Defection and the Allegory of the Cave


By Somang Kim

NKR Intern


Without a doubt, “sanctions”, “famine”, “threats”, “nuclear”, “human rights”, etc. are the most ostensible and expected keywords associated with North Korea, and it is that confidence which leads to passivity when understanding North Korea. We see no more of North Korea than what the media portrays. We have become so accustomed to such circumscribed manner of assimilation that we do not dare to question what may lie beyond the horizon. And this type of prejudice is no exception for the issue of defection.


It does not take one much effort to be able to see North Koreans under the authoritarian regime as the equals of prisoners portrayed in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. “They are in childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around.”[1] This comparison then leads to findings that reveal the linkages regarding the process after defection, “re-defection”, shortcomings of the lessons drawn from the allegory, and implications of the comparison on South Korean society.


The general correlations are that the shadows that create the puppet show are the influence and control of the regime. Unaware and isolated from the external world that lies beyond their secluded society, North Koreans consider the shadows of the artificial objects to be real. Based on such explanation, any attempts from external sources that try to enlighten them would be the force that drags the prisoners out of the cave. In an attempt to make connections between the prisoners from the allegory and the situation of the North Korean defectors, the “two kinds of disturbances of the eyes, stemming from two sources” – “from light to darkness” and “from darkness to light”[2] are substantial elements. For their entire lives, as it is true for the prisoners, the defectors consider themselves to have been living in the light. Propaganda in North Korea is expressed extensively in a myriad of slogans and is perhaps depicted to be as twisted and unrealistic as those of Orwell’s 1984. The philosophy of “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism”, absolute reverence towards Kim Jong-un’s leadership style, and songs that encourage them to believe that they are the happiest nation in the world all contribute to the plausibility of North Korea’s very own puppet show. . [3]


As Plato describes, the process of suddenly being “compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light” is a demanding one.[4] This is true for defection as well. Yet, while the majority are somewhat aware of the risks the defectors have to face to physically escape from their countries, the “the long and arduous pursuit of truth” [5] is often undermined or considered insignificant. This seems to be so because the act of defection itself is perceived by people as a matter of life and death whereas the progression that comes after the escape – adjustment to “light” or education – is understood as less intense. Defection is not merely becoming “accustomed to the world outside the cave” and being able to “distinguish real objects from their shadows.”[6] However, when it comes to the issue of defection, this lack of understanding is what leads to “re-defection” as well. Nevertheless, the case of “re-defection” and the movement from “light to darkness” are different in the sense that the original intentions illustrated in the allegory arise from concerns for the other prisoners who are left behind in the cave while the longing for “re-defection” stems from a combination of nostalgic sentiments and dissatisfaction with the South Korean society. In other words, disappointed by what the “light” actually is, some of the defectors regret their own decisions and consider their lives under the authoritarian regime to be preferable over “freedom and material and other lures of any kind.”[7] While the South Korean government “invests substantial resources in helping arriving North Koreans acclimatize to their new lives, surveys regularly show just how marginalized defectors can be in their new home.”[8] This observation indeed arguably indicates the shortcomings of Plato’s assumptions that the prisoners who have escaped will adapt and will be content with the “true knowledge” they are to acquire through education. In short, despite the fact that the allegory highlights the role of education, environment is another factor that plays an equally important role. In that sense, the existence of “re-defection” phenomena itself reveals the deficiencies of the support the society is providing. In fact, statistical evidence highlights the influence environment has on defection. In 2012, along with tightened Sino-Korean border control under Xi and Kim Jong Un, the less sympathetic treatment of South Korean conservative government attributed to decline in the number of annual defectors – 1,509, 40% less than that of the previous year.[9] This means that regardless of the seemingly enlightening experience a defector may gain by defection, a lack of acceptance by the rest of the society may thwart any progress on that front.


