The lucky escapees from famine and the Stalinist dictatorship of North Korean leader Kim Jung-Il face a living nightmare even when they reach prosperous and democratic South Korea, where food and free will are unrestricted.
Haunted by survivor's guilt, traumatized and emaciated, North Korean refugees arrive in the capital Seoul after a long ordeal of hiding, waiting and debriefing. They hope for a job and new life but they find it hard to shut off the memories of starvation and despair.
Nearly all of them succumb to depression, and many attempt to commit suicide. "Systematically, all of them suffer from psychosomatic pain -- in the head, in the back and chest," says Gilduin Blanchard, representative of the international non-governmental organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Seoul. "Men drink, women often refuse to go out for months -- so big is their fear. The rate of suicidal attempts is very high."
Still, those who manage to escape are the strongest, social workers say. In the dead of winter, they sprint across the frozen Tumen river bordering China and spend days in hiding while the Christian underground railroad and human rights activists arrange their escape route. Over the years of a protracted North Korean famine, which started in the early 1990s, those activists have set up a chain of safe houses and orphanages to smuggle North Koreans into China.
The refugees imagine that once in China, their sufferings are over. "They believe they can find food and work there," says Blanchard. But the reality is in fact, very different. "They have no legal status inside the Chinese border, which means they have to hide in constant fear from being repatriated."
Previously, Chinese authorities turned a blind eye to what they still call economic migrants, who regularly cross the border to barter for food, stay with relatives, or just blend in with the vast ethnic Korean population along the Chinese side of the frontier.
[Excerpted from an article by Antoaneta Bezlova, Inter Press Service News Agency]