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Defectors 'easy target' for abuses due to lack of legal knowledge, access to counsel

Kim Ji Seung  |  2018-02-01 11:21
Kim Hye Eun (alias) is a 53-year-old defector who recently contacted Daily NK to report her experiences with the legal system in South Korea. According to Kim, she became the target of a legal scam in September 2016, when an individual sued her following a dispute over a parked vehicle. The plaintiff asked the court for 15 million won (KRW), and in the end Kim was ordered to pay a 1 million KRW penalty.

Kim pointed out that North Korean defectors are often the targets of such scams, and that they are also often unprepared for how to deal with them. By publicizing her story, she hopes to warn other defectors and prevent similar incidents from occurring.

"I took great pains to make it to South Korea, but this incident broke my illusions of proper justice in South Korean society," Kim said as she cried. She also expressed sadness at the fact that nobody in the vicinity came to her assistance at the time of the incident.

"If my spirit were any weaker, I may have even decided to run back to North Korea. I thought, 'I risked my life to come to the South, so why do I still incur this kind of horrible treatment? Are there any good people in this world?'" she added.

The story begins with Kim taking on the responsibility of caring for an elderly building owner she met while studying social welfare after she arrived in South Korea. When the building owner fell ill one day and asked Kim to help and take over the building management duties, she happily agreed. Each day at noon, Kim would be out on the street handling the building's trash, picking up discarded bottles and cigarette butts, and keeping up with other building maintenance tasks. It was a significant responsibility, but Kim never complained.

According to Kim, one day a car was parked outside their building, blocking the way. Kim put off cleaning the area, assuming the vehicle's owner was only making a quick stop in the adjacent market. But the car remained until after 4 pm, preventing Kim from completing her maintenance, and she began to grow anxious.

She eventually decided to call the owner to request that they move their car (drivers in Korea often display their phone numbers on dashboards for parking reasons). Kim says that she could only see half of the phone number on display, so she got closer to see if she could ascertain the full number. It was at that point that Kim says a woman came running out from the hair salon across the street and began cursing at her. Kim asked the woman, who we will call Kang, if she could temporarily move the vehicle so that she could clean the area. But Kim says that Kang then became even angrier, saying, Don't tell me to move my car."

Kim says she only asked a single time for Kang to move the vehicle, and that at this point Kang suddenly screamed as if to pretend Kim was about to damage the bumper of the car.

Completely bewildered by what was happening, Kim wondered whether she should contact the building's owner. A police car then suddenly arrived, apparently at the request of the hair salon worker, and took Kim to the police station.

The hair salon worker reported to the police that Kim had been violent towards Kang, though Kim maintains that nothing of the sort occurred. The report stated that Kim was violent, cursing and grabbing Kang's hair and swinging her around. It also claimed that Kang broke three teeth as a result.

At the time, Kim says she was even relieved to be going to the police station to straighten things out, knowing that she was innocent of the charges. But it turns out that she had insufficient evidence to prove her innocence. With no witnesses and no CCTV footage of the incident, Kim had no way of proving that the charges were false. Kang ended up suing Kim for battery and demanding 15 million KRW in compensation.

Kang asserts that she went to the hospital after the incident, and presented medical certificates which show that Kang was ordinarily in good health. According to the boxes checked by the hospital, the document reveals that neither hospital admission or surgery would be necessary and that there were no extending complications. The document lists the patient's written reason for the visit as 'facial injuries inflicted by another person,' and recommended nerve treatment to a couple of her molars as well as a dental prosthesis.

Kim thought at the time that as long as she told the truth, everything would be fine. But she was arrested in the end, and noted that things obviously did not go well.

Following the incident, Kim was introduced to a lawyer from the Korea Hana Foundation, but they were of little assistance.

Kim says that the lawyer berated her for not trying to obtain the responding officer's written notes or footage from any dash cameras in cars nearby, and for not filing a counter-claim against Kang at the time. Kim told the lawyer that it was because she "didn't know what she was supposed to do."

One year later, Kim ended up having to pay a 1 million KRW settlement. "I thought that nobody should have to go through what I went through, and that defectors can easily be the victims of such situations as they are unfamiliar with the law," Kim said.

"Its important to take the proper steps immediately in such unfortunate circumstances, and to obtain the help of others in the area," Kim suggested. She is also calling for the government agency in charge of defector affairs to establish a system to help connect defectors with legal counsel, in the hopes that experiences like hers can be avoided in the future.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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