N. Korean defectors feel abandoned in South

Kim Seong-min, a former North Korean army captain who defected, keeps his uniform on a coatrack behind his desk.
Kim Seong-min, a former North Korean army captain who defected, keeps his uniform on a coatrack behind his desk. Tim Johnson / MCT

SEOUL, South Korea — One can spot the North Koreans by their stunted stature, the result of growing up on inadequate diets. They often seem befuddled in banks and restaurants, and they speak Korean with a noticeable accent.

They risked their lives to get here, but even when they're assimilated they earn half of what their South Korean brethren do — for drudge work. There are 11,000 of them in South Korea, trickling in at the rate of only 2,000 a year, but increasingly they're the unwanted relatives at the doorstep.

The South Korean government, which fears that any crisis with Pyongyang could unleash a flood of North Korean migrants, seems to be pulling up the welcome mat.

"South Korean people are not interested in North Koreans," said Kang Won-cheol, a 25-year-old university student who left North Korea in 2000. "They see us as foreigners, as different from them."

Experts say South Korea is seeking to slow the stream of refugees, in order to avert a mass exodus from North Korea and ease tensions with its unpredictable neighbor. That will leave thousands of North Koreans stranded en route in China, Mongolia and Southeast Asia, in a hidden humanitarian crisis.

"South Korean authorities do everything possible to minimize the arrival of refugees," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University.

In principle, Seoul says it will accept any North Korean who wants to resettle. But Lankov said the reality was that immigration officials tried to push the door closed for common people, such as farmers.

"The government wants the story to filter back to North Korea that life is hard here," added Kang Cheol-hwan, a journalist in Seoul and the author of "Aquariums of Pyongyang," an account of his youth in a labor camp in North Korea.

The situation underscores gaps in North and South Korea policies aimed at eventually unifying into a single state. The two nations have marched as a unified team at Olympic Games opening ceremonies since 2000, and the Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, is a landmark in Seoul.

Earlier this year, South Korea cut the initial stipend that refugees receive to the equivalent of $6,400, with another $13,860 or so for housing, adding payments at the back end if immigrants hold jobs for more than a year.

A couple of weeks ago, a 36-year-old North Korean made headlines by leaping from her 10th-floor Seoul apartment in a suicide that called attention to the travails of newly arrived defectors.

Finding work is no easy task for North Koreans, who are easily distinguished by their accented speech, their initial unfamiliarity with conveniences such as microwave ovens and remote controls, their bewilderment at how banks function and their sense of entitlement given the hardships they endured in the world's last Stalinist holdout.

It can take years for them to grow used to the South's capitalist ethic.

"Learning a market system is like learning a new language," said Park Syung Je, a defense analyst who said he'd interviewed more than 1,000 refugees in recent years.

"They go into restaurants and don't understand why prices are different for different things," Park added.

Refugees can be distinguished even by their short stature, a result of poor nutrition. A 2005 survey of 1,075 defectors found Northern men were 4 inches shorter than Southern men on average. For young women, the difference was 2.5 inches.

Many refugees arrive with no families, leaving spouses and children behind. About 70 percent of recent refugees are women, some of whom seek to marry South Korean men, viewing it as a route to assimilation. But few find mates they think are suitable.

"They made me feel I am a second-class citizen here," a refugee who used the pseudonym Kim Kum-suk told the semi-official Yonhap news agency earlier this year. "Some of them treated me like a Vietnamese and Philippine bride they can buy, while others sounded like they were looking for a housemaid-type wife."

A sense of enduring humiliation can gnaw at the refugees.

Kim Seong-min, a former North Korean army captain whose story led President Bush to receive him at the White House last year, still recalls with shame what happened to him at a barbershop on arriving in South Korea after he defected in 1999. An attendant handed him a paper cup with liquid.

"I thought it was soda," Kim said, so he drank it. "Everybody laughed at me. It was mouthwash for gargling. They asked me why I drank it."

As more defectors arrive, they become targets for criminals.

A joint survey released early this year by the state-funded Korea Institute of Criminal Justice Policy and Cheongju University showed that fraud, theft and robbery rates against defectors are five times higher than for average South Koreans. Some 21 percent of defectors said they'd been cheated out of financial assets.

South Koreans, for their part, sometimes complain that North Koreans don't display much will to adapt. They also say that the stipends refugees receive are diverted to human traffickers in China, who'll bring relatives from the North through Southeast Asia to Seoul for around $3,500.

No one knows for sure how many North Koreans fled after the severe famine in the mid-1990s. The journey can be perilous. Some 50,000 to 150,000 North Koreans have crossed into China. If China catches them, it usually deports them to their homeland, where they may be thrown into labor camps. Some refugees have married Chinese and settled down. Others long to move on. More than 1,000 refugees are in Mongolia and Southeast Asia, waiting for approval to go to South Korea.

In a bid to win attention from South Korean authorities, some refugees in U.N. detention centers embellish or make up stories about their pasts, saying they were party cadres or witnessed atrocities in the North.

"Some defectors come up with fake stories to be picked," said Kang, the author. "If a defector says, 'I was a fisherman' or a farmer, then people look down on him. So people exaggerate their status."

North Korea lambasted the South after a mass defection in July 2004, when 468 North Koreans were airlifted from Hanoi to South Korea, the largest such defection ever. Since then, Seoul has been wary of accepting anything but small groups.

Lankov, the scholar, said defectors who learned the mechanics of capitalism and democracy might prove indispensable one day in erecting a post-Kim Jong Il government in North Korea.

"I believe the (refugee) policy is myopic," Lankov said. "If the North Korean system collapses, who will form the post-North Korea elite? . . . When change happens, they will be vital for reconstruction."