Saturday, July 28, 2007

North Korea defectors' capitalist dreams wilt in South

Most North Korean defectors have been bystanders to the South's economic boom, overwhelmed by their new environment, facing employers who see them as under qualified for a cutthroat labor market and criminals who target them as easy prey.

The first of the more than 10,000 North Koreans who defected to the South came in a trickle, often members of the hermit-state's elite with the skills to find jobs in a land that celebrated their arrival.

Nowadays, they are more likely to be women laborers and farmers from North Hamkyong province, a rocky land bordering China known for its prison camps and as an economic backwater in an already impoverished country.

They started arriving en masse in the mid to late 1990s, fleeing a famine that experts say may have killed about 10 percent of the 22 million population.

With few skills and speaking Korean with an unmistakable accent, they rarely fit in.

Even though South Korea trains defectors to adjust to their new lives, more than half wind up unemployed and those who do find work often earn only a pittance, according to a survey from Seoul National University.

About one in four defectors has fallen victim to crime in the South, most often defrauded of their welfare stipends by earlier defectors, a government study earlier this year said.

Defectors say they often feel like second-class citizens in a country where many see them as a burden on the welfare system.

Yet, despite the prejudice, a few defectors say they have found a receptive audience by selling the idea of a shared Korean identity which transcends their heavily armed border.

Defector Lim Yoo-kyung, 20, jumped on that bandwagon with her accordion. Lim is a member of the Tallae Music Band, a group of young female defectors who play traditional Korean tunes virtually unknown to young South Koreans who are fed a diet of hip hop.


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