Eun-mi Shin was born in South Korea and lives in Diamond Bar, but says she is often asked why she doesn’t live in North Korea instead.
In a cramped basement venue in Iksan, a small city a few hours south of Seoul, the South Korean capital, the 54-year-old California woman last month addressed the query she says she receives from South Korean conservatives. "Since you like North Korea so much, why not move there?"
Shin told the small gathering that she believes it’s possible to admire the positive aspects of a country without actually wanting to live there.
She first found notoriety in 2011 when she published a series of articles on OhmyNews, a left-leaning news website, about her travels to North Korea. The articles were later expanded into a book titled “A Middle-aged Korean American Woman Goes to North Korea.” She was then criticized by conservative South Koreans and North Korean refugees for what they said were inaccurately favorable depictions of the North.
As Shin made her remarks in Iksan, a commotion broke out. Smoke and flames began to fill the room, along with panicked voices. Video of the event shows a young man rushing the front of the room, carrying what appears to be a flaming homemade explosive, which he attempts to throw toward Shin.
The young man with the bomb was tackled by audience members, some of whom suffered burns. He was later reported to be a conservative activist who accused Shin of being a pro-North Korea agent attempting to infiltrate the South.
Shin escaped without injury, but her comments on North Korea have gotten her into a different kind of trouble. On Friday, South Korean officials said they were deporting her over alleged pro-North Korea remarks she made during the series of public lectures late last year, including the Iksan event.
"I am leaving for California as the Korean gov't decided to deport me,” she said in a brief message exchanged through Facebook.
On that tour of South Korea, Shin discussed her travels to North Korea, a series of trips made in 2011 and 2012. Surprisingly for many, in her writing and public appearances, Shin has had good things to say about the North, a country well known for human rights abuses, many of which take place across a network of political prison camps.
Many travelers who return from North Korea discuss the tight control that police and officials hold over daily life, or the glorification of the ruling Kim family. Shin instead spoke fondly of having found clean landscapes and friendly people. She also remarked on how tasty North Korea beer is, compared with the bland brews in the South.
A Korea Immigration Service official told the Associated Press on Friday that Shin’s comments were determined to have violated South Korea’s National Security Law, which bans any remarks interpreted as praising North Korea. South and North Korea remain technically at war after fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, but not a peace agreement.
Shin had been prohibited from leaving the country for the last few weeks and had been summoned more than once for questioning by police.
Deportation is actually not the worst fate Shin could suffer. If she had been convicted of having violated the National Security Law she could have faced a prison term. Shin is a U.S. citizen, and South Korean authorities may have wished to avoid the friction that charging her with a crime might cause with the U.S.
On Shin’s Facebook page, her cover photo apparently shows her in North Korea, smiling and clasping hands with uniformed guards. Her page states that she was born in 1961 in the South Korean city of Daegu and lists Diamond Bar as her city of residence.
Shin and others on the political left in South Korea tend to argue that despite North Korea’s failings, it is more productive to refrain from overt criticism. This line of thinking goes that criticism only antagonizes North Korea, making the government less willing to cooperate and work toward eventual reunification of the Koreas.
“I realized that my journal could contribute to sharing new perspectives about North Korea, even if only a minority of people supported me,” Shin said, according to OhmyNews.
Borowiec is a special correspondent.