Her life in southern Korea seemed perfect: brand-new friends, a burgeoning career, reality-TV fame. But she was about to come to be notorious—disappearing there is no a trace, just to reappear pledging allegiance to phibìc Korea. What occurred to Lim Ji-hyun?

Under the covering of nightfall, previous North korean soldier Lim Ji-hyun risked fatality to escape her homeland, the many isolated and also ruthless dictatorship on the planet. Somehow, the then-23-year-old made that to safety and security in Seoul, the ultramodern resources of southern Korea. Maybe she paid Chinese brokers come sneak her across the Chinese border, as various other North oriental defectors have actually been known to do. Yet she gained there, by April 2014, Lim had started a look at successful new life in her embraced country. Through girlish looks and also a gift because that comic storytelling, she quickly ended up being a rising media star. Petite v wavy brown hair, the defector amassed an digital fan society that complied with the video clip diaries she posted, i m sorry revealed details about her previous life in the North. On her 26th birthday, in April 2017, she wrote on her blog, “This is maybe the happiest date of birth of my life. Thank you to all the fans who love me—you give me the courage to keep speaking out.”

Later the month, Lim vanished.

Her social-media channels, normally updated frequently, go silent. In she pink studio apartment in the trendy district of Gangnam, her clothes, lovely stuffed-animal collection (frequently a cute backdrop in her vlogs), and other belongings stayed untouched. Police investigate the situation revealed she had additionally left the indistinguishable of practically $20,000 in her south Korean financial institution account. “She didn’t call anyone she was leaving, not also close friends prefer me,” claims Seoul-based other defector Sun-hi, 29, that doesn’t desire her full name released in stimulate to defend her identity. “We assumed she had gone far on a shopping trip, however we knew something to be badly wrong once she didn’t return,” Sun-hi says, speaking v an interpreter.


Lim is among dozens of greatly young and also female North oriental defectors who, in current years, have end up being popular in southern Korea’s glitzy entertainment industry. Showing up on talk shows, reality-TV programs, and dramas, the “Northern beauties,” as they room known, use their newfound liberty to expose the harshness that life inside the secretive Communist state. The females chat v incredulous South korean hosts on topics ranging from the North’s extreme ban top top “Western evils,” prefer blue jeans or popular music music, to the horrific windy executions by shoot squad. (According to a 2019 study by the South korean NGO Transitional Justice working Group, the end of 610 defectors interviewed, 83 percent had witnessed at least one windy execution.) Lim to be an audience favorite on the speak shows, claims Sun-hi, who is additionally a regular. “Ji-hyun to be a natural,” she says. “She could make human being laugh and also cry at the exact same time, and she always enjoyed herself.”

For southern Korea’s authorities, Lim’s sudden disappearance was far much more high-stakes 보다 a consistent missing-persons case. During years of brutal misrule and also deprivation due to the fact that the Kim empire took power in north Korea in 1953, nearly 34,000 phibìc Koreans have escaped come the wealthier autonomous South. The defections are humiliating because that the North oriental regime and aggravate the bitter politics rivalry in between the 2 sides that the peninsula. Current dictator Kim Jong-un, 36, who took office in 2011 after dad Kim Jong-il’s death, has actually a an especially harsh see of escapees. “Kim Jong-un bring away defections an extremely personally,” claims Kang Myung-do, a North oriental defector and former professor of political science at Seoul’s Kyonggi University. “He regards such acts together treason against the fatherland and will go to excessive lengths to acquire revenge or recapture so-called traitors.”

