Closed A new Life in Freedom: Help North Korean Defectors
Seoul, South Korea
in the Korean War war ended 60 years ago. Meanwhile, North and South
Korea have grown further and further apart. For the 25,000 North Koreans
who've defected to the south since 1953, fitting in is a challenge.
Lee Min-young, life in South Korea was beyond her imagination. Now
looking back, 10 years after her defection from North Korea, the 21-year
old seems amazed that she's made it this far.
I first arrived here, I had a culture shock," Lee, who asked that her
real name not be used, told DW. "I didn't know anything that other
people my age knew, like using computers and the Internet or speaking
is one of 25,000 North Koreans who now live below the demilitarized
zone, the border that has divided the two Koreas since 1953. She and her
mother escaped their homeland together, but were separated in China and
never saw each other again. Lee only made it to South Korea with the
help of Christian missionaries who still care for her to this day.
resettlement isn't the end of the road for most refugees. Some say that
getting by in hyper-competitive South Korea is even more frustrating
and confusing than the lives they left behind. Overcoming discrimination
is often the greatest obstacle.
though North Koreans have no trouble blending into South Korean society
with their appearance, Lee say, their true origins are revealed every
time they open their mouths.
way North Koreans speak is different from South Koreans. I was made fun
of a lot because of my accent. I had a hard time communicating with
them," she says.
Discrimination against defectors
at the hands of South Koreans goes deeper than just different accents.
North Koreans are looked down upon and distrusted because of their
association with the regime in Pyongyang, say some observers.
Koreans have difficulty distinguishing between the North Korean
government and its people," Shin Mi-nyeo of the Saejowi Initiative for
National Integration, a research group in Seoul, says. "This bad image
is where the discrimination begins."
combined with a lack of education and other skills taken for granted in
South Korea prevent many North Koreans from fully integrating, Shin
to Seoul's Ministry of Unification, the government agency that handles
refugee resettlement policy, the unemployment rate within the defector
community is 7.5 percent, roughly twice the national average. The jobs
they do find are generally low paid and ones that most South Koreans
would not want to do.
Bridging the gap
Yong-il works to help refugees overcome the divide that prohibits many
from leading successful lives in the south. In 2006, Kim, a defector
himself, formed an organization called People for Successful Corean
Reunification (PSCORE), which relies on volunteers to help defectors
from the North bridge the gap.
The group provides free tutoring
services to about 600 people. Kim says the first step in bridging the
gap is teaching North Koreans the things they never learned back home.
cannot adapt to the education system here because in North Korea they
only learn about [past leaders] Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il," Kim told
DW. "Subjects that glorify the regime are the only things that really
count in North Korea."
beyond tutoring, Kim says one of the most important things PSCORE does
to help is creating an environment where Koreans from both sides of the
peninsula can interact. The volunteers are often South Koreans who want
to learn more about their brethren.
"One thing that's really
surprised me is just how similar we are," says 25-year-old volunteer Kim
Gina. "I tell my other South Korean friends that they are just like us,
they are normal people."
of PSCORE's most popular programs is an English conversation class held
each week at a police station in Seoul. In South Korea, English
competency is a requirement for entrance into university as well as for
Min-young regularly attends the class. She says PSCORE has not only
helped with her social welfare coursework at university, but she has
also made many new friends through its programs.
Lee admits that before she got to know some of the South Korean volunteers, she had her own biases to overcome.
"I used to think all South Koreans were two-faced," she says, "but after meeting them here, my thinking has really changed."