A U.N. human rights report describes North Korea as a place where ordinary people "live in fear and are pressed to inform on each other. The state practices extensive surveillance of its inhabitants. . . . Authorities have bred a culture of pervasive mistrust."
"North Koreans are very paranoid," says Kim Heekyung, a clinical psychologist at Hanowan who supervises group therapy for North Korean defectors who finally make it to South Korea.When defectors arrive at Hanowan, they whisper. They are reluctant to disclose their names or dates of birth. They question the motives of people who want to help them.
A majority of defectors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a survey released in March by the Washington-based Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Conducted among 1,300 defectors in China, the survey found that one in 10 had been confined in political detention camps, about a third had relatives who died of hunger and half owed money to brokers for assistance in escaping North Korea. The findings echo what mental health professionals have learned at Hanowan and the Hangyoreh school.
"Paranoia in North Korea helped people survive, but here in South Korea, it is an obstacle to assimilation," Kim said. "Many defectors are scared to do anything."
The principal of a school for North Korean defectors says they come to school, with fears that often overwhelm their ability to concentrate: They are afraid that someone will harm them, that someone will punish their family in North Korea, that they will fail in South Korea.