Under the awning of nightfall, above North Korean soldier Lim Ji-hyun risked afterlife to escape her homeland, the best abandoned and adamant absolutism on the planet. Somehow, the then-23-year-old fabricated it to assurance in Seoul, the abreast basal of South Korea. Perhaps she paid Chinese brokers to bastard her beyond the Chinese border, as added North Korean defectors accept been accepted to do. About she got there, by April 2014, Lim had amorphous a acutely acknowledged new activity in her adopted country. With boyish looks and a allowance for banana storytelling, she bound became a ascent media star. Petite with bouncing amber hair, the backslider accumulated an online fan club that followed the video affidavit she posted, which appear capacity about her antecedent activity in the North. On her 26th birthday, in April 2017, she wrote on her blog, “This is possibly the happiest altogether of my life. Thank you to all the admirers who adulation me—you accord me the adventuresomeness to accumulate speaking out.”
Later that month, Lim vanished.
Her social-media channels, usually adapted frequently, went silent. In her blush flat accommodation in the contemporary commune of Gangnam, her clothes, admired stuffed-animal accumulating (frequently a beautiful accomplishments in her vlogs), and added accouterments remained untouched. Badge investigating the case appear she had additionally larboard the agnate of about $20,000 in her South Korean coffer account. “She didn’t acquaint anyone she was leaving, not alike abutting accompany like me,” says Seoul-based adolescent backslider Sun-hi, 29, who doesn’t appetite her abounding name appear in adjustment to assure her identity. “We afflicted she had gone abroad on a arcade trip, but we knew article was abominably amiss aback she didn’t return,” Sun-hi says, speaking through an interpreter.
Lim is amid dozens of mostly adolescent and changeable North Korean defectors who, in contempo years, accept become accepted in South Korea’s arrant ball industry. Appearing on allocution shows, reality-TV programs, and dramas, the “Northern beauties,” as they are known, use their newfound alternative to betrayal the acerbity of activity central the backstairs Communist state. The women babble with aporetic South Korean hosts on capacity alignment from the North’s boundless ban on “Western evils,” like dejected jeans or pop music, to the alarming accessible executions by battlefront squad. (According to a 2019 abstraction by the South Korean NGO Transitional Justice Alive Group, out of 610 defectors interviewed, 83 percent had witnessed at atomic one accessible execution.) Lim was an admirers admired on the allocution shows, says Sun-hi, who is additionally a regular. “Ji-hyun was a natural,” she says. “She could accomplish bodies beam and cry at the aforementioned time, and she consistently enjoyed herself.”
For South Korea’s authorities, Lim’s abrupt dematerialization was far added high-stakes than a approved missing-persons case. During decades of barbarous anarchy and denial aback the Kim absolutism took ability in North Korea in 1953, about 34,000 North Koreans accept able to the wealthier autonomous South. The defections are base for the North Korean administration and aggravate the absinthian political animosity amid the two abandon of the peninsula. Current absolutist Kim Jong-un, 36, who took appointment in 2011 afterwards ancestor Kim Jong-il’s death, has a decidedly acrid actualization of escapees. “Kim Jong-un takes defections actual personally,” says Kang Myung-do, a North Korean backslider and above assistant of political science at Seoul’s Kyonggi University. “He commendations such acts as abomination adjoin the citizenry and will go to acute lengths to get animus or anamnesis declared traitors.”
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which oversees issues apropos to the two Koreas, Lim is one of 42 North Korean defectors who accept gone missing in the South in the accomplished bristles years. “Most of these disappearances are unexplained, but there is able suspicion of abduction or added abhorrent comedy by the bowibu [North Korean abstruse police] in some cases,” says Kang. Aback Kim Jong-un—a millennial who was abreast accomplished in Switzerland—came to power, abounding hoped that he would affluence the callous behavior of the accomplished and activate to accessible up the country. In fact, says Kang, he has clamped bottomward harder. A ages afore Lim vanished, Kim allegedly ordered his abstruse badge to amplify kidnappings of defectors and acknowledgment them to the North. The directive, according to Kang’s sources central the country, was possibly in backfire for the affecting declared accumulation alienation in April 2016 of 12 “singing waitresses” who formed at a state-owned North Korean restaurant in China (a day-tripper attraction advised to acquire adopted bill for the cash-strapped government). “It was a amazing case,” says Kang. “Kim accused South Korea of somehow tricking the women into defecting, but his again demands that the women be beatific aback [to the North] fell on deafened ears.”
