The word ‘defector’ is a sensitive one. How difficult does a country have to be to get out of before those who leave can be considered defectors? Does a defector only mean someone who left for political reasons, or do economic migrants count too? Does defection necessarily imply a prior allegiance to the counrty that one is leaving?

When discussing North Korea, people can get very touchy about the use of ‘defectors’ vs. ‘refugees’. Most defectors use the word ‘defectors’ themselves, but others consider that ‘refugees’ is a more neutral term, in light of the fact that most people who leave the DPRK are getting out for economic rather than political reasons.

A similar phenomenon can be found in the distinction between ‘expats’ and ‘immigrants’. specifically, white people are expats, whereas all of the others are mere immigrants.

It even has a name: emotive conjugation. To take Bertrand Russell’s famous examples:

I am firm, You are obstinate, He is a pig-headed fool.

I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.

The issue came up today in a long and moderately interesting piece about a Russian guy who ran a shady bank in Moscow, got into trouble, and left the country, before proceeding to milk the CIA for all he could get in return for his FSB secrets. Td;dr: he’s pissed off because the witness protection programme sent him to Portland, which he considers to be a dump.

Obviously, the most charitable of observers would have great difficulty stretching the definition of ‘refugee’ to fit such a person. He, on the other hand, refers to himself as a defector throughout, something with which the article is entirely happy to go along with.

And I’m not saying that this is necessarily the incorrect word. It is certainly more diplomatic than any of the other terms that could possibly be applied to someone who sells state secrets to the opposition. On the other hand, it also raises a good many questions about how we should define other people who have found themselves in similar situations. Assange? Snowden? Are they defectors? Would they consider themselves to be defectors? If not, then what? How about someone like Kim Philby? You never see him described as a defector in the history books, though Anatoly Golitsyn invariably is. How about all the London Somalis being leaned on by the secret services to provide information about Islamism? If they agree to do it, does that make them defectors?

If it comes to it, I’ve gone abroad in the past as a result of having got in hot water at home. Am I a defector? Because if so then that’s pretty cool.

When it comes down to it, however, a basic flow-chart can be drawn up:


Though even there North Korea is an exception, since everyone who leaves is considered a defector, regardless of VIP status.

However, the point that I’m trying to make here is not ‘Oh we’re all such hypocrites and it’s terrible, let’s all check our privileges’. It’s not just that we don’t speak about these things in an objective manner, it’s that we can’t. Our language gives us no words that are not value-tinged. Which is, of course, part of the reason that the distinctions between the categories are so sensitive and so liable to cause offense.

Contrast this with giving directions. If you are giving someone directions, you can choose to use either objective terms (North, South) or subjective ones (left, right) and whichever you choose, everyone will still know what you’re talking about (even if they’re European and don’t have the faintest clue what direction you’re thinking of when you say ‘three blocks East’).

When you’re talking about refugees and defectors, however, this option is not available. You just have to use the vocabulary that you have, and hope that the person at the other end shares the same definition as you do.


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