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North Korea Defectors Face Hurdles in South Korea

Thousands of North Korean defectors have made the dangerous and illegal journey to South Korea by way of China in the past 10 years. When they arrive, they often encounter adjustment difficulties in a place that looks and sounds Korean, but is very different from home. To cope, some defectors are turning to the Internet – and each other. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

For North Korean defectors, coming to the South can solve some problems.

Most have fled political persecution and severe food shortages. Here, there is certainly plenty to eat, along with what some defectors describe as too much freedom after coming from a strictly-controlled communist country.

The South is no effortless paradise. Defectors say they are often culture-shocked by the sheer materialism of South Korean consumers. Most face loneliness and longing for family members left in the North. So, they lean on each other for support.

Lee Hae-young directs the Seoul-based Association of North Korean Defectors. The Association's website receives 1200 visits per day, and features an active bulletin board where North Koreans can talk about their troubles.

"In a way, I still feel like an 11-year-old boy. I have a lower education level than most people here. I may not ever understand this place before I die -- I still have a very North Korean way of thinking," he says.

North Korean defectors who started Baekdoo Food Company know what it means to lean on each other. A small group of defectors pooled welfare money from the South Korean government to start the plant. The company turned its first profit two years ago producing North Korean style foods such as cold buckwheat noodles called 'naeng myon.'

"This is about our desire to earn money, but also to give defectors jobs,” says Jeon Yong Il, the manager of the company. “More and more defectors will come here, and the government cannot deal with it all by itself, so we have to create our own jobs."

Seven out of the plant's 15 workers are North Korean defectors. Founder Lee Choon Sam says the business is a model for fellow defectors. "Our success is a psychological symbol to other defectors. It says: 'We succeeded. You can too'."

Choi Yung Hee has started a successful business of a different sort.

Her marriage consulting company is called "Nam Nam Buk Nyeo." The phrase is a Korean play on words meaning "North Korean women for South Korean men."

"There are more than 10,000 defectors in South Korea now, and 85 percent of them are women. These women are so accustomed to life under socialism that they have trouble adapting. They all want to marry, and marriage is the best way to adapt."

Choi says she has arranged more than 100 marriages in the past year between North Korean women and South Korean men. Choi says the men are screened carefully. She says marrying a North Korean woman holds both challenges and rewards.

"North Korean women want men who are warm, and can comfort them,” she says. “Most of these women have had traumatic experiences, and have some emotional scars. At the same time, these women are not like South Korean women. They don't care anywhere near as much about where the men went to university, or what their annual income is."

The emphasis on such status symbols makes South Korea a dauntingly competitive place to succeed, even for those who are born here. Those North Koreans trying to build a second life are finding it takes a blend of self-reliance and mutual support to get by here in the South.