According to south Korea’s set of Unification, i beg your pardon oversees concerns relating come the two Koreas, Lim is among 42 North oriental defectors who have gone missing in the south in the past 5 years. “Most of this disappearances are unexplained, yet there is strong suspicion of kidnapping or other foul play by the bowibu in part cases,” claims Kang. As soon as Kim Jong-un—a millennial that was privately education in Switzerland—came come power, countless hoped the he would ease the draconian plans of the past and begin to open up the country. In fact, states Kang, he has actually clamped under harder. A month before Lim vanished, Kim accused ordered his mystery police to escalate kidnappings the defectors and also return them to the North. The directive, follow to Kang’s resources inside the country, was probably in retaliation because that the dramatic alleged fixed defection in April 2016 the 12 “singing waitresses” who worked at a state-owned North oriental restaurant in China (a traveler attraction draft to knife foreign currency for the cash-strapped government). “It to be a sensational case,” says Kang. “Kim accused south Korea of in which method tricking the women right into defecting, yet his recurring demands that the females be sent back fell on hearing disabled ears.”

High-profile escapees such together Lim are at certain risk, claims Kang. “Celebrities favor Lim that talk ~ above TV have a substantial target on their backs. Women favor her are the whistleblowers of phibìc Korea.” By concentrating on the details of daily life in their tv appearances and social-media posts, together female defectors leak the shameful secrets that Kim Jong-un badly desires to hide: food and electricity shortages, poverty, and also the cruel oppression of plain people. Women additionally defect in far greater numbers than men, adds Kang—in 2019, women consisted of 81 percent that the 1,047 north Koreans who defected to the South, according to the ministry of Unification—for reasons consisting of widespread gender abuse and discrimination at home, the desire to assistance their families financially, and also attraction to the additional freedoms for females in the South, as illustrated in bootleg TV shows and also movies.


While north Korea purports come champion equal sex rights, in reality, according to the U.N., distinguish is endemic in greater education and the workplace, and women are much more likely to be malnourished and denied access to an easy health care. Women’s appearance and behavior are rigidly policed; wearing pants is banned in numerous places, together is having actually long hair if a mrs is end 30. A 2018 report through the London–based activist team Korea Future Initiative found that “multiple creates of sexual violence” are pervasive in establishments such together the army and government and also across society as a whole. “Misogyny lies at the main point of the Kim dynasty and also manifests in plenty of ways, consisting of male privilege, sex discrimination, and also patriarchy,” check out the report. South Korea’s record on gender equality is much from perfect—the nation ranks 108th out of 153 countries in the people Economic Forum’s global Gender space Index—but ladies there gain far an ext social and also economic freedoms than their sister in the north do.

Even prior to Lim vanished, over there were indications that part in phibìc Korea want to silence her. In so late 2016, North oriental propaganda news websites and social-media channels started linking to grainy photos of a young woman in miscellaneous sexual poses. Back the body parts were censored, it was clear the woman was naked. The news sites declared it was Lim and that she was functioning as a webcam prostitute.

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“This was a smear campaign against Ji-hyun,” says Sun-hi, designed to dead Lim and ruin she career in the South. “This has actually happened prior to to defectors who end up being TV stars.” An approximated 60 percent that women who flee phibìc Korea by crossing the border right into China—the most feasible escape route—end up gift trafficked into forced marriage or the sex trade, according to a 2019 Korea Future to plan report. Sun-hi claims there is no evidence that this fate befell Lim. “Ji-hyun was devastated when the photos started circulating and also went come the police. The police analyzed the videos and photos and confirmed to the public that the mrs in the photos was not her.”

As if the smear project wasn’t chilling enough, the truth that Lim was maybe abducted has influenced everyone top top the north Korean–defector celebrity circuit. “We thought we were for sure in Seoul, but suddenly us felt the we had to look end our shoulders every the time,” states Sun-hi. “It to be terrifying not knowing what had happened come her.” Kim has actually toughened punishments for anyone involved in defections. According to the Seoul-based Korea institute for nationwide Unification, which produces an annual report on person rights in the North, penalties variety from gift shot and also killed to being sent to a hard-labor camp for 5 or much more years. “Everyone knows that going come a job camp is basically a fatality sentence. Over there is no food or medicine, and people frozen to death in winter,” claims Sun-hi. “Being recaptured is our an extremely worst nightmare.”

