Driven to desperation by family troubles or business failures, six South Korean men, and one woman, risked their lives by jumping into the freezing waters between China and North Korea, or trekking across ice, to reach the secretive state where they believed they could start again.
This week, the repatriation to Seoul of six men, aged between 27 and 67, who defected to North Korea between 2009 to 2012, has shone a spotlight on a trickle of defectors who swum against the current.
The men had all suffered personal hardships, from family fall-outs to bankruptcy, South Korea's news agency Yonhap reported. Many had openly praised the Kim regime, and talked about the potential for a life there on social media.
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But there was no heroes' welcome. All were held in detention centres in the pariah state, some for more than three years.
The body of the wife of one of the defectors was returned with the men.
The widower told police when he arrived across the border that he had strangled her in a failed suicide pact, according to Yonhap.
But South Korea's Unification Ministry said that Pyongyang was convinced it was plain murder.
The men have been arrested again by South Korean authorities, under national security laws.
Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency said the men "candidly admitted and repented their crime" of illegal entry.
Jasper Kim, founder of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group, told CNN the news had set South Korean media a-blaze.
"The people who left appear to have been part of the have-nots in the economy," he said. "They definitely weren't greeted with leis and ukuleles playing. What they expected and what they got were vastly different things.
"It shows you maybe the people that went there weren't your typical South Korean citizens. I think it was a desperate, last-ditch move."
South Korea’s National Security Law makes it illegal for South Korean nationals to make contact with North Korea or enter the territory, because of security concerns, and a similar law applies in the North.
Earlier this year, a man trying to defect to North Korea was shot and killed after troops fired “hundreds” of rounds as he attempted to swim across the border.
Nam Yong-Ho, a 47-year-old South Korean man, is believed to have been attempting to seek political asylum.