unlikely national symbol. But she also had the pitch-perfect tale for an authoritarian North Korea straining for new ways to make its people love their leader and stay within the country’s borders.

Pak appeared at an 80-minute news conference at a palace in Pyongyang and was later featured in a six-part series carried by the state-run news agency. At times weepy, at times ecstatic, Pak — one of the only cases on record of a defector returning to the North, according to South Korean government officials — described her hardships in the “corrupt” money-crazed South and apologized for having left. She credited the North’s young supreme leader, Kim Jong Eun, for his “tenderhearted” forgiveness of her traitorous crimes.

But those who knew Pak in South Korea, as well as South Korean government officials, say there’s a dark side to Pak’s rise to propaganda stardom. Her story, they say, is largely false and probably state-fed, and it exposes North Korea’s willingness to manipulate a citizen who returned not because she yearned for her homeland but because she feared for the safety of the son she left behind.

“This is a case where North Korea used motherhood for a political purpose,” said Park Sang-hak, a defector and a friend of Pak’s in Seoul.

According to the story she told in the palace room in June, where she sat under portraits of deceased North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, Pak never intended to go to South Korea; she was tricked by South Korean intelligence agents after crossing the border into China. The agents, Pak said, were disguised as Chinese fixers, who lured her onto a boat — supposedly bound for Qingdao, China — where she could reunite with her father.

Instead, she was drugged and ended up in Seoul, she said, where she toiled under government surveillance and earned money cleaning subway stations and nursing a 90-year-old man “who could neither move nor visit the bathroom.” She made up her mind to return to North Korea last December, when news of Kim Jong Il’s death hit her like “a thunderbolt from the sky,” she said at the news conference, which was covered by the Associated Press and made headlines across the world.

It is impossible to verify much of what friends, relatives and government officials said in discussing Pak’s story. The comments of South Korean officials could be motivated by a desire to portray the rival North in a negative light, and some of Pak’s friends and relatives — though initially reluctant to tell their version of her story — agreed to discuss it because they said they wanted to absolve Pak of blame and reinforce publicly their feeling that she was acting only in the interests of her family.

Close friends and relatives of Pak’s in South Korea, as well as government officials who have studied the case, say that Pak — known as Park In-sook when she lived in the South — in fact had little love for her home country and returned only because she thought she had to. While Pak lived in Seoul, they all say, she was clearly worried about her only son, a violinist in his 30s, whose life fell apart for a distinctly North Korean reason: He was punished for his mother’s defection.

When Pak left for the South in 2006, her son, Kim Jin Myong, reported his mother dead, according to H.W. Lee, a cousin of Pak’s and the president of a company that makes energy- and aerospace-related products in Seoul. But North Korean authorities learned of the deception, Lee said, when they arrested a broker who had helped Pak defect. The broker confessed names of those he had assisted, and Pak’s son lost his job at a prestigious Pyongyang music school. The son and his wife and child were forcibly relocated to Hwanghae province in the remote, impoverished countryside and put under tight surveillance.

According to relatives and a friend of Pak’s who lived in the same Seoul apartment complex, it was 2009 or 2010 when Pak learned what had happened, in a phone conversation with her daughter-in-law’s parents, Workers’ Party members who lived in Pyongyang.

“Before she got that news,” Lee said, “she was a happy person.”

Friends of Pak’s say that after hearing of her son’s relocation, she became despondent and wondered aloud if she would live or die if she returned to the North. Her daughter-in-law’s parents encouraged her to return, saying that it was the only way to restore their family. South Korean government officials suggest that Pak could have been blackmailed by the North Korean government with a threat to her son’s safety, although those officials refused in a lengthy interview to detail the potential threats.

“I assume Pak had two options,” said Park Soo-jin, a deputy spokesman for Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, who said she based her comments on the South Korean intelligence agency’s review of the case. “Either reject the proposals from North Korea and see an uncertain future for her son. Or return to North Korea” under the belief that she would be reunited with her family.

Overwhelmed and overjoyed

Pak came to South Korea voluntarily, not because she was duped by intelligence agents, Pak’s friends and family members say. She lived alone on the 10th floor of an apartment building in eastern Seoul. She had several family members in South Korea — half brothers and cousins — because her family had been split up during the Korean War, with her father resettling in the South and starting a new family. (Pak’s father died, at age 95, just weeks after she arrived in the South.)

Those who knew Pak in Seoul say she adjusted to the South in the manner of many North Korean defectors: She was varyingly overwhelmed by and overjoyed about freedom. She killed hours watching classical music concerts on television or reading biographies about South Korean politicians. She lived frugally, sending most of her savings — thousands of dollars, her friends say — to her son. But she also lost thousands after being tricked in a pyramid scheme, according to one of Pak’s closest friends, a fellow defector who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she has relatives in the North.

But despite those money problems and guilt about her son, she told friends she was glad to have left North Korea, a police state she described as “hell.”

In a recorded 2011 interview with a Seoul-based civic group collecting information about defectors, Pak said she was “amazed” by South Korean society: the lights, the abundance of food, the roadways jammed with cars.

“North Koreans always said South Korea had arranged to gather up cars” to create the image of busy streets,” Pak told her interviewer. “I believed that criticism, because I lived in a closed society. . . . How did the two Koreas develop in such a different way? Why has North Korea pursued socialism for nothing?”

Secret plans to return

Pak’s return to North Korea took most acquaintances by surprise, as did the reception she received when she got there. She appeared at the news conference with her son and his wife, and according to Pyongyang’s state media, Pak and her family were given a new, fully furnished home. There was no mention that Pak’s son and family had previously been relocated.

“The state showed loving care for my disgraceful family,” Pak’s son was quoted as saying.

Pak returned at a time when the North has tightened border security and forced a sharp downturn in the number of defectors — a means to maintain stability as Kim Jong Eun consolidates power. Pak’s propaganda story, too, was designed by the North to “prevent its people from defecting,” said Kim Soo-am, a researcher at Seoul’s government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification.

But family and friends remain uncertain whether Pak, before her return, had any clue about how her story would be used.

Months before leaving, she sold her apartment and most of her possessions, government officials say. She packed her luggage with 45 pounds of clothing and medicine. Lee, her cousin, gave her several hundred dollars. But she tried to keep her plans secret, telling people only that she was going to China.

Not until she got to China did she hint at her real intentions. She called Lee from a temporary cellphone and said she was about to get on a plane and would see him after Korea’s unification.

“I’ve already booked my flight,” Lee remembers Pak saying, “and I have notified the authorities.”

Lee said he figured that Pak was worried for her son. He said his response was, “What, are you crazy?” Pak began to cry, Lee said, and hung up the phone.

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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