Speculation an installed about Lim’s fate, and also the police investigation continued, however no one in southern Korea was ready for what come next. In a staggering twist, in July 2017, 3 months ~ she disappeared, the TV star resurfaced in north Korea. In a video clip uploaded to a propaganda website run through the government, Uriminzokkiri (“Our Nation”), a tearful Lim asserted she had returned house to the phibìc of her own totally free will. “Every job I invested in the southern was prefer hell. As soon as I was alone in a cold, dark room, i was heartbroken, and also I wept every day, missing my fatherland and my parents.”

Her genuine name was Jeon Hye-sung, she said, sitting at a wood table versus a empty white wall surface in what looked to it is in an anonymous government office. She appearance was nearly unrecognizable: her long, wavy hair had actually been cropped boyishly short, and also she wore a classic long hanbok silk gown in ar of the stylish Western dresses and streetwear she had actually favored in Seoul. Her fans in the South easily commented on social media that her eyes looked drawn, as though she had been crying, and that her confront “looked pale and puffy.” they theorized the her thick, ghostly white assembly was maybe covering up bruises.

Denouncing herself together “human trash,” she begged for forgiveness from Kim Jong-un.

Lim asserted in the 29-minute video that she to be now ago living with her family members in the west city the Anju. “I went to the southern harboring the fantasy that ns would never ever go hungry and also could do a most money,” claimed Lim, that was a young girl throughout the nationwide famine that killed an approximated 1.5 million phibìc Koreans in the mid- to late 1990s. “The reality of the south was really different,” she continued. “I was compelled to work-related in sleazy bars to do money, and also nothing operated out.” Denouncing herself together “human trash,” she begged for forgiveness indigenous Kim Jong-un because that “betraying” she family and also her country. “I committed a disastrous crime. Ns am worthless. I execute not worthy to live.”


Lim appeared in two additional videos condemning the “capitalist South”—one in august 2017, this time attract a demure pink jacket, and another in February 2018, wearing a sparkly brown top. In both videos, she had the exact same cropped hair and also tired look approximately her eyes. Her place in a blank-walled room, with just a potted plant and also a plastic water party as props, offered no clue regarding her whereabouts. Speaking straight to the camera, she consistently shot down suggestions that she’d to be kidnapped together “downright lies and also fabrications,” explain she had actually traveled from southern Korea to northern China and also swum across the Yalu River in between China and also North Korea come “reach the bosom that the fatherland.”

Lim has not been checked out since. Together of press time, South korean authorities space still do the efforts to get to the bottom of she case. Seoul police spokesman Park Tae-joon states that despite Lim’s denials in the propaganda films, lock firmly believe she was coerced right into returning. “Our intelligence argues Ms. Lim to be tricked into going on a trip to China so north Korean government agents might kidnap her and take she back across the border,” says Park. “Ms. Lim was told the a big sum the money, about $10,000, that she had tried to send home to her parents with a Chinese middleman had actually gone missing. She hurried to China to retrieve it, yet we think it to be a trap.”

Middlemen or brokers help defectors to escape and also make call with your families back in the North. South oriental investigators believe Kim Jong-un has actually ordered his mystery police come infiltrate this broker networks and also recapture escapees. While over there is no pure proof that Lim to be abducted (at least, no one the authorities space revealing), a ministry of unification spokesperson says the number of defectors that return voluntarily is tiny. “Since 2012, only 25 people have actually gone ago to the phibìc freely. The those, 5 later re-escaped back to the South.”

The secret surrounding Lim has the murky depths of a spy drama, and political scientist Kang says her value as a propaganda device for the North korean regime can not be overstated: “Their totality purpose would have actually been to usage her return together a PR coup to do the southern seem evil and also to deter various other young females from escaping in huge numbers.” every little thing her genuine feelings, Lim would certainly have had actually no an option but to come to be a mouthpiece for Kim Jong-un’s tyrannical regime. “The public representative would have actually threatened to death her and her household if she didn’t say specifically what castle wanted,” the says.

