ANSAN, South Korea — Few North Koreans have sought South Korean citizenship as long and as doggedly as Kim Seok-cheol.
Since a famine hit their totalitarian homeland in the mid-1990s, more than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea, most of them fleeing through China. Mr. Kim, 52, fled North Korea much earlier — in 1984 — and even helped other North Koreans trapped in China get safe passage to South Korea, lending them money and helping them find smugglers who could take them.
But Mr. Kim’s case is noteworthy because he has been in legal limbo for decades, ever since fleeing to China at age 19 and adopting fake Chinese citizenship papers that he said he used, along with bribes, to avoid being deported back to North Korea.
Although he has lived in China for most of the last three decades and married an ethnic Korean woman there, Mr. Kim says he never felt at home or safe there and has longed to defect to South Korea.
By law, South Korea must accept all defectors from North Korea as its own citizens because its Constitution defines the entire Korean Peninsula as its territory. But it has spurned Mr. Kim’s repeated appeals for asylum, considering him not a North Korean defector but a Chinese citizen.
“I don’t consider myself a Chinese,” Mr. Kim said in an interview. “I can’t go back to North Korea. I am not accepted in South Korea. Then what am I?”
It’s the same question asked by North Koreans who gained Chinese citizenship through official channels to avoid repatriation and punishment in their native country but wished to resettle in South Korea. In most cases, the South does not accept them as North Korean defectors, a practice Mr. Kim has been challenging for more than a decade.
Mr. Kim was 2 years old in 1967 when his father, a teacher, decided to flee the country. His father, his eldest brother and a sister crossed the border into China. But he, his mother and another brother were caught at a police checkpoint and returned to their hometown, Sariwon, in southwestern North Korea.
His mother was held in jail for months. At school, children called Mr. Kim and his brother sons of a “betrayer.”
In 1981, Mr. Kim’s mother moved her family to Hoeryong on the northern border with China. Three years later, his family fled across the border and tracked down Mr. Kim’s father in Yanbian, an autonomous region of ethnic Koreans in northeastern China.
The father had remarried in China, but he bribed the Chinese police to create fake Chinese identification documents for his family so they wouldn’t be returned to the North, the father said in a deposition to South Korean lawyers last year.
“I never felt I truly belonged in China,” Mr. Kim said. “Chinese was still a foreign language to me. And I had to give gifts, like expensive bottles of liquor, to officials who could cause trouble for me by exposing that I was a North Korean.”
But traveling to South Korea was impossible; China and South Korea did not establish diplomatic ties until 1992. By 1997, however, Mr. Kim began hearing that North Koreans were fleeing hunger and political persecution and that South Korea was accepting them as refugees.
CreditJean Chung for The New York Times
In 1998, he used $13,000 in savings to bribe a South Korean to make him a business partner so he could get a South Korean visa. Once in South Korea, Mr. Kim told the businessman he was actually a North Korean and wanted to defect. Fearful that his bribetaking might be exposed, the businessman warned that asylum-seekers in South Korea went through long debriefings, including torture.
So Mr. Kim returned to China.
But between 2002 and 2015, he traveled to South Korea with his Chinese passport and turned himself in to the authorities in South Korea three times, asking to be recognized as a North Korean defector. Each time, they rejected Mr. Kim.
“They said a North Korean defector didn’t arrive with a legitimate Chinese passport as I did,” he said.
Thinking that the South Korean authorities would accept him if he arrived the way most North Korean defectors did, he joined North Koreans smuggled from China to Thailand in 2009. But South Korean officials screening asylum-seekers in a refugee center in Bangkok again turned him away.
The Unification Ministry of South Korea maintains that those who have acquired Chinese citizenship cannot be accepted as North Korean defectors.
Mr. Kim had almost given up his South Korean dream by 2015, when a potential breakthrough came from an unexpected quarter.
Uriminzokkiri, a North Korean government-run website, carried an article attacking Jung Gwang-il, a North Korean defector who leads No Chain, a North Korean human rights activist group in Seoul. The article said Mr. Jung was enlisted as a South Korean spy by “a certain Kim who left the North in 1984 in an attempt to flee to the South.”
Although the article didn’t give the full name of the Kim, both Mr. Kim and Mr. Jung said it was clear whom North Korea was referring to; Mr. Jung said he met a purported South Korean agent Mr. Kim introduced to him in China in 1998, and later had to spend three years in a North Korean labor camp.
Many North Koreans desperate to survive the famine were smuggling antiques and even drugs to China to raise cash and buy food. Mr. Jung said the South Korean asked him and other North Koreans to smuggle out North Korean government documents after they returned home. One of the North Koreans informed the North Korean secret police, he said.
South Korean intelligence agencies do not officially acknowledge these operations in China.
Encouraged by the North’s report, Mr. Kim has lodged another appeal for South Korean citizenship. His lawyer, Jang Kyung-uk, said that North Korea’s own news report proved Mr. Kim’s identity as a defector and that his Chinese citizenship should be irrelevant in deciding his case because it was fake.
Mr. Kim was allowed to visit South Korea in 2014 on a special visa to look after his wife, who had a stroke while in the country on a work visa.
While his case is pending, Mr. Kim lives in Ansan, a city south of Seoul, on a temporary visa. His son, a Chinese citizen, is also in South Korea on a work visa.
Mr. Kim hangs around on what is known as Multicultural Street in Ansan, an enclave of ethnic Koreans from Yanbian who came to South Korea on work visas. Store signs are in both Chinese and Korean. People bargain in Korean and Chinese. The street feels like a Yanbian downtown, Mr. Kim said.
“The only difference is that I feel I belong here more than in Yanbian,” he said.