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Defector's story

Initial period vital to long-term success of defectors in South

Kim Young Hui, North Korean Economy Research Team Leader, Korea Development Bank (KDB)  |  2017-11-13 12:10
The number of North Korean defectors living in South Korea crossed the 30,000-person mark last year. Although a small number defected during the early part of North Koreas economic crisis in the mid 1990s, as the country plunged into famine and conditions worsened, the number passed the 1,000-person mark for the first time in the year 2000. 

Since then, more and more North Koreans have come to the South in search of a better life, reaching a peak number of 2,900 new entrants in 2009. However, Kim Jong Un has focused on stemming the tide of defections since coming to power, approximately halving the annual number of refugees. Furthermore, the number of North Koreans re-entering the North has also risen. So what are the factors at play behind these trends?  

During a press conference last October, the Ministry of Unification confirmed that 26 defectors had left the South and returned to the North. Including a couple in their thirties who also traveled to the Chinese border in mid October and have not been heard from since, that number rises to 28. It is also likely that some defectors have returned to the North without public knowledge. 

One particular individual who re-defected was featured heavily in South Korean media this year - Lim Jee-hyeon (real name: Jeon Hye-seong), and previously appeared on the major television networks. Lim, the couple, and another prominent re-defector (who was caught and imprisoned while trying to return to the North) all arrived in the South in 2014.    

North Korea often uses re-defectors as propaganda pieces in its state-run media. A press conference was held in 2012 in Pyongyangs Peoples Culture Palace featuring the re-defectors Kim Kwang-hyeok and Go Jeong-nam. Another press conference was held in 2013 featuring another couple - Kim Kwang-ho and Kim Ok-sil - who entered the South in 2009 and returned to the North in 2012. Another re-defector was featured in this press conference alongside the couple: Go Gyeong-hui, who entered the South in 2011 and returned to the North in 2013. These people and other re-defectors all have something in common: they entered and left the South within three years. This reveals the importance of the resettlement process, putting the spotlight on the need to support the transition and settlement of defectors into South Korean society. 

All defectors should be supported through the process of initial resettlement, adaptation, and successful resettlement. The whole process can take from one to seven years, depending on the individual in question and factors like education, skills, and family ties. North Koreans who enter the South often dream of coming to a new land and pursuing happiness, but due to numerous factors, they can often face frustration and difficulty.  

I know this because I am a defector. During the first year that I was in the South, I worked hard, but faced discrimination and prejudice. I considered moving to America because I had no one to share my feelings or my future with, and at times felt like I was adrift on the open sea, fearing the waves that might come my way. The only people I could speak with about my path in South Korea were other defectors. More than a few of them - frustrated about the resettlement process - ended up moving to England. 

The individual who was recently arrested trying to re-defect sought advice from other defectors living in the South. His family also escaped from the North, entering the South in 2002 and moving to England in 2006. A friend who he met in the Hanawon resettlement facility also left for England. These individuals all left within five years of entering the South.

The resettlement process can be compared to hiking, one of South Koreas favorite pastimes. If one hikes alone, they can easily become exhausted. Its easier to reach the summit with a little help.

With friends for support, anything is possible. Defectors can find the patience and courage to overcome obstacles if they have a network of support to derive strength from. 

The South Korean government needs to implement versatile and detailed policies to ensure that new defectors receive the support they need. Since the North Korean Defector Protection and Resettlement Support Law was passed in 1997, numerous changes have been implemented that stress the self-reliance aspect of resettlement. 

After entering the country, defectors have access to rental apartments through the accommodation assistance program. The safety of defectors is protected and vocational education is provided. Educational opportunities are provided to all defectors under 35 years old. These measures all help defectors live a stable life in the South.  

However, we still face discrimination, prejudice, and apathy from society. In North Korea, people tend to be friendly and talkative with their neighbors and coworkers. When they enter South Korea, it is difficult for North Koreans to adjust to a totally different lifestyle. Testament to this is the tragic story of Ms. Kim, a defector who died alone in her Changwon apartment this October.  
Consistent and successful resettlement of defectors is an important milestone along the way to the successful unification of the Korean peninsula. To ensure that defectors can settle down successfully in the South and plant deep roots in society here, support networks are needed so that all defectors can find their place in the community. 

*This article has been brought to you thanks to support from the Korea Press Foundation. 
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