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Is South ready for rise of North Korean defections?

As more North Koreans arrive from the impoverished and isolated North, the South faces immense challenges in the struggle to integrate them.
Image: Lim Myeong-hee
Lim Myeong-hee, 16, left and her friend, a middle school student who defected from North Korea, memorize English words in textbooks during supplementary lessons at the Hangyeore Middle and High School in Anseong, about 50 miles south of Seoul, South Korea, in July. From the start of the 1950-53 Korean War till 1998, the total number of defectors in South Korea stood at less than 1,000. Today, the number is around 23,000. Jo Yong-Hak / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Escaping North Korea was the easy part.

"One of the soldiers led me and my sister across the river. There were several soldiers at the guard post -- they were pretending not to see anything. It was like I was invisible," said Eun-seo of her escape across the Tumen River into China.

If you have money, guards can easily be bought. And today, more than ever, North Koreans have access to cash, thanks to a growing disapora in China and South Korea.

The dangerous part of Eun-seo's defection to the South was the daring three-month trip through China, the heat-sapping hike through the jungles and mountains of Myanmar, and the raft ride in the crocodile infested waters of a Laos river.

Eun-seo, now 20, was lucky to survive the treacherous journey. Another elderly woman in her group of about a dozen did not. She fell to her death from a cliff on the jungle path.

Eun-seo's tale of escape is typical of most stories from defectors arriving in South Korea, and the number is rising fast.

As more North Koreans arrive, they use relocation grants from the wealthy South Korean government to pay brokers in China to extract their kin from the impoverished and isolated North.

The International Crisis Group said in a report last month that the rising tide of defectors and Seoul's struggle to integrate them underlines the immense challenges if ever there is a massive outflow of refugees from the North.

Although only a 4-km (2.5-mile) wide so-called demilitarized zone separates the Koreas, the two countries and their inhabitants are worlds apart in every other way.

In their new homeland, defectors -- who are ethnically and linguistically the same -- live as outcasts, often ridiculed for their small physical build, coarse language, and inability to mix socially and hold down a job.

"They share the same ambitions as their South Korean peers, but the disappointing reality behind their disadvantage could easily lead to a life of crime or even suicide," said Chun Ki-won, a Seoul-based missionary who has helped hundreds defect.

"Generally defectors are not looked upon kindly, and some wonder why they even need to be helped, which is a serious concern. The younger generation nowadays does not consider reunification as a priority, and this needs to addressed."

Analysts say the South Koreans are losing interest in reunification, put off by estimates that it could cost in the region of $1 trillion, much of which would have to be met by South Koreans themselves through higher taxes.

Chun says the South Koreans have become self-centered and greedy, a by-product of the country's rapid rise over the past two decades from an emerging economy to its standing today as the world's 15th largest.

Floodgates open
From the start of the 1950-53 Korean War till 1998, the total number of defectors in South Korea stood at less than 1,000. Today, the number is around 23,000.

Most of those who take the so-called popular "underground train" route through China and end up at a reception centre for North Koreans in Bangkok, say they have fled their homeland for lack of food and in fear of its brutal, authoritarian rule.

But unlike five years ago when most of those who fled were content to eke out a better life in China, now many have only one objective in mind -- to go to wealthy South Korea.

The cost: about $5,000, which is more than covered by stipend they stand to receive from the South Korean government upon becoming citizens of the South.

It is a high risk trip of over 5,000 km. In China, they must avoid North Korean agents, a network of informants and local forces. Hundreds are are repatriated from China each year, sent back to a labour camp, and possible starvation. Some even have been executed.

The sharp increase in the number of North Korean defectors has raised an awareness in Seoul of the difficulties in store should one day the North collapse, sending a massive flow of refugees southwards.

"The difficulties of handling just over 20,000 refugees over a few decades should be warning to those who wish to encourage the collapse of the North rather than a more gentle integration," the ICG says.

In a report, the ICG uncovers a raft of a policy dilemmas confronting the South Korean government beyond the projected $1 trillion bill to absorb its impoverished neighbour.

"The two sides have diverged so much in economics, politics, language and social organisation that the people are now strangers to each other," the report says.

Preparing for more arrivals
To cater for the surge in defectors, the government last month started building a second reception centre for defectors at Hwacheon, about half an hour's drive from the border.

The new centre, due for completion at the end of next year, will house about 500 defectors, complementing the main Hanawon reception facility with its capacity for some 600 defectors at Anseong, 100 km (60 miles) south of the capital Seoul.

Upon arriving in South Korea, defectors are held at a security facility where they interrogated to ascertain they are genuine defectors and not spies.

Defectors are then sent to the barbed-wire fence Hanawon, which means 'house of unity' in Korean, where adults and children are held for three months to be 're-educated' on living in the modern world of South Korea.

The adults are taught everything from how to use a cash machine to office and language etiquette -- North Koreans have a hard, seeming aggressive accent which is seen as off-putting in the South Korean working world.

The director of Hanawon, Youn Miryang, says the defectors' experience of living under authoritarian rule, devoid of contact with the outside world, leaves them "clueless" and open to prejudice in South Korea's fast-paced and work-obsessed society.

"In the North, they didn't work hard -- they pretended to work and the government pretended to pay," she says.

At Hanawon, the children are put through rigorous schooling to bridge a 5-7 year educational gap with South Koreans.

Physically, North Koreans also stand out. They are up to about 10 cm shorter and up to 12 kg lighter than South Koreans, due to malnutrition.

And, Youn says, the psychological scars run deep. About a quarter of the arrivals at Hanawon have suffered trauma and need counselling, or psychiatric help.

A Hanawon "resident" surnamed Kim weeps as she describes the day she left her 7-year-old son in the North. She says she had no choice but to run to China, as they needed money to buy food.

"Once I starved for a week, but I did not die," she said. "I thought I would be better off dying. But I looked at my father and my son, and I could not do it."

Suicide accounted for 16.3 percent of all deaths of North Korean defectors in 2009, South Korean media reports say. That is twice the rate of the South, where suicide is the worst among developed countries.

The ICG report criticises Seoul for failing to respond quickly enough to the rapid rise in numbers of defectors, the problems they face and public's negative perception.

"What is clear is the problems Northerners face on arrival take many years to resolve," the report said.

"What is needed is a long-term approach that allows greater role for civil society and is less subject to change with each new government." (Additional reporting by Seongbin Kang, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)