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N. Korean Defectors Bewildered By the South
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.
"Their drive to survive is beyond our imagination," said Chun Junghee, head nurse at Hanowan.
But helping defectors is rarely easy, the staff said, for they trust no one.
Paranoia No Longer Helps
"People from North Korea are very paranoid," said Kim Heekyung, a clinical psychologist at Hanowan who supervises group therapy for defectors.
Paranoia, she added, is a rational response to reality in North Korea.
A new 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."
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. They say South Koreans look down on them. On field trips from Hanowan to get their first checking accounts, they find bank tellers to be terrifying.
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."
'I Feel So Guilty'
Chol Y.H., a defector from Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, completed her course at Hanowan in 2002 and moved into a new, government-provided, one-bedroom apartment in Seoul. She was then 24, with no relatives or friends in the South.
"When I walked into my apartment, I smelled the freshness of a new carpet, and somehow I felt so utterly alone," said Chol, who asked that her full name not be used to protect her family in North Korea. "I spent a lot of time alone in that apartment, drinking too much and thinking to myself, 'How can I make it?' "