Within such a context, it’s also crucial to evaluate the implications such a connection has on South Koreans or even their society as whole. During the past two decades, an estimated 25,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea, but more than 800 of them are believed to have either “re-defected” or fled to China and Southeast Asian countries to take routes back to their homes.[10] Bearing in mind that these are only official numbers, it may be expected that the actual numbers are even larger. Furthermore, it was reported by the unification ministry that 15 percent of the defectors who die in South Korea have committed suicide. [11] Although there are several factors that contribute to this high suicide rate, the major causes are known to be the feeling of helplessness they experience while having the desire to return and the economic barriers they face in South Korean society. Yet, the author’s poll of 110 South Koreans in their 20s revealed that 53% of them were unaware of the “re-defection” phenomenon. This reflects that the parallel of the prisoners from the allegory and the defectors is no exception for the South Koreans – “the prisoners in the cave correspond to most people living in the world” who adhere to the idea that “seeing is believing.”[12] . Not to mention that opinions in favor of providing further support for North Koreans are frequently labeled as extreme leftist, the chronic misperception of South Korea as a safe haven for defectors is pervasive. Hence, it comes as no surprise to find out that the majority of the population is unaware of the issue re-defection and that many of the defectors feel that the South Korean media portrays them as people who want to be seen as victimized minorities.[13] Nonetheless, the irony in this is that any disregard for voices that call for increased attention to the defectors’ situation only ends up feeding the propaganda of North Korea.


Based on such facts and assumptions, a fundamentally natural question to ask would be ; What in the aftermath of defection should South Korean Society take stewardship over? According to Plato, “those who are without education and experience of truth would never be an adequate steward of a city nor would those who have been allowed to spend their time in education continuously to the end” because the former would have no goals in life and the latter, believing that they are in safe haven, are unwilling to act.[14] Of course, it would be a stretch to think that there’s an absolute resemblance between the two groups mentioned and North Koreans and South Koreans respectively. Nevertheless, it is true that it is often the case that the defectors fall short of their expectations and have trouble adjusting their lives to an unfamiliar and disappointing environment where South Koreans take the issue halfheartedly. In other words, the transaction costs an enlightened prisoner would have to pay to persuade those who are “chained by their appetites and their reliance upon sensory experience”[15] are believed to be far greater than the final outcomes or benefits thereof. Therefore, the key to this problem is “harmonizing the citizens by persuasion and compulsion, making them share with one another the benefits that each is able to bring to the common wealth.”[16] This may be a very challenging task, but this remedy tackles one of the most fundamental characteristics of human rationales – acting according to incentives. Whether such sense of commonality can be achieved in the Korean society is highly dubious. However, the fact that the lesson given from the allegory can be shared with the defection is noteworthy.


***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.



[1] Plato, & Bloom, A. (1991). The Republic (p. 193). Basic Books.


[2] Ibid. p. 196


[3] North Korea propaganda slogans urge 'socialist fairyland' (2015, February 12). BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-31438061


[4] Plato, & Bloom, A. (1991). The Republic (p. 194). Basic Books.


[5] Hallowell, & Porter. (1997). Political Philosophy p. 33.


[6] Ibid. p. 32.


[7] Choe, S. (2015, August 15). A North Korean Defector's Regret. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/world/asia/kim-ryen-hi-north-korean-defector-regret.html?_r=1


[8] O'Carroll, C. (2015, December 21). Defectors: What we miss most about life in North Korea. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/06/defectors-what-we-miss-most-about-life-in-north-korea


[9] McCurry, J. (2014, April 22). The defector who wants to go back to North Korea. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/22/defector-wants-to-go-back-north-korea


[10] Williamson, L. (2014, March 5). The North Korean defectors who want to return home. BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-26340583


[11] Tomale, D. (2015, November 5). Unification Ministry Says 15 Percent Of North Korean Defectors Who Die In South Korea Have Committed Suicide. Korea Portal. Retrieved from http://en.koreaportal.com/articles/3738/20151105/unification-ministry-north-korean-defectors-commit-suicide-south-korea.htm


[12] Hallowell, & Porter. (1997). Political Philosophy (p. 33).


[13] McCurry, J. (2014, April 22). The defector who wants to go back to North Korea. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/22/defector-wants-to-go-back-north-korea


[14] Plato, & Bloom, A. (1991). The Republic (p. 198). Basic Books.


[15] Hallowell, & Porter. (1997). Political Philosophy (p. 33).


[16] Hallowell, & Porter. (1997). Political Philosophy (p. 33).

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