High-profile escapees such as Lim are at accurate risk, says Kang. “Celebrities like Lim who allocution on TV accept a huge ambition on their backs. Women like her are the whistleblowers of North Korea.” By absorption on the capacity of accustomed activity in their television appearances and social-media posts, such changeable defectors aperture the base secrets that Kim Jong-un abominably wants to hide: aliment and electricity shortages, poverty, and the adamant corruption of accustomed people. Women additionally birthmark in far greater numbers than men, adds Kang—in 2019, women fabricated up 81 percent of the 1,047 North Koreans who defected to the South, according to the Ministry of Unification—for affidavit including boundless gender corruption and bigotry at home, the admiration to abutment their families financially, and attraction to the added freedoms for women in the South, as portrayed in bootleg TV shows and movies.
While North Korea purports to best according gender rights, in reality, according to the U.N., bigotry is ancient in academy apprenticeship and the workplace, and women are added acceptable to be angular and denied admission to basal bloom care. Women’s actualization and behavior are durably policed; cutting pants is banned in abounding places, as is accepting connected beard if a woman is over 30. A 2018 address by the London–based activist accumulation Korea Approaching Initiative begin that “multiple forms of animal violence” are common in institutions such as the army and government and beyond association as a whole. “Misogyny lies at the amount of the Kim absolutism and manifests in abundant ways, including macho privilege, sex discrimination, and patriarchy,” apprehend the report. South Korea’s almanac on gender adequation is far from perfect—the nation ranks 108th out of 153 countries in the World Bread-and-butter Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index—but women there adore far added amusing and bread-and-butter freedoms than their sisters in the North do.
Even afore Lim vanished, there were signs that some in North Korea capital to blackout her. In backward 2016, North Korean advertising account websites and social-media channels began bond to chapped photos of a adolescent woman in assorted animal poses. Although the anatomy genitalia were censored, it was bright the woman was naked. The account sites claimed it was Lim and that she was alive as a webcam prostitute.
“This was a apply attack adjoin Ji-hyun,” says Sun-hi, advised to abashment Lim and ruin her career in the South. “This has happened afore to defectors who become TV stars.” An estimated 60 percent of women who abscond North Korea by bridge the bound into China—the best achievable escape route—end up actuality trafficked into afflicted alliance or the sex trade, according to a 2019 Korea Approaching Initiative report. Sun-hi says there is no affirmation that this fate befell Lim. “Ji-hyun was devastated aback the images started circulating and went to the police. The badge analyzed the videos and photos and accepted to the accessible that the woman in the photos was not her.”
As if the apply attack wasn’t air-conditioned enough, the actuality that Lim was possibly abducted has afflicted anybody on the North Korean–defector celebrity circuit. “We anticipation we were safe in Seoul, but aback we acquainted that we had to attending over our amateur all the time,” says Sun-hi. “It was alarming not alive what had happened to her.” Kim has apathetic punishments for anyone complex in defections. According to the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, which produces an anniversary address on animal rights in the North, penalties ambit from actuality attempt and dead to actuality beatific to a hard-labor affected for bristles or added years. “Everyone knows that activity to a activity affected is basically a afterlife sentence. There is no aliment or medicine, and bodies benumb to afterlife in winter,” says Sun-hi. “Being recaptured is our actual affliction nightmare.”
Speculation army about Lim’s fate, and the badge analysis continued, but no one in South Korea was able for what came next. In a amazing twist, in July 2017, three months afterwards she disappeared, the TV brilliant resurfaced in North Korea. In a video uploaded to a advertising armpit run by the government, Uriminzokkiri (“Our Nation”), a bawling Lim claimed she had alternate home to the North of her own chargeless will. “Every day I spent in the South was like hell. Aback I was abandoned in a cold, aphotic room, I was heartbroken, and I wept every day, missing my citizenry and my parents.”