Over coffee and also a walnut cake in a Seoul delicatessen, Lim’s friend Sun-hi, tall and also chic in an all-black outfit and also high ponytail, professes there to be no indicators that Lim was unhappy with her life in southern Korea. “Naturally, us all miss our family and friends ago in phibìc Korea,” she says. “It’s the place where we grew up, so it’s regular to feel nostalgic. But Ji-hyun never talked around returning. She dream was to become a serious actor, and also she was complete of optimism around her future here.”

Lim said Sun-hi she defected in 2014 by crossing the Yalu River, which operation along component of the 880-mile border in between North Korea and also China. She travel for about two months with China and also Southeast Asia to obtain to south Korea. “The border with southern Korea is too heavily equipped to cross, therefore the only real choice is to overcome the river into China,” she says. Sun-hi doesn’t recognize the specific details that Lim’s journey, yet Sun-hi herself take it a similar route as soon as she defected through her younger brothers in 2015. “We crossed the Yalu flow in our underwear v one set of dry clothes each in a bag balanced on mine head, and also I also carried a bottle of bleach. My arrangement was come drink the bleach if we gained caught. Ns knew i would quite kill myself 보다 be forced to go back.”

Taking the very same petrifying risk, Lim defected partly to assistance her family, states Sun-hi, who met she on the TV circuit around a year prior to she disappeared. “She told me she father functioned in a big chemical factory, yet he developed breathing problems and had to retire,” Sun-hi says. V dire shortages of an easy drugs in phibìc Korea’s state-run health-care system, Lim essential foreign money to buy medications for she father ~ above the black market.

Like numerous North Koreans, Lim struggled once she an initial arrived in Seoul. Although all defectors get a 12-week maintain course, housing, and financial help from the ministry of marriage to aid them readjust to their new lives, they often confront job discrimination and also other forms of prejudice in South oriental society. “It’s true the she had actually to work-related as a waitress in bars in the at an early stage days, yet not for long,” Sun-hi says.


Lim’s nice face and also lively personality assisted her find television work. The defector reality-TV genre is popular among South Koreans, who are deeply curious around the despotic program on their doorstep. Lim showed up in a couple of programs, including Moranbong Club, a garishly lit talk present featuring “confident and courageous beauties from the North” informing stories that room by turns humorous and also heartbreaking, regularly accompanied by tacky sound results such as machine-gun fire or foreboding music. In one episode, Lim, pull on in a North oriental female soldier’s uniform to highlight her past, do the audience laugh with a story of exactly how she provided to market bootleg alcohol to survive as soon as she was a schoolgirl, bribing she teachers through cigarettes as soon as they heard her schoolbag clinking with glass bottles. “I would smile sweetly and tell client the cheap rice wine was a limited edition to make them to buy it. It worked every time,” she said, giggling.

She additionally appeared ~ above a dating show called Love Unification: southern Man, north Woman, which pairs South korean men with young, attractive North korean women. “South oriental men have actually this fantasy that us are much more traditional and passive than modern South korean women, so that’s the appeal,” Sun-hi explains. The display plays top top social differences for comic or dramatic effect, such as a tech-ignorant northern woman not knowledge a microwave cooktop or a pampered Southern guy being too squeamish come pluck a chicken.

Sun-hi rolls she eyes a little at the show’s regressive concept yet says the upside of the light-entertainment eight is the it helps connect Koreans indigenous both sides. “The shows provide us a voice and also a human confront that is various from the normal miserable stereotypes,” she says. “For women, that proves we deserve to be talented and also funny and also just as glamorous as women from almost everywhere else.” In Lim’s emotional video confession indigenous the North, she blasted the genre, saying it is “designed to do North Koreans it seems to be ~ barbaric and also stupid.” yet Sun-hi states Lim reveled in her minor-celebrity status and also regarded it as a positive career stepping stone. (The producers of Moranbong society and various other shows decreased to be interviewed, speak the subject of Lim to be “too political.”)

