- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

SEOUL — For the 468 North Korean defectors who arrived in the South last week, the transition from the world’s most rigid communist state to one of its most competitive capitalist economies will be a challenge.

“Their biggest problem is finding employment,” said An Hyo-deok of the quasi-governmental Association of Supporters for Defecting North Korean Residents.

“They have learned about South Korea in China or Southeast Asia” — where popular Korean soap operas and films paint a glamorous picture of life — “and so have unrealistic expectations. They want to be professionals, but most end up working in manufacturing,” he said.

The defectors — the largest number ever to arrive at one time — came via Vietnam. Upon their arrival in South Korea, they were whisked away to what a government source called “a state-run education and training facility” in Gyeonggi province, outside Seoul.

Under tight security, their debriefing process began immediately with officials of the National Intelligence Service and the Unification and Defense Ministries.

The intelligence service will be looking for spies among them, but a more prosaic reason for the interrogations is that a number of Chinese-Koreans may be masquerading as North Koreans in order to get a passport from the South.

Once the monthlong debriefing is complete, the defectors will be sent to “Hanawon,” a government-run halfway house, where they will undergo two months of “capitalism education.” Classes include language, etiquette, driving and computer skills.

About 4,000 defectors have passed through the program. After its completion, they are granted South Korean citizenship and are free to settle anywhere in the country, under police and local government protection.

The need for protection is lessening, however.

“Many defectors do feel insecure here, but as most come from the working class, they have no need to,” Mr. An said. “The only ones who really need protection are military and party-level defectors.”

For example, “Lee Han-yong, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law who defected to the South, was killed by North Korean agents about seven years ago,” he said.

High-level defectors are a minority. According to Mr. An’s association, of the 3,615 defectors who have come to the South since 2001, 1,471 are from the working class, 105 are party or managerial level and 28 are from the military.

Many defectors find that life in the South is no bed of roses. Their previous life experience is largely invalidated. Some, such as Kim Yong, enjoy success. He defected in 1991 and now runs a franchise of North Korean-style noodle restaurants, complete with branches in the United States.

But many defectors never make it. Some remain unemployed, others become criminals, and at least one tried to return North.

“They have no capital and no credit. They have to start at the bottom of the ladder, and they feel bitter,” said Kongdan Oh, of Washington’s Institute of Defense Analysis.

“Northern life was without competition in many senses — except perhaps competition to flatter the party leaders and the [ruling] Kim family — so the severely competitive nature of the South frightens them,” he said.

Yim Kyung-ho, dean of Good People World College, a Christian organization that assists North Koreans in the South, said those defectors who are successful often keep a low profile, because they do not want their family in the North to suffer if their status in the South becomes well-known.

Mr. An said in the past, defectors came for political reasons, but in recent years, most have been economic refugees.

Tim Peters, a U.S. missionary with Helping Hands Korea, said, “Whether suffering from political or religious persecution or sheer desperation from lack of food, the North Koreans qualify for refugee status.”

Disillusion can take surprising forms.

“Defectors who have lived in the South more than three or four years still talk about good points of the Northern system,” Mr. Oh said. “They are frustrated at the excessive wealth and spending of rich people and the behavior of the young, with their outrageous clothing and hairstyles.”

They also face prejudice in their new home. South Korea is a homogenous nation, where the only visible minorities are about 37,000 U.S. troops and several hundred-thousand factory workers from Third World countries.

“Recently, we tried to establish a school for North Korean children, but the residents in the area did not want it built near their homes,” said Mr. An, adding that the project will go ahead.

“Many people, when they hear a North Korean accent, automatically think of the North Korean stereotype — that they are inefficient and untrustworthy,” Mr. Yim said.

“So some try to change their accents. There is also an enormous cultural gap — for example, North Koreans seek a strong leader such as they were used to in the North and often look for this in their boss at work. But once we get to know them, we find they are closer to us than any other nationality. In some ways, they are simplistic — a bit like South Koreans in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.

The South Korean government, too, is facing issues over defectors.

Even though it negotiated with Vietnam for more than two months over the defectors, the size of the group seems to have caught authorities by surprise — so much so that Hanawon, with a capacity of 400 persons, will be unable to hold them all.

Figures illustrate the scale of the problem. Although the number of people escaping to the South has increased in recent years — 1,285 last year; 1,240 in 2002; and 583 in 2001 — the fact that only about 5,000 have arrived in the 51 years since the Korean War ended underscores how substantial last week’s influx is at almost 10 percent of the total.

Defectors come largely via China, because the demilitarized zone on the North-South border is virtually impassable. Aid groups estimate that there are between 50,000 and 300,000 North Korean refugees in China fleeing poverty, hunger and political repression who may want to come South.

However, recent visitors to the Chinese border say many are content to settle in China, because asylum bids, such as entering diplomatic compounds in Beijing, can result in deportation to North Korea.

Beijing and Pyongyang have a treaty that obliges China to return would-be defectors to the North. In recent months, hopeful defectors have been gathering in Southeast Asia, aided by South Korean activist groups.

Analysts do not expect the trickle from the North to become a flood.

“Pyongyang does not have a policy of letting those who want to leave, leave,” said Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of “Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.”

Others suggest that the recent mass defection may cause Northern authorities to tighten up border controls.

Even so, Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said last week that there could be as many as 10,000 defectors arriving in the next few years, forcing a policy review.

Last month, the South Korean government announced a cut in defectors’ stipends. Currently set at a lump sum payment of 36 million won (U.S. $31,000), it will be scaled back to 20 million won.

The government also pays 50 percent of defectors’ wages for two years, as an incentive for employers to hire them — a hint that defectors are not highly valued employees. Under the new policy, cash incentives will be given to those who manage to hold down steady jobs.

The mass defection is something of an embarrassment for the South Korean government, which has, since the initiation of detente by former President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, taken steps to avoid antagonizing the North. The process was kept quiet, ostensibly at the request of Vietnam, but some analysts think it also was designed to avoid angering Pyongyang.

“I applaud them for doing the right thing, but my understanding is that the South’s government was not entirely proactive in this drama,” Mr. Peters said. “My information is that the Southeast Asian country saw this backlog of refugees who had arrived with the help of [nongovernmental organizations], and said to Seoul, ‘Get them out or we will send them back to China.’”

Pyongyang reacted strongly, with its official newspaper calling Seoul’s grants of asylum “premeditated abduction” and “terrorism in broad daylight.”

In South Korea’s liberal climate, even activists urging improvements in North Korean human rights have come under attack.

Norbert Volersen, a German activist, has been physically assaulted. An Internet radio station established earlier this year by defectors to broadcast to the North has been intimidated into moving its office.

A Western diplomat who met with foreign reporters late last month wondered whether anti-American incidents in the South in recent years could have been provoked by undercover North Korean agitators.

On Tuesday, North Korea boycotted high-level talks with the South in an apparent response to the mass defection.

The North has failed to send its delegation to the Cabinet-level talks, in which the two sides planned to discuss reconciliation and cooperation.

The ministerial talks arose out of a summit of their leaders in 2000. They have held 14 rounds of talks.

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