Thursday, November 10, 2005

North Korean Defectors adjust to life in South

For North Korean defectors who arrive in the South, the transition from the world's most rigid communist state to one of its most competitive capitalist economies will be a challenge.

"Their biggest problem is finding employment," said An Hyo-deok of the quasi-governmental Association of Supporters for Defecting North Korean Residents. "They have learned about South Korea in China or Southeast Asia" — where popular Korean soap operas and films paint a glamorous picture of life — "and so have unrealistic expectations. They want to be professionals, but most end up working in manufacturing," he said.

Upon their arrival in South Korea, refugees are whisked away to what a government source called "a state-run education and training facility" in Gyeonggi province, outside Seoul.

Under tight security, their debriefing process began immediately with officials of the National Intelligence Service and the Unification and Defense Ministries. The intelligence service will be looking for spies among them, but a more prosaic reason for the interrogations is that a number of Chinese-Koreans may be masquerading as North Koreans in order to get a passport from the South.

Once the month long debriefing is complete, the defectors will be sent to "Hanawon," a government-run halfway house, where they will undergo two months of "capitalism education." Classes include language, etiquette, driving and computer skills.

After its completion, they are granted South Korean citizenship and are free to settle anywhere in the country, under police and local government protection. The need for protection is lessening, however.

"Many defectors do feel insecure here, but as most come from the working class, they have no need to," Mr. An said. "The only ones who really need protection are military and party-level defectors."

For example, "Lee Han-yong, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law who defected to the South, was killed by North Korean agents about seven years ago," he said.

Many defectors find that life in the South is no bed of roses. Their previous life experience is largely invalidated. Some, such as Kim Yong, enjoy success. He defected in 1991 and now runs a franchise of North Korean-style noodle restaurants, complete with branches in the United States.

But many defectors never make it. Some remain unemployed, others become criminals, and at least one tried to return North.

"They have no capital and no credit. They have to start at the bottom of the ladder, and they feel bitter," said Kongdan Oh, of Washington's Institute of Defense Analysis. "Northern life was without competition in many senses — except perhaps competition to flatter the party leaders and the [ruling] Kim family — so the severely competitive nature of the South frightens them," he said.

Yim Kyung-ho, dean of Good People World College, a Christian organization that assists North Koreans in the South, said those defectors who are successful often keep a low profile, because they do not want their family in the North to suffer if their status in the South becomes well-known.

Mr. An said in the past, defectors came for political reasons, but in recent years, most have been economic refugees.

Tim Peters, a U.S. missionary with Helping Hands Korea, said, "Whether suffering from political or religious persecution or sheer desperation from lack of food, the North Koreans qualify for refugee status."

The government pays 50 percent of defectors' wages for two years, as an incentive for employers to hire them — a hint that defectors are not highly valued employees. Under the new policy, cash incentives will be given to those who manage to hold down steady jobs.

The mass defection is something of an embarrassment for the South Korean government, which has, since the initiation of detente by former President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, taken steps to avoid antagonizing the North. The process was kept quiet, ostensibly at the request of Vietnam, but some analysts think it also was designed to avoid angering Pyongyang.

"I applaud them for doing the right thing, but my understanding is that the South's government was not entirely proactive in this drama," Mr. Peters said. "My information is that the Southeast Asian country saw this backlog of refugees who had arrived with the help of [nongovernmental organizations], and said to Seoul, 'Get them out or we will send them back to China.' "

Pyongyang reacted strongly, with its official newspaper calling Seoul's grants of asylum "premeditated abduction" and "terrorism in broad daylight."

In South Korea's liberal climate, even activists urging improvements in North Korean human rights have come under attack.

Norbert Volersen, a German activist, has been physically assaulted. An Internet radio station established by defectors to broadcast to the North has been intimidated into moving its office.

A Western diplomat who met with foreign reporters wondered whether anti-American incidents in the South in recent years could have been provoked by undercover North Korean agitators.

[Excerpted from an article by Andrew Salmon, Washington Times]

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