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Defectors find no capitalist paradise

By Ahn Mi Young, Asia Times, 20 February 1999

SEOUL—My life here is entirely different from what I had dreamed of in North Korea, says Kang Kyong-ho, who defected to South Korea in 1997 after six months of risky travel by way of China and Vietnam.

Kang, 39, and his wife received $24,000 in subsidy from Seoul at the time. But the amount is running out, spent on rent and daily needs since Kang lost his job as a public-project worker one year ago.

Kang, who now works as a temporary guard at the local city government, said: I am afraid of losing my job again. In North Korea, I had at least no fear of losing job. There I worked as a farm supervisor.

Up until the early 1990s, North Korean defectors were hailed as freedom fighters and granted handsome money and decent jobs upon reaching the South.

But as the number of defectors sharply increased since 1994, South Korea’s welcome wore thin.

A total of 741 North Korean defectors are officially listed as living in South Korea, out of 941 who have defected to the South since 1953. The remainder have emigrated or died.

Defectors who came to the South before 1994 received an average of $60,000 in government subsidies, but now get some $12,800 on average per person.

And since the economic crisis hit South Korea in December 1997, many North Korean defectors have been among the first to be laid off.

According to government figures released in December, more than 40 percent of the 281 defectors who have finished job training courses since 1994 are jobless.

Some defectors, true, have found South Korea a land of opportunity and found successful careers as venture businessmen, restaurant owners, or entertainers.

But for others, the dream land they thought South Korea to be has turned into a strange capitalist world where opportunities are available only to those with skill, money and connections.

Take Kim Jong-yong, 30, who was hailed as a brave defector in 1996 but is now homeless at the Seoul railway station. I had thought that I can do everything. Now I feel so helpless and lonely, with no family and friends to talk to.

Even daily life is a challenge for many who have difficulty understanding South Korean culture.

Kang Chul-ho, a 32-year-old defector, grumbles that he has failed five times the written test for a driver’s license. Here the way they write makes is so different (from North Korea) that it makes no sense to me, he fumed.

Kim Hi-gun, 32, was a physics teacher at a high school in North Korea but finds his experience useless here. My several applications for job ended nowhere, as I have nobody to recommend or hometown connection, he explained.

Those who drop the old ways and quickly learn the new ways are moving up.

The first thing that I learned here is that I must make money, said Yoon Kyong-sup, who defected to Seoul in 1996. With his savings from an earlier job, he now runs a restaurant serving North Korean-style cold noodles called nangmyon.

Here nothing is given free. So I must be a hard worker. I never imagined I would turn into a serviceman, smiling, bowing deeply and arranging guests’ shoes here, Yoon explained.

Kim Hye-young, a 26-year-old actress who defected to South Korea in 1998 with her family, is all set for her television debut as a model in a toothpaste commercial. For that she will get $40,000.

My dream is to make a TV star here as I was in North Korea, Kim said.

According to a government survey, economic difficulties are the biggest barrier to settling in the South for 58 percent of the North Korean defectors, followed by cultural obstacles (20 percent) and education for their children (7 percent).

Defectors able to come with or be reunited with their families have an easier time adjusting to life here.

I feel happy only because we can live together and freely, said Lee Yong-un, who defected in 1997 with his wife, two sons and a daughter.

He lives on 400 dollars a month working as a janitor. Still, he and his wife dream of their children getting education and decent professional careers.

Defector Kwon Soon-chul, who was a farm supervisor in the North, hankers for his family. My heart breaks each time I think of my daughter that I left in North Korea, and each time I walk into an empty dark room, he said.

To ease defectors’ woes, Unification Minister Kang In-duk promised to double the subsidies for North Korean defectors beginning this year.

But those already here lament their exclusion from the new benefits. Some 60 defectors, mainly those who came in 1994-1998, organized a lobbying group in December.

The government should suppport defectors until they are able to adapt themselves to the new environment, said Han Chang-kwoen, 39, who leads the North Korean Defectors for Freedom.

Defectors are also angry with what they claim is Seoul’s discrimination on the basis of what their social status was in the North. Only high-level North Korean defectors are treated well in the South, argued defector Lee Seung-ik.

Many South Koreans say the integration of defectors is for the country’s good. Helping these defectors adapt to newlife here is in our interest in the long run, said journalist Kwon Oh-sok.

When the two Koreas are reunited, these defectors are going to be teachers for other North Koreans following in their footsteps and getting into the new life here, he added.

Indeed, despite South Korea’s economic headaches, more defections may come. Some 100,000 North Koreans fleeing hunger are believed to be in northern Chinese villages, waiting for a chance to slip across the border and find their way to the South.

(Inter Press Service)