Just after midday on september 21, lee dae-jun, a south korean official on a fisheries patrol vessel, removed his footwear, took a flotation device and entered the fast-moving tidal waters between an outlying island and the north korean coastline.

The next day, the 47-year-old was discovered by the north korean military, questioned, shot dead, his body doused in oil and burnt by troops wearing gas masks. lee, the south korean government has suggested, was trying to defect.

Pyongyang contests seouls version of events, saying its troops acted in line with rules of engagement and coronavirus protection measures. lees family, who have denied he was a defector, have called for a un investigation.

If the south korean claims are true, however, lee would join a select group who have attempted the desperate journey across one of the worlds most dangerous borders. but why would anyone choose to live in a repressive communist state?

Details of defections to north korea are rarely made public but some episodes have become legend. that includes charles robert jenkins, a disgruntled us soldier, who in 1965 drank 10 cans of beer before he abandoned his post in the demilitarised zone dividing the peninsula a mistake which led to jenkins living under the brutal kim regime for four decades.

Over the past 20 years, most defections have involved north koreans fleeing south. but many struggle to adjust to life in south korea and have to fend off coercive measures used by the bowibu, north koreas secret police, to try to lure them to return.

About 30 north korean defectors have re-defected from south korea since kim jong un assumed power in 2011, according to a south korean lawmaker who sits on the national assemblys intelligence committee. that figure compares with about 33,600 north koreans who have escaped to south korea, of which an estimated 900 are unaccounted for. tens of thousands more live in china.

Lee mi-young* is a typical defector success story. a millennial who came to south korea 10 years ago, she has adapted her accent and vernacular to sound like a local, including using the ubiquitous english loanwords that are never used in north korea. these moves masking her real identity have helped smooth the path for studying, working and starting several small businesses.

Ms lees aunt, however, did not enjoy the same fortune. despite escaping through china to south korea, she struggled to adapt to life in seoul and missed her daughter, whom she had left behind and who had since had a child of her own. ms lee says her aunt decided to secretly travel back to north korea, hoping to return to the life she had previously known.instead, she lives under the close watch of the bowibu and is deployed by government propagandists to warn people of the hardship faced by those who leave the motherland.

She was always crying, ms lee said of her aunt during her time in seoul. but now her life is not hers any more.

One in five defectors in south korea has thought about returning to north korea, according to a 2019 survey by the database center for north korean human rights, a seoul-based non-governmental organisation.

Sokeel park, of liberty in north korea, a group that helps north koreans defect and adapt to life abroad, stresses that those who actually return are in a very small minority compared with the many stories of remarkable success.

There are so many young north koreans whove come here, have gone to university in south korea in the first generation of migration, started businesses, gone into all sorts of professions, and are sending money back home and helping others to defect, he said.

Still, mr park says defectors face a number of challenges, from isolation and loneliness and the lack of a community, to discrimination and prejudice, as well as feeling uneducated and unintelligent because of their differences with ordinary south koreans.

People tend to get into negative ruts, and frankly, depression and anxiety, he said.

Kim seong-min, a defector and democracy activist in seoul, notes that the bowibu has sharpened its tracking of defectors. the agents exert intense pressure on defectors to return, using both threats and incentives that are often delivered via family members still in north korea. some of those who had returned to north korea were deluded into expecting a better life, he said.

Park sang-hak, another defector turned activist, said some north koreans had returned after encountering legal problems. he pointed to an incident in july in which a defector, according to south korean officials, crawled underneath barbed wire and a drain on ganghwa island, before swimming more than 1km to north korea. the man, whose arrival in a north korean border city sparked fears of a coronavirus outbreak, was reportedly facing an investigation over sexual assault.

Mr park, of liberty in north korea, says that responsibility lies with the south korean government and civil society groups to improve the programmes for resettling defectors. he believes south koreans en masse could also do much more to be inclusive of north korean identity.

Some north koreans talk about it in terms of coming out because it is like being gay in a way if you dont think society is going to be welcoming then you just hide that part of your identity and talk past it if it ever comes up, he said.

*lee mi youngs name has been changed to protect her identity