Friday, January 30, 2009

When North Korean defectors finally reach South Korea

Nothing prepares North Koreans for the impact of Seoul, the hypercompetitive, prosperous, fast-paced life, a world more complex and foreign than any the refugees had encountered.

A North Korean who had been living in Seoul for two years summed up the culture shock: "The difference between North and South is like jumping ahead a century."

After being debriefed to make sure they're not spies, defectors are sent to Hanawon, a high-security facility south of Seoul, where for two months they receive mandatory instruction in South Korean culture and practical matters such as taking the subway and opening a bank account. They're granted South Korean citizenship, paid a settlement bonus of roughly $5,000, with small monthly installments to follow, and provided a housing allowance and employment incentives.

In the mid-1990s the few dozen defectors arriving each year were elite members of the military or Communist Party from Pyongyang who brought valuable intelligence. With rare exceptions, today's defectors are farm laborers, factory workers, and low-level soldiers and clerks from impoverished regions. What they bring mostly are problems. Compared with the average South Korean, they are markedly less educated and skilled. Having experienced years of malnutrition and the pain of seeing family members die of starvation, many suffer from serious physical and mental illnesses.

Because of these handicaps, says Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, the defector population is in danger of "becoming a permanent underclass." Their life in the South is immeasurably richer and freer, but they crave a sense of belonging. "Most South Koreans are indifferent to their plight," Lankov said. "And to not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence."

[Excerpt of an article by Tom O'Neill, National Geographic]

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