Conflict & Justice

North Koreans Searching for Support in the South

When North Koreans escape from their country, most try to make their way to South Korea, where some 22,000 North Korean defectors now live. Officials expect that number to grow significantly by the end of the year.

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But advocates say South Korea isn’t prepared to meet the needs of these refugees, which makes it even harder for them to adjust to their new lives.

The Hana Centers offer a program that provides defectors with part time jobs. North Koreans here are packing microchips into crates before shipping them out to HD monitor and cell phone manufacturers. One of the workers is 21-year-old Kim Guk-cheol, who has lived in Daegu for two years.

“It was pretty hard at first to get used to living here,” Guk-cheol said, “but I got a lot of help from the Hana Center here. Now I am planning to go to college and learn about business.”

But the part-time job program and many of the other refugee services offered at the center don’t come from the national government, said Lee Young Seok, a Hana Center official. The Daegu branch has to reach out to the local government, charities and other sources of funding to help North Koreans settle in.

Seok said as the number of defectors increases, he’s not sure if they’ll all get the assistance they need over the long term. The Hana Centers only receive government funding to help refugees who have been here up to a year, he said. “I don’t think this is enough time to really help these people adjust. It would be better if the government increased support for a longer period of time.” Seok said the kind of support many defectors need goes much deeper than just setting them up in new homes or finding them jobs. It’s more psychological. And his Hana Center is trying to compensate for that.

Inside a small classroom, a group of newly arrived North Koreans got a lesson in communication skills. The teacher asked the students how they feel when speaking to new people. One student said she feels uncomfortable.

Seok said many of these refugees feel traumatized by their hard lives in North Korea. Some were also victimized by human traffickers in China. He said no one should expect those troubles to disappear after only a year in South Korea. Many spend several months just feeling lost. Many are depressed or can’t control their anger. They lack the self -confidence to talk to people. They’re embarrassed about their past and would rather just shut themselves off to others.

“It doesn’t help that many South Koreans look down on North Koreans and don’t really want to help them make a life here,” Seok said.

One 39-year-old refugee at the Hana Center, who did not want to give her name, said North and South Koreans do have trouble understanding one another. But the differences can be overcome. “Generally, I think South Koreans are very nice, but the feeling I get is that they have led a very comfortable life – very different from our experience. I’m hopeful though that the day will soon come when we can all put our differences aside and live more comfortably together.”