Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Changing face of North Korean refugees

In the late 1990’s, defectors from North Korea were mostly young men without families. In recent years, though, about 80 percent of defectors have been middle-aged women, many with children in tow. Most of these women were traders -- and in many cases, cross-border smugglers. Often, they bribed their way across the border.

They filter into South Korea at the rate of about 35 a week, usually after months or years in China and an arduous detour through Vietnam, Burma or Thailand. Seoul does not encourage North Koreans to defect. But once they arrive, the South Korean government quietly grants them citizenship, gives them an apartment and tries to teach them how not to sink in an education-obsessed capitalist culture.

All adult defectors who arrive in South Korea from the North are required to spend three months at Hanowan, a government-financed operation about 70 miles south of Seoul, where they receive psychiatric counseling, learn their rights under South Korean law, take driving lessons and go on field trips to department stores, banks and subways. Teenage defectors spend two months to two years at nearby Hangyoreh Middle-High School, a remedial boarding school.

The government's Ministry of Unification runs Hanowan and Hangyoreh, staffing them with psychologists, career counselors, medical staff and teachers who have a mix of specialties. In interviews, they described the defectors, the young and the middle-aged, as highly motivated but difficult to engage. But helping defectors is rarely easy, the staff says, for they trust no one.

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