Monday, August 24, 2009

North Korean refugees arrive with illness and debt

Two-thirds of North Korean defectors in South Korea have come from one mountainous province in the northeast of North Korea, just across the Tumen River from China. Since the 1960s, the province has been a kind of holding pen for forcibly relocated citizens deemed to be wavering in their loyalty to the government.

North Hamgyong province endured the worst of the famine that in the mid-1990s killed at least a million North Koreans. North Koreans flee into China for reasons that are largely economic. Few of them have college degrees, and fewer still are outspoken about politics.

When these North Korean refugees arrive in South Korea, it is with a cluster of medical and stress-related problems, including hepatitis B and drug-resistant tuberculosis. Many women have chronic gynecological infections.

Long journeys in the sometimes abusive care of broker-guides leave many defectors with anger that they have trouble controlling. Mothers, obsessed with debts owed to brokers, sometimes take out their frustrations on their children. Fistfights are common among defectors who feel that they were "sold out" during their travels.

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