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North Korean Defectors: Resettlement in South Korea

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Starting Over in South Korea

North Koreans defect for different reasons. Some are hungry people searching for food. Others are people yearning for freedom. Whatever their motivation is, it is a big price to pay.
The DMZ, or the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is impossible to cross without getting shot by the military. The only way out is through China. A narrow river is the only thing that separates them from China. Once the defectors have safely made across the border, it would usually take many long harrowing months, if not years, to find their way to Seoul. 
China considers refugees as illegal migrants and actively search for them. Those who are found are repatriated to North Korea where serious punishment awaits them. Staying in China is dangerous. Refugees are always on the run. 
Going to South Korea is even more dangerous. Some North Korean defectors have lost their lives in their attempt to seek asylum. Some have succeeded but at the expense of their family. Refugees who have come to Seoul thought that it would be the start of a happy life, but they would soon realize that their ordeal is not yet over.
How are North Koreans defectors adjusting to their new lives? Based on the studies and interviews of many defectors, these are some of the issues many North Koreans face in South Korea.

Many Defectors Still Fear for Their Safety

Many North Koreans choose to have their names changed after arriving in the South. To them, a new name signifies a new life. However, some change their name for a different reason - they want to keep their identity a secret. They do not wish to endanger the lives of loved ones who have been left behind in North Korea.[22]
Defectors, particularly the defector-activists, are being watched by the North Korean government.[23] The regime challenges the defectors' testimonies and spreads propaganda videos against them. Their safety cannot be guaranteed, even in South Korea. Jang Jin-Sung, a former North Korean propagandist who has joined the South Korean intelligence, is still being protected by government bodyguards. He is one of the most vocal critics of the regime.[3]
Jang Jin-sung
Credit: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/fG-HmxLI0WU/hqdefault.jpg

Jang Jin-sung is one of the late Kim Jong-il's favorite poets. He escaped to South Korea after losing a forbidden book he took from the North Korean government.

Going Back to China is Dangerous

North Koreans who have sought asylum in South Korea automatically becomes South Korean citizens. However, even with their new citizenship, it is dangerous for them to go back to China. Those who go back risk being kidnapped and returned to North Korea.[22][23] In her latest interview with Time, North Korean advocate Hyeonseo Lee shares how she hid in a bathroom at Beijing airport, fearing for her safety. She had just given a talk about her experiences in China.[4] She is the only defector who has publicly spoken about North Koreans' plight in China.

Hyeonseo Lee on Ted
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Escape_from_North_Korea.jpg

Hyeonseo Lee giving a talk on TED. The video gained millions of views on Youtube.

Refugees Suffer From Low Self-Esteem

The height of an average North Korean man is 5' 5",[7] which is much smaller than the average South Korean man. For this reason, many North Koreans feel insecure about their appearance. Kim Hyuck, a young man who came to South Korea in 2001, shares about his worries of not finding a girlfriend for being too short.[24]

Kim Jong Il with Dmitry Medvedev
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dmitry_Medvedev_and_Kim_Jong-il_2011-2.jpeg
Kim Jong Il wore shoes with high heels and a six or seven-cm inner platform.[25]

North Koreans Face Prejudice and Discrimination

Having been apart for decades has created a huge gap between North and South Korea. Many North Koreans who arrive in South Korea feel alienated.[4] They are viewed as country bumpkins by their South Korean peers.[10] They wonder how they can have the same blood, yet be so different. Due to the negative stereotypes associated with North Koreans, defectors are widely discriminated against.[8][14] Many defectors feel embarrassed about their origins and try to hide their North Korean accent.[8][23]

South Korea at Night
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:View_from_N_Seoul_Tower_at_night.jpg

Defectors face prejudice and discrimination in South Korean society.

North Koreans Struggle in School

In North Korea, education is substandard.[6] Schools have focused more on teaching propaganda. Most refugees are from impoverished families and have not finished school. When they arrive in South Korea, many fall behind in class. They struggle to understand South Korean textbooks, which contain several English terms. Aside from lagging academically, they also face bullying[8] and isolation.[9] The government has tried to help young defectors by offering free tuition fee, housing, and stipends,[23] but the help is not enough.[6][9] Many North Korean students cannot take the highly-competitive environment and are dropping out of school.[9][10]
On a positive note, 67.8% of teenage defectors express satisfaction in South Korean education.[14] Many youngsters are inquisitive and eager to learn. 
North Korean Children
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Children_of_North_Korea.JPG

North Korean youngsters struggle academically.

High Unemployment Rate for North Korean Defectors

A report in 2015 shows that the unemployment rate among North Korean defectors has dropped from 12.1% in 2011 to 4.8%. Although the figure has fallen sharply, the rate is still relatively higher than South Korean unemployment.[5]
Defectors also face many difficulties at work due to language barrier, their inability to use a computer, and cultural differences.[6] Many defectors lack skills that are useful in South Korea.[15][16][24] Their inability to get a decent job is a big problem since many defectors need to pay off debts they owe to escape brokers.[17] As a result, some turn to illegal businesses like drug dealing and prostitution.[17]
Many refugees are dissatisfied with their jobs. Kim Song-il, who defected in 2001, shares that he is used to giving orders in North Korea as a former military officer. Now, he has to take orders from his employer. He finds this difficult.[15]
North Korean Workers
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:North_Korea-Pyongyang_Embroidery_Institute-01.jpg

Defectors face many difficulties at work.

