Accessibility links

N. Korean Defectors Often Find Life Less Than Ideal in South


A sense of familial warmth and kinship between North and South Korea has surfaced in South Korean pop culture over the past year. But for the small number of North Koreans who manage to reach the South, daily life can be lonely and difficult.

It was a marketing strategy based on bridging the North-South Korean divide.

Samsung marketed a line of mobile phones last year with music videos pairing South Korean pop sensation Lee Hyo-ri with North Korean singer Cho Myeong Ae. Together, they sang about a connection they felt was stronger than their differences.

Since 2000, when the two countries held a historic summit, many in democratic, capitalist South Korea say they have begun looking at the Stalinist North less as an enemy, and more as an impoverished relative. Popular culture in the South reflects that thaw in sentiment.

For North Koreans who manage to flee their repressive homeland and move to the South, however, reality can be colder than it is on screen. More than 7,000 North Koreans live in the South - most arrived in the past six years. Tens of thousands more are believed to be in China, awaiting the chance to make the journey.

North Koreans living here are called "sae tomin", or "new settlers".

For sae tomin, aggressively capitalist South Korea is jarringly different from the home the left behind.

Their alienation comes to life in several recent documentaries by a Seoul film studio named Sidus.

In this documentary called "Samsun," a North Korean woman says it is hard to rebuild her life, because everything is so new. She says in all of her activities, she has to start over from scratch. At another point, she talks of the pain of being separated from loved ones still in the North - a pain nearly all sae tomin share.

New arrivals spend their first three months in South Korea in a facility learning to cope with their new home.

They are spoon-fed the most basic principles of life in a modern, capitalist country: from handling cash and using an automatic teller machine, to grocery shopping and seeking a job.

They then receive a one-time resettlement stipend of about $36,000.

This training and aid, though a tiny part of the government budget, causes some resentment among many South Koreans, who view the defectors as a drain of public resources.

Even a North Korean accent can draw unwelcome attention. One North Korean woman in her late 20's, Jeong Ju Wha, says she does her best to keep her origins hidden.

Jeong, who has learned to speak in a flawless Seoul cadence, says people tend to keep her at arm's length if they find out she is North Korean. She says South Koreans resent her and other sae tomin as a tax burden.

Tim Peters is a Christian activist who works with North Korean arrivals. He says many are shocked to discover that they must now compete to be hired - and that it can be too easy to be fired. In the North, jobs are assigned by the state, and partly because of inadequate electricity and raw materials, many workers actually do little work.

"In North Korea, the culture of work is you don't do a darn thing unless you're told to do it," he said. "In South Korea, if you are not doing something, the boss is saying, 'why don't you take initiative, why don't you do that?' Well, you take six months of this in a Korean workplace, and this guy is out on his ear, because he looks like a sloucher, a loafer."

An official at the Unification Ministry in Seoul acknowledges 20 to 30 percent of North Korean arrivals are unemployed - compared with less than four percent overall in the South.

When they have jobs, many newcomers struggle to deal with their new cash flow. Some fall victim to cheats and lose most of their resettlement aid. Others, finding themselves able to buy consumer goods for the first time, quickly spend everything.

Kim Geon, a South Korean filmmaker who teaches at a school for young sae tomin, says South Korea's culture of homogeneity is another obstacle to integration. Kim says when North Koreans are perceived as being different, they are often socially excluded and even teased.

Because of severe shortages in the North, many sae tomin are physically and educationally less developed than South Koreans of the same age. They often struggle to adapt to the Korean spoken in the South, which has adopted hundreds of foreign words.

Despite the struggles, there are some success stories. Kang Chul-hwan, once a prisoner in one of North Korea's most infamous labor camps, now lives comfortably in Seoul with his wife, who is also a sae tomin. Kang is an author - his book, "The Aquariums of Pyongyang", detailed life in North Korean prison camps.

Kang offers a piece of advice to new arrivals. Kang urges North Koreans to learn, and internalize, capitalism. He says North Koreans too often expect capitalism to be a paradise, where wealth comes for free. By learning and accepting capitalist ways quickly, he says North Koreans can avoid becoming disillusioned and depressed.

Kang says there is strength to be drawn from the hard life most sae tomin have endured. As a defector, Kang says he survived the journey to South Korea by catching and eating snakes and mice. If he made it through that, he says, he can make it through any obstacle he might encounter here in South Korea.

XS
SM
MD
LG