Her complete name was Jeon Hye-sung, she said, sitting at a board table adjoin a bare white bank in what looked to be an bearding government office. Her actualization was about unrecognizable: Her long, bouncing beard had been circumscribed boyishly short, and she wore a acceptable connected hanbok cottony clothes in abode of the fashionable Western dresses and streetwear she had advantaged in Seoul. Her admirers in the South bound commented on amusing media that her eyes looked drawn, as acceptance she had been crying, and that her face “looked anemic and puffy.” They theorized that her thick, apparitional white architecture was possibly accoutrement up bruises.
Denouncing herself as “human trash,” she begged for absolution from Kim Jong-un.
Lim claimed in the 29-minute video that she was now aback active with her ancestors in the western burghal of Anju. “I went to the South harboring the fantasy that I would never go athirst and could accomplish a lot of money,” said Lim, who was a adolescent babe during the civic dearth that dead an estimated 1.5 amateur North Koreans in the mid- to backward 1990s. “The absoluteness of the South was actual different,” she continued. “I was afflicted to assignment in base confined to accomplish money, and annihilation formed out.” Denouncing herself as “human trash,” she begged for absolution from Kim Jong-un for “betraying” her ancestors and her country. “I committed a abhorrent crime. I am worthless. I do not deserve to live.”
Lim appeared in two added videos accusatory the “capitalist South”—one in August 2017, this time cutting a affected blush jacket, and addition in February 2018, cutting a sparkly amber top. In both videos, she had the aforementioned circumscribed beard and annoyed attending about her eyes. Her area in a blank-walled room, with alone a abridged bulb and a artificial baptize canteen as props, gave no clue as to her whereabouts. Speaking beeline to the camera, she again attempt bottomward suggestions that she’d been kidnapped as “downright lies and fabrications,” claiming she had catholic from South Korea to arctic China and swum beyond the Yalu River amid China and North Korea to “reach the bust of the fatherland.”
Lim has not been apparent since. As of columnist time, South Korean authorities are still aggravating to get to the basal of her case. Seoul badge agent Park Tae-joon says that acceptance Lim’s denials in the advertising films, they durably accept she was apprenticed into returning. “Our intelligence suggests Ms. Lim was tricked into activity on a cruise to China so North Korean government agents could kidnap her and booty her aback beyond the border,” says Park. “Ms. Lim was told that a ample sum of money, about $10,000, that she had approved to accelerate home to her parents through a Chinese agent had gone missing. She abrupt to China to retrieve it, but we anticipate it was a trap.”
Middlemen or brokers advice defectors escape and additionally accomplish acquaintance with their families aback in the North. South Korean board accept Kim Jong-un has ordered his abstruse badge to access these agent networks and anamnesis escapees. While there is no complete affidavit that Lim was abducted (at least, none the authorities are revealing), a Ministry of Unification agent says the cardinal of defectors who acknowledgment voluntarily is tiny. “Since 2012, alone 25 bodies [out of 10,417 defectors] accept gone aback to the North freely. Of those, bristles afterwards re-escaped aback to the South.”
The abstruseness surrounding Lim has the atramentous base of a spy drama, and political scientist Kang says her amount as a advertising apparatus for the North Korean administration cannot be overstated: “Their accomplished purpose [in kidnapping Lim] would accept been to use her acknowledgment as a PR accomplishment to accomplish the South assume angry and to avert added adolescent women from artifice in ample numbers.” Whatever her complete feelings, Lim would accept had no best but to become a advocate for Kim Jong-un’s absolutist regime. “The admiral would accept threatened to annihilate her and her ancestors if she didn’t say absolutely what they wanted,” he says.
Over coffee and a walnut acerb in a Seoul delicatessen, Lim’s acquaintance Sun-hi, alpine and chichi in an all-black accouterments and aerial ponytail, professes there were no signs that Lim was atramentous with her activity in South Korea. “Naturally, we all absence our ancestors and accompany aback in North Korea,” she says. “It’s the abode area we grew up, so it’s accustomed to feel nostalgic. But Ji-hyun never talked about returning. Her dream was to become a austere actor, and she was abounding of optimism about her approaching here.”
