N. Korean Defectors Bewildered By the South

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."

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?' "

She had learned at Hanowan how to use a computer, manage money and avoid swindlers who prey on the ignorance of newcomers from the North. But she struggled to speak Korean as it is spoken in the South, with a slang that is infused with hundreds of words borrowed from American English. "Language was a real problem," she said. "Sometimes I would insult people without intending to do so."

With the help of a government scholarship, she received a degree in hotel management from Sejong University in Seoul and found a steady job. But she says her life is lonely. She has not been on a date since arriving in South Korea.

She is still paying off the brokers who helped her cross the Tumen River into China and on through Burma and Thailand to Seoul. (Brokers charge $1,500 to $6,000 to lead defectors to South Korea, according to staff at Hanowan.)

She learned in 2004 that her younger sister got in trouble with North Korean police for talking on a cellphone to relatives in China. Through those relatives, her family begged her to help by sending home $1,500 every two months. By scrimping, she said, she managed to send the money until 2007.

Then she told her family not to contact her for at least three years. "I had to cut them off so I could live here," she said. "I feel so guilty."

She has found some peace of mind by doing volunteer work. But she suspects that South Koreans look down on her. She sometimes tells strangers she is Chinese.

Illnesses and Debt

Two-thirds of the defectors in South Korea have come from one mountainous province in the northeast of North Korea, just across the Tumen River from China. North Hamgyong province endured the worst of the famine that in the mid-1990s killed perhaps a million North Koreans.

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.

Yet defectors flee into China for reasons that are largely economic, according to surveys. Few of them have college degrees, and fewer still are outspoken about politics. "These people are practical, not political, defectors," said Ko, director general at Hanowan.

Defectors arrive at Hanowan 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, according to the staff at Hanowan. Fistfights are common among defectors who feel that they were "sold out" during their travels.

When sizable numbers of defectors first began arriving in South Korea in the late 1990s, the South Korean government often failed to find them suitable jobs with understanding employers.

"When I said I was from North Korea, I was flatly rejected," said Kim Kyung-il, who spent two months at Hanowan in 2001 and now runs his own human rights organization. "Bosses thought that hiring me would get them in trouble."

Career counselors at Hanowan say they have gotten better at linking defectors with suitable jobs. Money helps. The government has begun paying employers as much as $4,500 over three years if they hire a defector. Government payments to defectors are often conditioned on performance, increasing over time, if they get good at their jobs.

Weighed Down by Fear

At the Hangyoreh school, none of the defectors arrives with a clear idea of what career to pursue, according to Gwak, the principal.

He said they come to school, instead, 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.

"These things really weigh them down," Gwak said. "When they start to make progress, they feel guilty. One hundred percent of the time, when you throw a birthday party for these young people, they cry for the family they left behind."

Their long-term ambitions, he said, are easy to explain: "They want to eat warm rice with their families again."

Special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report.

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