N. Korean Defectors Bewildered By the South

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 12, 2009

ANSEONG, South Korea -- To flee North Korea and arrive in the rich, wired, consuming culture of South Korea is to feel clueless, fearful and guilty.

Teenagers are particularly bewildered. As part of the newest wave in a decade-old flow of defectors from the North, they arrive stunted from malnutrition and struggling to read. At the movies for the first time, they panic when the lights go down, afraid someone might kidnap them. They find it incredible that money is stored in plastic credit cards. Pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers -- staples of South Korean teen cuisine -- give them indigestion. One gargled with liquid fabric softener, mistaking it for mouthwash.

In time, they wise up and their stomachs calm down. Their guilt, though, tends to fester.

"When I eat something that is really delicious, I can't help but feel guilty about my family back in North Korea," said Lee J.Y., who asked that her full name not be used because she was afraid that North Korean authorities would punish her family for her freedom. Now 20, Lee escaped five years ago from North Hamgyong province, where her little brother died of hunger and where she survived on cake made of pine-tree bark.

Defectors in the late 1990s were mostly young men without families. They could swim or sneak across the border into China. 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 -- for the private markets that have spread across North Korea. 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. About 15,000 defectors have settled in the South, with 4,000 arriving in the past two years.

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.

Trusting No One

"Everyone who defects has adjustment problems," said Ko Gyoung-bin, director general of a settlement center called Hanowan, a government-financed cluster of red-brick buildings perched in hill country about 70 miles south of Seoul.

All adult defectors are required to spend three months at Hanowan, 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 built three years ago to help the increasing number of newly arrived youngsters who are unfit for public schools. Many have been out of school for years and have difficulty with basic reading and math.

"All I learned in school in North Korea was that Kim Jong Il was the best leader and that North Korea was the best country," said Lee, who is in her final year at Hangyoreh and hopes to become an English teacher.

"Education in North Korea is useless for life in this country," said the school's principal, Gwak Jong-moon. "When you are too hungry, you don't go to learn and teachers don't go to teach. Many children have been hiding in China for years with no access to schools."


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