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South Korea: Still Not a Safe Haven for North Korean Defectors

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Contrary to their high hopes for a better future, most North Korean defectors in South Korea face discrimination and hardship due to the lack of effective governmental assistance mechanisms and the ignorance of fellow Koreans.
The plight of the many North Koreans who risk their lives to escape to China, Thailand and other neighboring countries to seek asylum is now well known among the international community. However, their suffering and struggles do not end even when they are physically across the North Korean border. In early April this year, hunger striking by detained North Korean defectors in Thailand revealed the shocking conditions that these people were facing: 300 refugees crammed into a room sufficient for only 50-100 people, four toilets for hundreds of detainees and insufficient medical treatment. Many, therefore, were relieved when these refugees were finally sent to South Korea in the hope of a brighter future. Unfortunately, resettlement in South Korea often also fails to provide a fairy tale ending.

A recent tragedy focused attention on the fundamental problems facing North Koreans defectors now settled in South Korea. On September 11, Kim Young Shil (36), who was granted asylum in South Korea early this year, threw herself from the 10th floor of her apartment building.1 Civil society organizations including the Committee for Democratization of North Korea and Free North Korea Radio shed some light on the reasons behind her death.  Kim had been unable to visit her two children, whom she was forced to leave behind in China, after her application for a Chinese visa was refused.  In addition, her resettlement assistance funds and medical insurance, which were restricted to a 6 month period, had recently expired.2

Until June of this year, certain digits in the identification numbers given to North Koeran defectors distinguished them as having originally come from the North.  This led to discrimination in the jobs market, and to the denial of certain visas, including those for China, as was the case with Kim Young Shil. While the South Korean government has now introduced a new system of identification numbers, the 7000 North Koreans that received their numbers before the change in policy still face discrimination today.3

In addition, resettlement assistance funds and medical insurance benefits have also been drastically cut since the current administration took office. The amount given to North Korean defectors for resettlement costs was 37,000,000 Won ($37,000) during the previous administration, but this has now been reduced to 20,000,000 Won ($20,000).4 Out of the total, 17,000,000 Won ($17,000) goes towards a fund for buying an apartment,5 leaving only 3,000,000 Won ($3000) for other costs. This amount is not sufficient to cover living expenses and to provide a means of survival after the funds have expired.

It is evident that the South Korean government needs to seek better mechanisms to assist North Korean defectors in their resettlement efforts in South Korea. More is needed for job training to ensure the equal competiveness of North Korean defectors in the job market in the South.  The government also needs to look more closely at the question of emotional support, as a lack of interest from other Koreans is often the greatest struggle for these North Koreans in the South.  It is time for the South Korean government to implement more practical solutions to ensure that the rights of these defectors are protected to their fullest and that they are not treated as second class citizens. 

2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
5 Ibid.