Residents Escaping from North Korea, So Close Yet Far
Residents Escaping from North Korea, So Close Yet Far
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  • 승인 2013.05.14 19:51
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On July 7th, 2011 the movie “Winter Butterfly,” which is based on the hard reality of North Korea and maternal betrayal from hunger, was released. What does the movie director, Kyu-Min Kim, who is a defector from North Korea, want to express through this tragic true story? North Korea and South Korea have spent a long time apart since the Korean War. Although we can’t directly help the people in North Korea, there are many residents who have escaped from North Korea who need our warm hands. We thoroughly investigated this issue and met some of them personally.

In the past, there was not much news about residents that had escaped from North Korea. However, the number of these stories has rapidly increased lately. The number of people who escaped from North Korea and took up residence in South Korea was 148 in 1999, but the number exceeded over 1,500 in 2006. As a result of these North Korean defectors, social attention about effective support for settlement and long term welfare policies is increasing.

Those escaping from North Korea. Who are they?
First, the term “resident” who escaped from North Korea refers to a person who escaped from North Korea after leaving an address, immediate family, and a partner in North Korea and then acquired Korean citizenship. In the mid-1990s, the term “Resident escaping from North Korea” started to be used in earnest because the residents increased on account of the serious financial difficulties of North Korea. On November 21st, 2008, the Ministry of Unification approved the use of term “Resident escaping from North Korea” because the original term “North Korean defector” was insufficient. Regarding their history, people who fled to South Korea after the Korean War mostly escaped due to political reasons. However, during the 1970s, the main impetus changed from political reasons to economic ones because of the rapid economic growth of South Korea. In addition, in the 1990s, due to serious food shortages that resulted from wide spread natural disasters like floods and droughts in North Korea, the number of these kinds of residents grew dramatically. The total number was about 641 until 1993 and the number has steadily increased. As a result, in 2000, the number was 1,406 and in 2010, the number was over 20,000. The Ministry of Unification disclosed that the number of these residents passed 23,000 during 2011. As of June 2011, the age range of these residents was: those in their thirties at 32% and those in their twenties at 27% respectively. As far as academic background, the majority of them were senior secondary school graduates at 70%. Working data showed that 50% of them were jobless and 38% were laborers. The ratio of women has also steadily increased to the point that women accounted for 69% in 2012. Finally, when it comes to punishment by the North Korean government for attempting to gain entry into the South, according to internal documents of North Korea, the authorities simply kill them on the spot and the border garrison follows the guidelines, “If it is hard to make an arrest, just kill.” The North Korean authorities have also been devoting most of their energy to blockade the residents’ escape after Kim Jong Un came to power. Sometimes, at the China/North Korea border area, those who try to change to South Korean nationality were arrested by a secret agent and killed.

Residents escaping from North Korea, Problems they experience
First, there are psychological problems because they have a sense of guilt for leaving their family and anxiety for a new life. In addition, they receive contempt from South Koreans because they are not accustomed to a capitalist competition system. Second, they have economic difficulties. It is hard for them to get stable jobs because of the unemployment crisis and low wages. Accordingly, it is hard for them to exhibit their own abilities and adapt to South Korean society. Finding a stable life has only happened for a small minority. Finally, they also experience cultural difficulties. They experience cultural shock because there are many differences between South and North Korea. Moreover, there are many changes in everyday language that they are not aware of due to a lifetime of isolation in the North. It is difficult to change and adapt from the mindset and language of collectivism to individualism.

Efforts being made for them
First, the South Korean government enacted a law providing protection and support for settlement for residents escaping from North Korea in 1997. If they apply for protection at the diplomatic offices or administrative agencies, the Minister of Unification decides whether to protect them or not through the council dealing with residents escaping from North Korea. Then, if they are confirmed as having this status, they enter Hanawon in Anseong-si, Gyeonggi-do which is the Settlement Support Center for North Koreans and receive adaptation education for 3 months. Early on, settlement support aid, living support aid and housing are provided to them and, after assimilating into society, they receive job assistance and medical care protection, tuition reimbursement, vocational training and employment guarantees. There is also an organization called “the North Korean Refugees Foundation.” This organization was founded to assist with the successful settlement and stabilization of residents escaping from North Korea. This organization is divided into 5 fields, such as stabilization of livelihood, self-sufficiency support, education support, private organization support business, and study support. Recently, they installed an app called, “compatriot love” to provide them various and essential information. Locally, Daegu City founded “Cafe Sympathy” which is a space for a cultural complex for residents escaping from North Korea. This cafe is equipped with a culture rest area that has 35 cubicles, 2,000 books, computers and video and audio facilities, as well as a place where these people can take classes for English, Chinese, and other areas of study. Finally, there is the social enterprise, “Sympathy.” This social enterprise was founded in 2010 and helps with the early settlement of residents escaping from North Korea. In March 2013, this enterprise founded the first guest house for them in South Korea. It is located at Jongno 2-ga, Jung-gu, Daegu, South Korea, and it was organized to eliminate bias about those who escape North Korea and make a cultural community in the downtown area where residents escaping from North Korea, Korean citizens and foreigners can interact with each other.

