North Korean Defectors
Stories of North Korean defection to South Korea are making headlines in recent years. The brutal stories of defection, whether it be running from the guards at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or escaping capture in transit countries, every North Korean defector has impactful stories of their escape from the hermit kingdom. In 2018 alone, a total of 1,137 North Korean defectors entered South Korea. Eighty-five percent of these defectors were women. These North Korean women are especially vulnerable to human traffickers who aim to sell these women as brides. 

North Korean Defectors’ Arrival in South Korea

The stories of the defectors who succeed in escaping to South Korea do not quite end there. Many defectors who arrive in South Korea face economic, mental and cultural difficulties. While the South Korean government has programs and plans dedicated to helping these defectors, there is still room for improvement.

South Korea’s primary method of assistance includes screening and reeducating North Korean defectors in the Hanawon Resettlement Center. Hanawon’s primary purpose is to educate the defectors about living in capitalist South Korea. Hanawon’s education programs range from everyday activities, such as opening bank accounts or taking the subway, to more practical vocational training.

However, the limited education that the North Korean defectors had in North Korea presents a large knowledge gap in comparison to their South Korean counterparts. Many defectors also say that Hanawon’s programs are not adequate enough to remedy the psychological and physical traumas that many defectors experienced during their escapes. After 12 weeks at Hanawon, defectors can settle into South Korean society. Upon exiting Hanawon, the defectors receive a stipend of around 8 million won, or approximately $6,450 USD, to ease difficulties in resettlement.

Further Improvement Needed in the Resettlement Program

While South Korea is making valiant efforts to curb the challenges of defection, there is potential for improvement. For example, a defector who is a single mother will usually resort to short-term, part-time jobs to support her children.

Defectors face additional difficulties after moving to South Korea. Since Korea’s separation in 1953, both North and South Korea developed a radically different culture and government. For the North Korean defectors, South Korea’s democratic, capitalist society proves to be a great challenge to their resettlement.

The challenge of securing stable employment comes from a variety of factors. If a defector had limited education in North Korea, they are likely to have limited literacy. This not only makes securing employment challenging, but it also makes it harder for them to apply for additional financial aid to the South Korean government.

Discrimination Against North Korean Defectors

South Korean discrimination against defectors further exasperates this particular struggle of securing employment. Son Jung-Hun, a North Koran defector who Vice Media interviewed, shared his challenges when South Korean employers would not hire him after hearing his North Korean accent and seeing his small stature.

In 2019, the death of two North Korean defectors in South Korea made international news. Apartment management staff found Han Song Ok, a 42-year-old North Korean defector, and her 6-year-old son Kim Dong-Jin dead in their Seoul apartment. The coroner’s report suggested that both the mother and the child were dead for at least two months. The investigators found no food in their apartment and Han’s bank account was also completely empty. The coroner found determining the cause of death difficult, although many believe that it is likely they starved to death. Han’s acquaintances told the interviewer that Han had been applying for welfare benefits since the winter of 2018. However, because she could not provide proof of her divorce with her husband in China, the South Korean government continued to refuse her request. 

Clearly, discrimination against defectors is a large factor making it difficult for them to resettle in South Korea. More specifically, many North Korean defectors in South Korea suffer from the feeling of isolation and alienation. For the defectors who left their families in North Korea, the feeling of separation is immense.

The Guardian’s interview with Kim Ryon Hui, a North Korean defector who wishes to return to North Korea, shines a light on the feeling of alienation that many defectors feel in South Korea. Kim told the Guardian that “no matter how affluent you are if you can’t share that with your family, it would be meaningless.” She also added that South Korea considers North Korean defectors second-class citizens, reaffirming the idea of North Korean discrimination.

Poverty in South Korea of North Korean Defectors

Furthermore, North Koreans’ poverty in South Korea is a complicated issue that demands improvements. While organizations such as the Hanawon are assisting the North Korean defectors, it is still not enough. North Korean defectors desire, and need, further assistance and protection from the South Korean government. Considering the journey the North Korean defectors had to take to arrive in South Korea, improving the economic realities for these defectors should be a priority for the South Korean government.

– YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr