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More N. Korean Defectors Seek Refuge in S. Korea

As the total number of North Korean defectors who have entered South Korea has already surpassed ten thousand, the defectors issue is emerging as one of the key political and social tasks to contend with. Today, we’ll discuss in depth what the ever-increasing defectors mean for South Korea and how the country will have to deal with them. Here’s Prof. Lee Woo-young from University of North Korean Studies to explain.

About 1,000 Northern defectors on average have come to the South annually in recent years. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the number of those escaping North Korea continues to increase. There are countless refugees who have already fled from their communist homeland and currently stay in third countries, including China, and more and more such defectors are choosing to seek asylum in South Korea. That’s why the number of defectors entering the South keeps increasing. Statistics show that the number of North Korean defectors who reached South Korea surpassed 2,000 last year, but the pace isn’t that fast. The figure has been increasing only little by little.

In the 1960s through 1980s, defectors were received here with a hero’s welcome. But the situation changed in the mid-1990s when severe food shortage hit North Korea. The number of Northern defectors coming to South Korea has since been increasing, with 1,000 defectors on average taking refuge in the South annually since 2002. The total number of North Korean defectors who have resettled here in the South has now exceeded 10,000, 54 years after the Korean War ended in a ceasefire. This figure indicates the newcomers from the North have begun taking root in South Korean society as a significant minor group. And even more North Koreans are expected to risk their lives crossing the border in search of freedom. Prof. Lee has more.

In the past, most North Korean defectors escaped their home country for political purposes. Recently, however, defectors are said to have decided to flee from the North for economic reasons. North Korean society has seen structural problems since the 1990s. Outside the nation, the socialist bloc of Eastern Europe collapsed. Inside the nation, countless citizens starved to death due to disastrous floods. North Korea refers to the economic hardships in this period as the “arduous march.” During the miserable period, it was difficult for North Koreans even to survive, and a number of people chose to cross the Sino-North Korean border.

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a private human rights organization, conducted a survey on 1,300 North Korean defectors hiding out in China’s border area last December. The survey found that 95 percent of the refugees had fled from North Korea for economic reasons and that only 4 percent cited political persecutions. As the communist nation has pursued the policy of reform and openness in recent years, citizens in the reclusive society have been exposed to news about China’s remarkable growth and the increasing economic gap between North and South Korea. As a result, more and more North Koreans have decided to flee their homeland, not only to escape hunger but also to find better lives. So then, what routes have they chosen to reach their final destination?

Most escapees cross the Tumen River bordering China and get to Yenbien or other areas where their friends or relatives live. They stay there for a certain period of time, and some of them prefer to work, if possible. But they are regarded as illegal aliens. So, even if they are able to work, it is very hard for them to stay in China for long time. They can’t receive legal protection, and the Chinese authorities have been strengthening their crackdown on illegal workers. The defectors are always exposed to the risk of being repatriated to North Korea. Most of them attempt to make it to South Korea using northern routes in Mongolia or southern ones covering Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Considering its friendly ties with North Korea, China has been strict with the Northern refugees, forcibly repatriating them to its communist ally. As a result, more and more defectors hiding out in China are moving to Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Myanmar, on the way to South Korea. It is estimated that 50-to-100-thousand North Korean defectors are wandering in China and other third-world countries, including Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. How has North Korea dealt with the ever-increasing defectors?

There are so many defectors that the North Korean authorities haven’t severely punished them, if they escaped the country for economic reasons or stayed in other countries in a short period. However, harsh punishments are inflicted on those who escaped the North for political reasons, those who made contact with South Korean missionaries and those who have made repeated attempts to escape the country.

For humanitarian reasons, the Seoul government has accepted Northern defectors who have been hiding out in foreign countries. Other than South Korea, Japan, Europe and the United States are willing to allow the entry of the North Koreans who risked their lives to find better conditions. With the enactment of the North Korean Human Rights Act last year, the United States laid the legal groundwork for accepting the defectors. But it is still challenging for them to resettle in those countries, because there aren’t adequate support systems. Therefore, most defectors would rather come to South Korea. What is the Seoul government supposed to do to help them assimilate to this society? Here again is Prof. Lee.

