HANAWON, South Korea | North Korea’s nuclear test has plunged East Asia into crisis, but recent defectors reveal both the failings and strengths of a regime whose hold on its former subjects is so strong that some still cannot bring themselves to criticize Kim Jong-il.
In the past several days, North Korea has detonated a nuclear device, launched a salvo of missiles, unilaterally announced that it is no longer bound by the terms of the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and threatened military strikes should South Korea search suspicious North-flagged vessels.
The United States and South Korea, in response, have put their military forces on high alert, and the U.N. Security Council on Thursday circulated a resolution condemning the North’s behavior “in the strongest terms.”
But at Hanawon (Institute of Oneness), a complex of red-brick buildings nestled among forested hills and paddy fields about a 90-minute drive south of Seoul, defectors undergoing 12 weeks of deprogramming expressed sympathy for their country’s military and even for Mr. Kim.
“The military has a difficult life,” said a woman who asked to be identified as Ms. Jo to protect her family back home. Since 2006, she said, North Korea’s once-privileged soldiers have suffered food shortages. “North Korea’s soldiers outnumber South Korea’s, but their condition is very poor,” she said.
Another defector, who identified herself as Ms. Kim, said, “If war breaks out, North Korean soldiers will run away once they become acquainted with South Korea.” Referring to the corruption that many suspect is infecting parts of the military, she said, “The soldiers guarding the Tumen River border [with China] take money from defectors.”
Ms. Choi, a third defector, refused to criticize Mr. Kim for the poor conditions that led her and 15,000 other North Koreans to flee here over the past decade. About 2 million people - 10 percent of North Korea’s population - are thought to have died from starvation or related diseases in the mid- to late 1990s.
“I agonize over whether I should reveal my sadness over Kim Jong-il’s health,” she said, referring to reports that Mr. Kim suffered a massive stroke last year. “He is still our ‘Dear Leader.’ It is the people who work with him and give him false reports who are bad.”
A fourth defector, who also called herself Ms. Choi, said, “When I hear about his on-the-spot guidance and eating humble meals, I believe he cares for the people.”
These comments dramatize the difficulties faced by staff at Hanawon in trying to help defectors make the transition from the world’s most decrepit totalitarian nation to one of its most successful capitalist societies.
“In North Korea, they are accustomed to depend on the state,” said Hanawon’s director-general, Dr. Youn Mi-ryang. “But South Korean society is fiercely competitive; that is the most difficult challenge.”
Defectors arrive at Hanawon after escaping to South Korean consulates in third countries - usually China, Mongolia or somewhere in Southeast Asia. Then they undergo a monthlong debriefing at the hands of South Korean intelligence to weed out spies.
Hanawon accommodates up to 750 defectors and 60 staff members. Inmates are taught how to use public transportation, shop and use computers, and learn other job skills and English. Facilities include a clinic - necessary because about 21 percent of the defectors suffer chronic health problems. Most have dental issues because of infected extractions in the North. Many women suffer from gynecological problems caused in part by sexual abuse in China while they waited to make their break for freedom.
More than 25 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered by harsh experiences in the North or while escaping. Optional Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant courses are offered to help deal with mental anguish.
“I don’t think a 12-week course is long enough,” Dr. Youn said. “But most refugees have already been in consulates in third countries for months, even a year, so they want to be freed.”
Outside Hanawon, the North Koreans face steep challenges. South Koreans once welcomed defectors as heroes, but attitudes changed as more arrived. Many are now seen as yokels. The government pays companies that employ defectors half their wages as an inducement to integrate them into South Korean life.
Ms. Choi, one of four defectors made available to reporters on Thursday, said she worries that “South Koreans will see me differently” and distinguish her by her North Korean accent.
Defectors also face financial problems despite government help. Many must use their wages or resettlement fees to pay back brokers who facilitated their escape. Others send cash to relatives back home.
Ms. Kim said she sends money home from a monthly government stipend of about $315 via people in China, who smuggle it across the border.
“North Korean guards earn, so they don’t rat on them,” she said, and couriers and guards take a 30 percent cut.
Ms. Choi and Ms. Kim said they fled in hopes of achieving a more prosperous life that they knew existed in the South, despite North Korean propaganda.
Ms. Kim said she had seen South Korean soap operas on TV picked up from signals in nearby China. Ms. Choi said she saw a magazine article about South Korea while visiting China.
Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are thought to have visited China in search of food over the past decade, with most returning home and bringing word of better conditions both in China and South Korea. However, Ms. Choi said, “it’s not like everyone in North Korea gets the chance to see images of South Korea.”
As for the current crisis, Ms. Kim said, “I felt nothing when I saw news of the [October 2006] nuclear test” and apparently was similarly unimpressed by the second one on Monday.
“Privileged people in North Korea would be thrilled, but for the poor, it’s no change,” she said.