Get to know residents who escaped from North Korea
On February 6 to 7, 2013, I participated in a security camp hosted by the University Student’s Forum of Korea. The participation fee was cheap and I departed with a lot of excitement. We visited the JSA (Joint Security Area) and Panmunjeom and saw North Korean service people personally. Here and there, we found many traces of damage from the Korean War, and we were proud of many of the individual soldiers who work hard for the security of South Korea. After we finished the first day’s schedule, we went to our lodging in Ganghwado. There, we had dinner and met a resident who escaped from North Korea, and it felt a little unfamiliar. We had a small meeting and talked about various topics in a free atmosphere. We wondered how he was able to escape, why he chose the way he did, and what difficulties he faced. First, his name is Seong-Ho Ji and he is the president of a company that works for the rights of North Korea, “NAUH (Now, Action & Unity for Human rights!).” In April 2010, NAUH was established by young people from both North and South Korea to make the world aware of the seriousness of North Korean rights violations and participate in the practical improvement of rights. Currently, he is a student in the Department of Law at Dongguk University. We asked him why he decided to choose this way and how he settled down in South Korea. “While I tried to escape from North Korea, I had an accident and now I have a class-two physical disability. When I lived in North Korea, there were about 300,000 people trying to escape, and this phenomenon became like a trend. To keep up with this phenomenon, I went to China with my friend. However, there were thatched houses in China, and I was very surprised and thought it was the wrong choice. Therefore, we returned to North Korea and met my family after a long time. Suddenly, a policeman arrested me and I was tortured very badly. They said if the disabled cross to China and get some food, the status of North Korea will fall. At that moment, my pride was very hurt, and I decided to escape from North Korea. However, that way was very dangerous, so my little brother and I tried to escape without the rest of our family through very difficult processes. Finally, we arrived in China and from there, we went to Thailand. There, we met about 300 refugees from North Korea. At the end of this difficult journey, we took an airplane and arrived in South Korea.”While listening to his story, it was so vivid that I felt it was really my story. In addition, I think he is entitled to a great deal of respect because he finally succeeded in escaping from North Korea in spite of all the danger and difficulties. However, there were many other things I wanted to ask him. Above the rest, I especially wondered about the medical treatment system of North Korea.“First, I have lived with subsidies from the South Korean government since I came to South Korea. In North Korea, there were medicine, medical supplies and free health care in the past. However, in the mid-1990s, these supplies almost disappeared and there were few goods. The hardest time in my life was when I had an accident in 1996. I went to the hospital and had surgery. However, I had a local anesthetic because there weren’t any anesthetic drugs like morphine. After the surgery, there were even fewer medicines like antibiotics. The medical treatment system of North Korea was very poor and the environment of the operating rooms is also inadequate.”Moreover, these days, we hear about many incidents in which North Korean women are abused like being forced into prostitution or sexual violence from various mediums. Is it really true?“While I lived in North Korea, I felt the unfair treatment was really serious. Although I’m not completely sure, I think there are about 3 detention centers and in there, human rights are basically disregarded. North Korea asserts ethnicity emphatically, so I often heard many women were tortured and hit and asked, “How can you allow yourself to have a baby with a Chinese man?” As you know through many examples, I think it is a little common.”He expressed his own position about this reality of North Korea very negatively. However, the most important thing is how they adapt to this society after settlement. I asked him how he has adapted to this society now.“The first thing I felt after settlement in South Korea was that I have to learn something. I was very embarrassed with how developed South Korea was and how backward the place I came from was. First, I went to a computer academy and studied hard. At that time, l realized that the world was my oyster. In addition, I think I have never experienced racial discrimination in South Korea. Even now, I am a university student and I feel rather confident. South Korean students also treat me very well, so we have a very good relationship. Specifically, I thought the dialect of students from Gyeongsang-do was really fresh and funny. Eventually, there weren’t any really big problems during my settlement process in South Korea.”“Although I think now is a time to adapt, we residents escaping from North Korea have our own advantages. If unification of the two Koreas takes place, we can be very useful because we understand how both South and North Korea work. I went through really hard times and have lived with such confidence. Currently, I operate an organization for North Korea human rights, “NAUH.” Based on the work of various members, we are dreaming of the unification of this land. My major was originally accounting, but now I want to work in areas that can be helpful for unification. Moreover, by helping many other residents, I want to be a person who devotes himself to unification.”He had strong belief in this dream which possibly comes from the dangers and difficulties he had to go through in order to come to a new world. I asked him if war occurs, what country he would choose. Which one, North Korea or South Korea?“I was very embarrassed when I first came here. When there was a soccer match, I was asked questions like ‘Which country do you cheer for North Korea or South Korea?’ However, now I can say exactly. If I am born again, I can choose South Korea grandly. There is no question.”Through a short meeting, we gained very useful information and heard many touching stories about him. I was glad to have a clearer picture about North Korea and have a good experience.

Many residents escaping from North Korea have settled down well in South Korea and have tried to achieve their dreams. However, there are still many people who have difficulty adapting to South Korea because of cultural and linguistic differences not to mention wounds to the body and mind. I want many citizens and students to have concern about those who have had a very hard time and now live a new life. We should learn how to live actively with them. I hope many residents escaping from North Korea adapt well here in South Korea.

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