Feedback
News

North Korean Defector Mysteriously Reemerges in North in Haunting Video

On camera, she appears on the brink of tears. Her pale face cringes as she explains a hellish existence she says she endured in South Korea, where she first escaped to in 2014.

"In a society where money determines everything, there was only physical, psychological pain for a woman like me who betrayed her fatherland and ran away," the woman says in a video purportedly posted last weekend on a North Korean propaganda website and uploaded to YouTube.

The resurfacing of Lim Ji-hyeon — who calls herself Jon Hye Song in the clip — has baffled South Korean officials who were investigating Wednesday how she wound up back in North Korea and whether she has put the South's national security at risk.

Image: Lim Ji-hyeon
Video posted on a North Korean propaganda website shows former North Korean defector Lim Ji-Hyeon. via AFP - Getty Images

A Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of office rules, told The Associated Press that the woman in the video is Lim — known for her appearances on South Korean reality television and talk shows. NBC News could not immediately confirm the report.

Police are planning to track her recent activities and interview her acquaintances, while also trying to determine whether she returned to North Korea willingly or was abducted in China, where she frequently traveled to see her husband, according to reports in South Korean media.

Kongdan Oh, a senior Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses, told NBC News that the video and the words she uses in it smack of a propaganda ploy by the North Koreans.

"They occasionally need a big fish," said Oh, who has interviewed defectors about why they leave. Since Lim became a sort of minor celebrity in the South, that's what they have "by coercing her or kidnapping her back into North Korea."

Oh added that people who make a perilous journey to flee know their lives are at risk if they return — no matter the circumstances. "Once they taste freedom and a different lifestyle, it's almost masochistic or sadistic to go back. Most likely (Lim) was made a target of a very angry North Korea," she said.

Related: S. Korea Offers Talks on Tension, Family Reunions With North

After first leaving North Korea for China, Lim entered South Korea three years ago and settled in Seoul, according to The Korea Herald. Lim, who is believed to be in her 20s, found gigs on TV, where programs capitalize on the experiences of defectors.

There are dating shows matching North Korean women with South Korean bachelors, and ones that pair them together in "Amazing Race"-type stunts.

Among the shows Lim appeared on was a cable program called "Moranbong Club" in December. She wore North Korean military garb and explained how she would bribe a teacher with cigarettes so she could get out of class and smuggle liquor for money, according to The New York Times.

She also had a fan blog, and thanked supporters in April for "possibly the happiest birthday of my life," The Times said. But since her mystifying return North, the blog has been taken down.

Lester Holt Speaks with Thae Yong-ho, Former North Korean Diplomat Who Defected 1:56

Lim did not reveal in the video how she reentered the isolated nation. The story the former North Korean defector told suggested she could not readjust to her new life and felt like she was forced to "maliciously slander" her homeland in South Korean media.

"I was lured to the South by a delusion that I would eat well and make a lot of money there," Lim said, according to The Times. "It was not the place I had imagined. I had wandered around everywhere there to make money, working in drinking bars, but nothing had worked out."

Related: North Korean Defector Tells Lester Holt ‘World Should Be Ready’

North Korean propaganda often contains extreme claims and sometimes features former defectors who criticize the South. North Korea also stages news conferences with foreign detainees — such as American college student Otto Warmbier — who confess to hostile acts against the country. Warmbier was released in June and ended up dying under a cloud of mystery after his return to the United States.

Some foreigners have said after their release that their declarations were coerced.

According to South Korean government figures, more than 30,000 North Koreans have defected and resettled in the South as of June this year, and many say they escaped in search of better lives and freedom. Activists say some defectors return to smuggle out relatives or are abducted in China and repatriated to North Korea.

According to the Seoul government's Unification Ministry, 25 defectors reentered the North since 2012, shortly after current ruler Kim Jong Un took power — but five of them managed to escape again and return to the South.

Related: North Korea Defectors Find Unlikely Haven in London Suburb

The number of defectors is believed to have fallen with more policing of and surveillance along the border under Kim Jong Un.

Life in South Korea — a Democratic society that diverges greatly from the totalitarian regime of the North — can be hard on defectors, said Jonathan Pollack, a senior analyst on North Korea at the Brookings Institution think tank. They might suffer post-traumatic stress or are discriminated against because they're slower to assimilate, don't have the same education or are physically smaller.

In addition, Pollack added, those who do return to North Korea are often swayed by the pull of family that was left behind. But whether in the North or South, being a defector can be a stigma that sticks.

"If you make the decision to leave, there's a kind of flashing light that goes off," Pollack said. "Your life will never be the same — no matter where you're going to be."