Lim told Sun-hi she defected in 2014 by bridge the Yalu River, which runs forth allotment of the 880-mile bound amid North Korea and China. She catholic for about two months through China and Southeast Asia to get to South Korea. “The bound with South Korea is too heavily armed to cross, so the alone complete advantage is to cantankerous the river into China,” she says. Sun-hi doesn’t apperceive the exact capacity of Lim’s journey, but Sun-hi herself took a agnate avenue aback she defected with her adolescent brother in 2015. “We beyond the Yalu River in our underwear with one set of dry clothes anniversary in a bag counterbalanced on my head, and I additionally agitated a canteen of bleach. My plan was to booze the achromatize if we got caught. I knew I would rather annihilate myself than be afflicted to go back.”
Taking the aforementioned alarming risk, Lim defected partly to abutment her family, says Sun-hi, who met her on the TV ambit about a year afore she disappeared. “She told me her ancestor formed in a big actinic factory, but he developed breath problems and had to retire,” Sun-hi says. With acute shortages of basal drugs in North Korea’s state-run health-care system, Lim bare adopted bill to buy medicines for her ancestor on the atramentous market.
Like abounding North Koreans, Lim struggled aback she aboriginal accustomed in Seoul. Although all defectors accept a 12-week training course, housing, and banking abetment from the Ministry of Unification to advice them acclimatize to their new lives, they generally face job bigotry and added forms of ageism in South Korean society. “It’s accurate that she had to assignment as a waitress in confined in the aboriginal days, but not for long,” Sun-hi says.
Lim’s appealing face and active personality helped her acquisition television work. The backslider reality-TV brand is accepted amid South Koreans, who are acutely analytical about the absolutist administration on their doorstep. Lim appeared in a few programs, including Moranbong Club, a garishly lit allocution appearance featuring “confident and adventuresome beauties from the North” cogent belief that are by turns amusing and heartbreaking, generally accompanied by broken-down complete furnishings such as machine-gun blaze or anxiety music. In one episode, Lim, dressed in a North Korean changeable soldier’s compatible to highlight her past, fabricated the admirers beam with a account of how she acclimated to advertise bootleg booze to survive aback she was a schoolgirl, bribery her agents with cigarettes aback they heard her schoolbag clinking with bottle bottles. “I would smile acquiescently and acquaint barter the bargain rice wine was a bound copy to accomplish them buy it. It formed every time,” she said, giggling.
She additionally appeared on a dating appearance alleged Adulation Unification: Southern Man, Arctic Woman, which pairs South Korean men with young, adorable North Korean women. “South Korean men accept this fantasy that we are added acceptable and acquiescent than avant-garde South Korean women, so that’s the appeal,” Sun-hi explains. The appearance plays on amusing differences for banana or affecting effect, such as a tech-ignorant Arctic woman not compassionate a bake oven or a comfortable Southern man actuality too annoyed to backbone a chicken.
Sun-hi rolls her eyes a little at the show’s astern abstraction but says the upside of the light-entertainment bang is that it helps affix Koreans from both sides. “The shows accord us a articulation and a animal face that is altered from the accepted afflicted stereotypes,” she says. “For women, it proves we can be accomplished and funny and aloof as alluring as women from anywhere else.” In Lim’s affecting video acknowledgment from the North, she accursed the genre, adage it is “designed to accomplish North Koreans assume barbarian and stupid.” But Sun-hi says Lim reveled in her minor-celebrity cachet and admired it as a absolute career dispatch stone. (The producers of Moranbong Club and added shows beneath to be interviewed, adage the accountable of Lim was “too political.”)
While best of Lim’s TV appearances were adequately lighthearted, Sun-hi believes she may accept been targeted by the North Korean administration because of her blog posts. At first, they were mostly upbeat newsletters about her contentment in advertent South Korean appearance and pop culture, but in the lead-up to her disappearance, they had amorphous to booty a darker about-face in anecdotic her acquaintance in the military.
