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.