"What happened to Lim Ji-hyun?" It's a question explored in a story by Abigail Haworth at Marie Claire, and one that continues to haunt her friends. As a 23-year-old, Lim defected from North Korea, swimming across the Yalu River into China before making her way to South Korea. There, she became a popular fixture on social media and on South Korean TV programs as she spoke of her former life under the brutal regime. In 2017, on her 26th birthday, she wrote on her blog that "this is possibly the happiest birthday of my life" and thanked her supporters for giving her the courage to speak out. That same month, however, she vanished. And three months later, in what Haworth calls a "staggering twist," she turned up back in North Korea in propaganda videos. She denounced herself as "human trash" for defecting, castigated South Korea, and said she had returned of her own accord.
Lim has not been seen since those videos, and not many in the South are buying the change of heart. They suspect she was abducted by the bowibu, the North's secret police, and coerced. “The officials would have threatened to kill her and her family if she didn’t say exactly what they wanted,” says a political scientist in Seoul (and a defector himself). A friend says Lim defected to South Korea in the first place so she could send money home to her impoverished family. “I will never believe that Ji-hyun returned out of loyalty to the Kim regime," she says. And while she's holding out hope of seeing her friend again, she also fears Lim has been executed or sent to a gulag. The story notes that Lim disappeared after she began blogging about her experience in the North Korean military, where sexual violence against female soldiers has been well documented. Read the full piece. (Read more Longform stories.)