Lim abutting the North Korean army aback she was 17 (though aggressive account in North Korea was autonomous for women aback Lim served, Kim Jong-un fabricated it compulsatory in 2015) and spent the abutting few years in a changeable arms unit. “She started to column about the abhorrent altitude and corruption suffered by changeable soldiers,” says Sun-hi. While never acceptance she accomplished animal corruption personally, Lim mentioned how macho admiral would handpick the prettiest changeable soldiers to accept sex with and how some women were “given” to macho soldiers for a night as a “reward” for adherence or bravery. “I anticipate her time in the army preyed on her mind, and she capital to allege out,” says her friend.
Lim’s blog folio was bound taken bottomward by the aggregation that hosted the website afterwards she re-emerged in North Korea, so absolutely what she said in her posts and videos can’t be calmly determined. But Lee Soon-sil, a Seoul-based backslider in her 40s who formed as a assistant in the North Korean army afore she able in 2007, confirms that animal abandon adjoin changeable soldiers was rife. “I advised cases of abduction and advance every day,” she says. “Women would appear to me with bleeding amid their legs and injuries afterwards they’d been baffled for resisting.” Senior officers, says Lee, beheld it as their appropriate to accept women for sex, while lower-ranking macho soldiers would generally abduction changeable colleagues and get abroad with it. “Rape was adjoin the rules, but in convenance it was never punished,” says Lee, abacus that women hardly became abundant because their periods usually chock-full due to the acrid conditions. “There were austere bloom problems,” she says. “Women got ailing from bad aliment and water, astringent exhaustion, rat and insect bites, and abounding added things.”
I anticipate her time in the army preyed on her mind, and she capital to allege out.
Until recently, North Korea had about no women in positions of ability who could affect the adolescent changeable generation; the top echelons of government and industry are overwhelmingly male. In the accomplished few years, however, Kim Jong-un has animated his adolescent sister, 33-year-old Kim Yo-jong, to a abundant added affecting role, appointing her to the cardinal Politburo in 2017. At the additional affair amid Kim and then–U.S. admiral Donald Trump in February 2019, the diminutive Kim Yo-jong, who advised computer science in college, was the alone woman at the table. North Korea watchers accept her added afterimage is no blow and that, at atomic in part, she is actuality acclimated as a changeable role archetypal to adverse the attraction of the South. So far, however, Kim Yo-jong has apparent no signs of actuality any beneath absolutist than her brother: In June 2020, she was allegedly advised by the South Korean government for acclimation the bombing of a communication appointment on the bound that had been congenital to advance relations with the South.
Sun-hi believes that the acknowledgment to her and Lim’s and endless added changeable defectors’ plight lies not in a altered gender advancing to ability but in a absolute change of administration aback in her austere homeland. She accepts that she may never apperceive what absolutely happened to her friend—Kang speculates that Lim could accept been accomplished or beatific to a gulag already North Korean admiral had no added use for her as a advertising tool—but Sun-hi refuses to accord up on her. “I will never accept that Ji-hyun alternate out of adherence to the Kim regime, and I achievement to apprehend the accuracy from her in being some day in the future.” In the meantime, Sun-hi charge alive with the circadian abhorrence that—until the Kim absolutism is durably in the past—she or any backslider in the South could be snatched aback to the “fatherland” and ache the aforementioned fate.
This adventure appears in the Spring 2021 affair of Marie Claire.
Timeline images: Women alive in field: Kathi Zellweger/AFP/Getty Images; soldiers: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images; Kim Jong-un: Yuri Smityuk/TASS/Getty Images; Lim: video screengrab; Yalu River: Bob Yue/Getty Images; soldier: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images; Panmunjom: Mark Edward Harris/Getty Images; Ryukyung Restaurant: Imaginechina/AP Images; soldier: Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images; Lim: video screengrabs (2); Anju: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images; Kim Yo-jong: Patrick Semansky/AFP/Getty Images; Rocket Launch: KCNA via KNS/STR/AFP/Getty Images; soldiers: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images; Trump: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
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