N. Korean defectors find South a 'heaven'

A minute's walk across a frozen river one winter's night in 1997 changed North Korean Lee Hyeon Seo's life forever.

Ms Lee, 34, escaped from the repression and hunger in Hyesan, across the Yalu river from China, but spent the next decade living in fear. She hid her identify to avoid being caught and repatriated to North Korea where she would likely be punished and tortured for leaving.

In January 2008, Ms Lee arrived in South Korea - the dream destination of all defectors like her, the "heaven" as opposed to the "hell" in the oppressive North.

But like other defectors before her, she found it more challenging than expected to adjust to life in the capitalist, technologically advanced South.

"There was a huge gap between North and South Koreans in many ways," Ms Lee tells The Straits Times via e-mail. "Although we look similar, on the inside, we've changed a lot due to more than 60 years of division. Our cultures, lifestyles and even our languages have become different."

She is among the 27,518 North Koreans (as of last year) who have successfully fled "Kim's paradise" ruled by Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un and his ancestors before him, to resettle in the South.

She is also one of four defectors releasing books this summer, detailing, in English, their escape from North Korea.

Three of them are women, a figure representative of the gender ratio of North Koreans living in the South, of whom about 70 per cent are female. While initially more men escaped, the number of women surpassed them from 2002 onwards. More than 60 per cent live in the South Korean capital Seoul.

Crossing over to South Korea is often not the end of the journey for defectors but the beginning of new difficulties and uncertainties as they grapple with an alien environment, try to make friends, adapt to language differences and avoid being caught by North Korean spies.

"There are a lot of new words in South Korea regarding technology or borrowed from English that North Koreans have never heard before. Sometimes we feel like even though we share the same mother tongue, we are speaking different languages," says Ms Lee.

North Koreans may also face discrimination because they are stereotyped as uncouth and uneducated.

"Sometimes North Koreans have to endure prejudice and icy stares from South Koreans, so many North Korean refugees try hard to hide their identities, especially when they're looking for jobs."

The South Korean government recognises refugees from the North as "dislocated people who also suffer from the national division", according to the Unification Ministry, and it provides them with protection as well as financial, social and emotional support.

Once their identities are confirmed, they are transferred to the state-run Settlement Support Centre for North Korean Refugees in Gyeonggi province for a 12-week orientation programme. They also receive counselling and vocational training in areas like cooking.

Each person gets a basic resettlement benefit of 20 million won (S$23,800), which includes a housing subsidy.

To encourage companies to hire North Koreans, the government also subsidises 50 per cent of their salary, up to a cap of 500,000 won.

Panmunjom Travel Centre, which organises tours to the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, employs two female defectors who share their stories with tourists. Tour guide Gina Lee says her North Korean colleagues enjoy their work: "They love it here, it's heaven here in South Korea."

Local media reports say resettled North Koreans send more than US$10 million (S$13.8 million) back to their families every year. The comfort this money brings, as well as tightened security along China- North Korea borders, is said to have reduced the number of defections in recent years. Last year, only 1,396 refugees entered South Korea, down from 2,914 in 2009, according to official data.

And as more North Koreans share their stories, attitudes towards them seem to have changed.

"I'm happy to say South Koreans are becoming increasingly tolerant of North Korean defectors, and sympathetic to our plight," says Ms Lee.

But the fear of being caught is still palpable. "Yes, I was afraid but I made an important decision in my life that I will not be silenced," says Ms Lee, whose book is titled The Girl With Seven Names to reflect the fact that she had to keep changing her identity to avoid detection.

"I feel a duty to raise awareness in the international community about the regime's human rights abuses, and I hope to inspire people to get directly involved."

Ms Lee, who married an American last year, has just graduated from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. She is promoting her book in the US and hopes to start an organisation helping North Koreans.


This article was first published on August 11, 2015.
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