Many Defectors are Unhappy

According to a 2014 survey, 67.6% of North Korean defectors are dissatisfied with their life in the South.[14] This is attributed to the widespread discrimination against refugees and their low status in South Korean society. Another report shows that an estimated 20% of North Korean refugees has suicidal thoughts.[1] Some suffer from mental illnesses like PTSD.[1] In 2015, statistics reveal that 14% of deaths among defectors are due to suicide.[15]

Many Defectors Tend to Exaggerate Their Stories

Shin Dong Hyuk, a high-profile ex-North Korean prisoner who was dubbed as the "strongest single voice,"[11] has admitted to some inaccuracies in his original testimony.[12] For this, he has received criticism and many defectors who have been truthful risk losing their credibility.[13]
Jiyoung Song, an assistant professor of political science, has been interviewing North Korean defectors for years. According to her, defectors are paid based on the quality of their accounts and many tend to exaggerate their stories. Defectors reveal that fame has pressured them to produce shocking stories.[2] Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that they have been through some tragedy.
In an interview with Huffington Post, Shin Dong Hyuk explains that there are some things that are hard to share. He regrets holding back some information. He says that despite the inaccuracies, his story is true. His scars bear witness to the sufferings he had been through.[12]
Shin Dong-hyuk
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shin_Dong-Hyuk.jpg

Shin Dong Hyuk is the only person who has escaped from the notorious Camp 14, a total control zone. He bears many scars and burns on his body from torture he received while imprisoned.

Double Defection

A minority of defectors want to go back to their homeland. Son Jung-hun, a former Pyongyang elite, is one of them. He says defectors are mistreated in South Korea.[17] Most are at the bottom of South Korean society, and many find it difficult.[15] Kim Ryen-hi, a dressmaker from North Korea, misses her family and regrets going to South Korea. She says she wishes to be with her family in North Korea even if she dies from hunger.[20]
According to the Unification Ministry, there is a total of 13 double defectors,[17] although the real number is thought to be higher.[18][19]
Helping a defector return to North Korea is illegal by South Korean law.[20] Defectors who have made it back to the North are treated as celebrities. They are used for propaganda to dissuade North Koreans from defecting.[21] However, this fame is just short-lived and they would later face serious charges.[19]
Many defectors have expressed concern over double defectors' possibly passing their information to the North Korean regime.[19]

Final Words

Life in a wealthy nation such as South Korea is not always rainbows and butterflies. South Koreans are highly competitive and they aim to excel in every aspect of life. Many defectors struggle to fit in. They are so used to the simple life back in North Korea. It would take some time for them to adjust to their new life. 
North Korean defectors have been through a lot of sufferings before getting to South Korea. One would think that resettlement would not be difficult for them. Sadly, that is not the case. Many South Koreans feel no connection to the North and are indifferent to the defectors.[14] It is important to raise awareness to help defectors integrate into South Korean society.
© Rainy Kua 2016


Jun 7, 2016 8:13pm
Great article! Indeed, it is important to spread awareness about the plight of North Korean refugees. I cannot help but recall the book, In Order to Live, written by North Korean defector Park Yeon-Mi,wherein she narrated how she struggled to keep up with her new life in South Korea. It's amazing how she can turn around her situation and was able to enter a reputable university in Seoul.
Jun 7, 2016 9:54pm

That is why I love reading memoirs of North Korean defectors. They have been through hell and how they managed to survive is beyond me. They are really inspiring. It is sad that after risking their lives to enter South Korea, many North Koreans still have to face so many issues. Even defectors who came to South Korea while they were still a baby are not safe from discrimination.
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  1. "South Korea: Defectors from North struggle with debt." BBC News. 6/06/2016 <Web >
  2. "Why do North Korean defector testimonies so often fall apart?." The Guardian. 6/06/2016 <Web >
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  7. "List of average human height worldwide." Wikipedia. 6/06/2016 <Web >
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  15. "Korea's hidden problem: Suicidal defectors." BBC News. 6/06/2016 <Web >
  16. "The real reason North Korea refugees – not defectors – struggle." NK News. 6/06/2016 <Web >
  17. "The defector who wants to go back to North Korea." The Guardian. 6/06/2016 <Web >
  18. "North Korean Defectors." Wikipedia. 6/06/2016 <Web >
  19. "The North Korean defectors who want to return home." BBC News. 6/06/2016 <Web >
  20. "A North Korean Defector’s Regret." The New York Times. 6/06/2016 <Web >
  21. "Why have North Korean defections dropped?." The Guardian. 6/06/2016 <Web >
  22. Hyeonseo Lee The Girl with Seven Names. London: William Collins, 2015.
  23. Park Yeonmi In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom. London: Penguin Press, 2015.
  24. Barbara Demick Nothing to Envy. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010.
  25. Jang Jin Sung Dear Leader. London: Ebury Publishing, 2014.

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