Since the late 1990s, some 28,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea. Only one, as far as anyone knows, has ever asked to go back.
Kim Ryen-hi, a 45-year-old dressmaker from North Korea, says her defection to the South four years ago was a terrible mistake. She says she has been trying since she got here to return to the impoverished, repressive North to be with her husband, daughter and ailing parents.
But her efforts have only brought her more trouble, including imprisonment on spying charges.
“Freedom and material and other lures of any kind, they are not as important to me as my family and home,” a tearful Ms. Kim said at a recent news conference in Seoul. “I want to return to my precious family, even if I die of hunger.”
But in a case full of bizarre twists and blind alleys, now it is the South Korean government that will not let her leave.
Government officials, while professing sympathy for her plight, say that as a convict on parole she is not entitled to a passport. Moreover, she became a South Korean citizen when she arrived, and under South Korean law it is illegal to help a citizen flee to the enemy North.
“She became a South Korean citizen on her own will, and accordingly she is subject to laws applying to all other South Korean citizens,” said Park Soo-jin, a spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry in Seoul.
A ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the highly unusual case, said, “We know of her sad story, but right now, under the current law, we see nothing we can do for her.”
Ms. Kim’s improbable story began in 2011, when she traveled to China to visit relatives and obtain treatment for a liver ailment. There, she said, she met a broker who said he could smuggle her into South Korea, where she could make a lot of money in a few months and return to China.
Although she was married to a doctor in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and well off by North Korean standards, she said she signed on with the smuggler with the aim of helping to pay her medical bills.
At some point before arriving in the South, she realized this was a bad idea. But the smugglers had confiscated her passport and said there was no turning back.
“I also feared that if I was caught without a passport and deported back to the North, I would be found out and treated as a traitor for trying to flee to South Korea,” she said in an interview. “I thought my best chance was to make it to South Korea, where I hoped that fellow Koreans would understand me and help me find my way home.”
Passing through Thailand, she submitted a handwritten statement agreeing to defect, a requirement for North Korean refugees to be allowed to enter the South.
Once she arrived in South Korea, however, she began demanding that she be allowed to return to the North. But South Korea, it turns out, has procedures to bring defectors in from the North, but not to send them back.
She was allowed to leave the debriefing center only after she signed, as all defectors do, a document disavowing communism and agreeing to become a law-abiding citizen of the South.
Fearing that her prolonged absence from home had already put her family in Pyongyang in jeopardy, she resorted to desperate and often bewildering steps that only got her deeper into trouble.
She met a smuggler to discuss stowing away, she said. She repeatedly called a North Korean consulate in China asking for help. Denied a South Korean passport, she tried forging one.
Then she did something that she now characterizes as a dumb mistake but that appears to have been wildly ill advised. She began to spy for the North, she said, collecting cellphone numbers and other personal data of other defectors in the South.
“I foolishly thought that once they believed I was spying, they would deport me as a troublemaker,” she said.
She even reported her spying to the police, begging them to “please hurry and stop me,” she would later testify.
Deportation, however, is not what South Korea does with spies. In July of last year, she was arrested and charged with espionage and passport fraud.
At trial, she told the court that the North Korean consulate had instructed her to spy, and said that she had handed over her data to a Communist agent in a stadium in Seoul where she went to watch a women’s soccer match between the two Koreas in 2013.
She was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. In April, after she had served nine months, an appeals court suspended her sentence, saying that her confession was a mitigating factor. She was released on parole and kept under surveillance.
“There are reasons to believe she was not a typical spy,” the court said in its ruling. The court acknowledged that Ms. Kim had wanted to return to the North from the moment she had arrived. It also determined that she had been coerced into spying by the North because she feared for her family if she did not oblige.
Ms. Kim has since reversed herself, denying that the North ordered her to spy or that she turned over her data. She now says she that she was only pretending to spy in order to be deported, and that she falsely confessed to receive a shorter sentence.
“Her conduct is too absurd to be a spy’s,” said Jang Kyung-uk, a human rights lawyer helping Ms. Kim. “It’s time for South Korea to discuss a way for people like her to return home.”
Her case has not drawn much attention in South Korea, where hers is just another sad, if strange, story in a land where thousands of families have been divided since the Korean War.
North Korea has not commented on the case. Its government calls all defectors “traitors,” sometimes dispatching family members left behind to prison camps.
Ms. Kim, who now works at a recycling plant in Yeongcheon, operating a machine that chops up old electrical wires, still professes her love for the North, affections that do not endear her in the South but that may be intended to protect her family back in Pyongyang.
She said the last four digits of her South Korean cellphone number represented the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the North’s founder and grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un. She said she worshiped Kim Il-sung “like my own biological father.” She said she tearfully sang the North Korean anthem at the stadium during the 2013 soccer match.
“More than anything else, I want North Korea to recognize that I am not a traitor and that I have never, ever, not even for a blinking moment, forgotten my fatherland,” she said in the interview. “If I was caught as a spy, I thought it would at least prove that I did not abandon the fatherland.”
It is difficult to parse the motivations behind such comments, separating the state-instilled patriotism from state-induced fear.
“Fear for her family helps explain her desperate and seemingly strange behavior,” said Choi Seung-ho, a veteran TV producer who reported on her story for Newstapa, an investigative news website. “Hers is a humanitarian story, perhaps possible only on the divided Korean Peninsula.”
Ms. Kim’s only hope for returning home at this point would be some sort of political deal between the two Korean governments. South Korea has a strict policy against repatriating convicted spies and has only done so twice, in 1993 and 2000, as good-will gestures as part of bilateral negotiations.
“I had never imagined that my initial bad judgment in trusting the broker would lead to so much trouble,” Ms. Kim said. “One thing I learned is how ignorant North Koreans like myself were about how things work in South Korea, just as South Koreans don’t understand North Korea.”