The government has spent a huge amount of budget to arrange enough programs aimed at supporting the newcomers from the North. Of course, a change may be inevitable as time goes by, but I think the current state policy is acceptable. However, that won’t resolve all the problems related to the defectors issue. It is important to show more interest in lots of North Korean defectors in China. Most of them, especially young women, are suffering from dire human rights abuses because they are treated as illegal aliens. International attention should be paid to the human rights of the unfortunate defectors in third countries, as well as those of the people in North Korea.

Countless Northern defectors are staying in foreign countries, waiting for a chance to enter South Korea. Their legal status and human rights are emerging as a new international concern. The South Korean people should help their brothers and sisters from the North lead better and happier lives in their new home.

[Interview] Private Group Dedicated to Sharing Love with Northern Defectors

A special party has been held recently at the Hanbit Social Welfare Center, which has been dedicated to helping North Korean defectors find new lives here in South Korea. In the process of resettling here, many newcomers from the North feel that many South Koreans have given them warm support. As part of efforts to repay them for their love and kindness, some defectors gave a feast to senior citizens. They spent an entire night preparing food for the party.

The number of North Korean defectors coming to the South has surpassed 10,000. More and more defectors are choosing to start new lives here, but they aren’t given enough opportunities to actually meet with South Korean citizens in person. For South Koreans, the defectors are still strangers. It would be awkward if the North Koreans just visited them unexpectedly to say hello to them. These women defectors aren’t singers or dancers. They have never sung in front of other people in North Korea. But they are eager to let South Korean citizens know about North Korean culture. They have practiced singing and dancing only twice a month, so I’m wondering if they can perform well. Even if they make some mistakes, please give them a big hand. They hope to make friends with South Koreans.

Female defectors aren’t professional singers or dancers, but their faces radiated with happiness at the thought of entertaining other people. Their small effort can be greatly appreciated by others, and this made them feel immensely happy. Let’s listen to some defectors, Lee Yeon-hwa and Ma Soon-hee.

…We, defectors, have simply received benefits since we came to South Korea. We’ve always wanted to do something, especially for senior citizens. Meeting with the elderly people here, we felt like they were our own parents. We had a very good time today. We made rice cake all night, but it wasn’t laborious at all. So far, we’ve only received many things. From now on, we’ll serve other people in return, and live happily.

…For this volunteer work, I made mung-bean pancake. Many people liked the dish very much. I was worried if they didn’t like it, but they wanted even more. I was very happy, because I was able to do something for senior citizens after coming to South Korea. Now I feel proud myself, as a North Korean defector.

A campaign of sharing love with Northern defectors is one of the programs managed by ‘Saejowi,’ a short phrase meaning, “group for a new and unified nation” in Korean. The private organization was founded in 1988 under the slogan of “Let’s prepare for unification.” The group has since carried out various support activities for the North Korean newcomers. The support programs include tour packages for uniting defectors with homesick people who left their North Korean homes during the Korean War, a new institute for assisting the defectors adjust to South Korean society and free medical checkups for the newcomers. Recently, the group has organized a gathering of South and North Korea housewives and hobby classes for elderly defectors. Shin Mi-nyeo, the group’s vice president, has been in charge of managing all the programs. She says that it’s rewarding to see the defectors open their minds and gradually adapt to this society through those programs. Shin has more.

When North Korean defectors arrive in South Korea, they receive basic training at Hanawon, a rehabilitation center under the Unification Ministry. That’s it. There are no additional training programs. I would say that private groups, like Saejowi, have provided them with necessary information when they actually start new lives after completing the Hanawon program. The groups have mainly helped the newcomers learn how to live in this capitalistic society as new South Korean citizens. I’ve always told them to think of Saejowi as their parents’ home. They thank us for everything we provide them and often visit us, as if we were their own parents. I believe we’ve been helpful to them.

Ms. Shin is one of the founding members of Saejowi. Her father left his home in Gilju, North Korea’s Hamgyeong Province, during the Korean War. During her childhood, Shin heard many things about her father’s lost home and sympathized with his homesickness. She naturally became interested in unification issues and North Korean defectors. As an increasing number of North Koreans are escaping their home country to seek refuge in the South, Shin has been pondering what the defectors need the most and how to resolve this problem. Here again is Ms. Shin.

There are two serious problems. Most defectors find it difficult to land a job, and nearly 90 percent of the defectors are suffering from diseases. They need to get proper treatment before it’s too late. I hope that the defectors will shake off inferiority complex and realize how precious their new lives are. I also hope they will continue to work hard, with right goals in life.

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