While many of Lim’s TV appearances were reasonably lighthearted, Sun-hi trust she may have been targeted by the North oriental regime since of her blog posts. In ~ first, lock were largely upbeat newsletters around her pleasure in learning South oriental fashion and pop culture, but in the lead-up to she disappearance, they had begun to take a darker revolve in describing her experience in the military.

Lim join the phibìc Korean army when she was 17 (though military organization in north Korea was voluntary because that women as soon as Lim served, Kim Jong-un made that compulsory in 2015) and spent the next couple of years in a female pho unit. “She started to post about the damaging conditions and abuse experienced by female soldiers,” claims Sun-hi. While never admitting she experienced sexual abuse personally, Lim mentioned exactly how male police officers would handpick the prettiest female soldiers to have sex with and how some females were “given” to male soldiers for a night as a “reward” for loyalty or bravery. “I think she time in the army preyed on her mind, and she wanted to speak out,” claims her friend.

Lim’s blog web page was easily taken under by the company that hosted the website ~ she re-emerged in north Korea, so precisely what she stated in she posts and videos can’t be easily determined. Yet Lee Soon-sil, a Seoul-based defector in she 40s who operated as a nurse in the phibìc Korean military before she escaped in 2007, confirms that sex-related violence towards female soldiers to be rife. “I treated situations of rape and also assault every day,” she says. “Women would involved me v bleeding between their legs and injuries after ~ they’d been beaten because that resisting.” an elderly officers, says Lee, regarded it as their best to select women for sex, when lower-ranking male soldiers would frequently rape mrs colleagues and get away v it. “Rape was versus the rules, however in practice it was never ever punished,” states Lee, including that females seldom ended up being pregnant because their periods usually stopped due to the harsh conditions. “There to be serious health and wellness problems,” she says. “Women gained sick from bad food and water, significant exhaustion, rat and insect bites, and also many other things.”

I think her time in the army preyed on her mind, and also she want to speak out.

Until recently, phibìc Korea had virtually no females in positions of strength who might inspire the younger female generation; the optimal echelons the government and also industry are overwhelmingly male. In the past few years, however, Kim Jong-un has actually elevated his younger sister, 33-year-old Kim Yo-jong, to a much much more influential role, appointing her to the ruling Politburo in 2017. At the 2nd meeting in between Kim and then–U.S. President Donald trump in February 2019, the diminutive Kim Yo-jong, who studied computer science in college, to be the only woman in ~ the table. North Korea watchers believe her raised visibility is no accident and also that, at least in part, she is being used as a female function model to counter the allure of the South. For this reason far, however, Kim Yo-jong has presented no indications of being any less tyrannical 보다 her brother: In June 2020, she to be allegedly investigated by the southern Korean federal government for ordering the battle of a liaison office on the border that had been developed to enhance relations with the South.

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Sun-hi believes the the answer to her and Lim’s and countless other female defectors’ plight lies not in a different gender comes to power but in a total adjust of regime back in her blighted homeland. She accepts the she might never recognize what really happened to her friend—Kang speculates the Lim could have been executed or sent to a gulag as soon as North oriental officials had no much more use because that her together a propaganda tool—but Sun-hi refuses to give up on her. “I will certainly never think that Ji-hyun reverted out of commitment to the Kim regime, and I hope to hear the fact from her in human some day in the future.” In the meantime, Sun-hi have to live with the daily fear that—until the Kim empire is steady in the past—she or any kind of defector in the South might be snatched ago to the “fatherland” and suffer the exact same fate.

This story shows up in the feather 2021 worry of Marie Claire.

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Timeline images: females working in field: Kathi Zellweger/AFP/Getty Images; soldiers: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images; Kim Jong-un: Yuri Smityuk/TASS/Getty Images; Lim: video clip screengrab; Yalu River: Bob Yue/Getty Images; soldier: Eric Lafforgue/Art in every one of Us/Corbis/Getty Images; Panmunjom: note 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