The former bodyguard of Kim Jong-il, the late North Korean leader, has said he fears for his life if he is deported by to South Korea after Canada denied his asylum application.
“The situation is bleak,” Lee Young-guk, 57, told the Toronto Star. “(The North Korean regime) tried to kidnap me when I was in South Korea. If Canada returns me there, I’m a dead man.”
Mr Lee, who published a book “I was Kim Jong-il’s bodyguard” claims he began a ten-year stint in the security team of current leader Kim Jong-un’s late father in 1978, after which he became a military adviser from 1988 to 1991.
According to his account, he escaped twice, and the first time he was captured and sent to the Yodok concentration camp for five years, where he personally buried more than 300 inmates who died.
In 2000, he managed to flee to Seoul, the South Korean capital, via China – a common, but dangerous, route for defectors.
But in 2016 he left South Korea for Canada, arriving in Toronto with his wife and two children and claiming asylum on the basis that he was facing threats for his outspoken criticism of the North while the two countries were trying to stabilise their relations.
He also alleges that he faced two kidnapping attempts in South Korea, in 2004 and 2007, although he only chose to report them in 2014, long after the five-year statutory time limit for prosecution.
Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board said it rejected his claim as it lacked credibility. It accused him of playing down his role as a military adviser under Kim’s authoritarian rule and questioned why he had waited so long to report the kidnappings.
“There is no serious possibility that the claimants would be persecuted or would be subjected, on a balance of probabilities, to a danger of torture or to a risk to life or a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment in South Korea,” said Brenda Lloyd, the asylum adjudicator.
Mr Lee told the Star he was disappointed and would appeal, arguing that: “In a dictatorial system, if you don’t follow what the government tells you to do, your whole family and you get punished and destroyed.”
The case arises at a time when North Korean defector groups are facing increasing pressure from the South Korean government, keen to reconcile with Pyongyang, to tone down their activities.
In July, Human Rights Watch accused Seoul of trying to intimidate defector activists who were sending leaflets across the border that strongly criticised the North’s leadership and rights record.
The South Korean government suddenly imposed new red tape on these groups with the threat of increased inspections.
“The recent controversy regarding cross-border leaflets should not override the need to support and protect a diverse civil society that presses North Korea to respect human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director.
Seoul has denied that it acted in an effort to restore damaged bilateral ties after the collapse of international talks to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
Jack Kim of HanVoice, a Toronto-based advocacy group for human rights in North Korea, told the Star that Mr Lee’s case highlighted the complex dynamics between North and South and defectors, who were often caught in the middle of rapidly shifting politics.
North Korean refugees also faced discrimination, he said, adding: “It is likely there are agents of the north in the country. It is hard to quantify how many there are, but there is a subjective fear North Koreans do have.”