Refugees who fled the North often have to disguise their roots to gain employment and accommodation, as well as to avoid everyday discrimination.

Defector’s death puts focus on anti-North bias in S. Korea

01 November 2022 | Julian Ryall | DW

The recent death of a North Korean defector has shed new light on the isolation that many refugees from Kim Jong Un’s regime experience, with other defectors saying they struggle to adjust to their new lives and are often subject to discrimination in the South.    

According to police, a representative of the Seoul Housing and Communities Corp. visited the woman’s apartment in the city on October 19 as she was several months behind with her rent.

The official found the body of the woman, who was 49 years old but has not been identified by name. An autopsy has been carried out, but decomposition of the body and the fact that it was clad in winter clothing indicate the woman died around one year ago.  

The case has caused alarm in the government and among defector communities.

The woman arrived in Seoul in 2002 and worked for many years as a counselor for other defectors until 2017.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees the settlement of defectors, has announced an urgent review of the crisis management system for refugees to ensure they have access to support.  

 North Korean refugees face discrimination 

Eujin Kim underlined that life in the South can be a shock for refugees who have only experienced life in the closed society of North Korea.  

“When we first got to Seoul, we received a lot of help from the government and the NGOs set up to help refugees, which was important,” said Kim, who fled with her mother and sister from North Hamgyong Province due to the food shortages that plagued North Korea.  

“I had a large gap in my education and it was difficult to catch up with math and English when I first went to high school in the South, but I worked hard,” she said.

How serious is North Korea’s food crisis?

Now 36 years old, she said more serious problems became apparent when she had children of her own.  

“When my oldest child entered nursery school, I was friends with other mothers and I told them that I was originally from the North — and their attitudes suddenly changed,” she told DW. “People in the South often look down on refugees from the North, even though we are from the same country, we speak the same language and we have the same background. 

“Many people have a very negative image of refugees, they say we have come ’empty handed’ and they have to pay more taxes to look after us,” she said. “The media does not help as they only report negative things about refugees and some even say that we are spies.” 

Refugees face language barriers

North Koreans often have an accent or are not familiar with South Korean slang or phrases, while English is often baffling as they are not taught other languages in the North.

All these mark defectors out as different, Kim said, so many choose to disguise their backgrounds when they apply for a job or rent a property.

Her own mother told a potential employer that she was Korean-Chinese as she believed she had a better chance of landing the position.

Lee Eunkoo, a co-founder of Freedom Speakers International, which helps defectors learn English to improve their employment opportunities, said laws passed in 1977 to help defectors assimilate into their new lives in the South provide support with education, health care and other social welfare support, as well as assistance finding accommodation.

“That is what people need when they first arrive; the big problem is South Korean people,” she said. “A lot of people do not embrace refugees as their own, so many report cases of discrimination. And there are lots of cases when they do not tell people they are from North Korea because that causes more problems for them.”

Lee said South Koreans have been exposed to negative stories about the regime in Pyongyang and are quick to conflate refugees with the headlines they have read about Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship.

No contact with the North 

“Koreans have been divided for more than 70 years now and people in the South have virtually no contact with anyone in the North,” she pointed out.

“Young people do not know anything about any surviving relatives they may have in the North. And while we know people in the North are brainwashed, you have to also think that our education and media have similarly served to brainwash us to think of the North as an enemy that is preparing to attack us.”

The recent death of a defector is an echo of another similar case, in July 2019, when the bodies of Han Sung-ok and her son, aged 6, were discovered in their tiny apartment.

Local media have reported that they died of starvation a decade after she had fled the North for what she hoped was a better life.  

Kim said stories of hardship are common among refugees.  

“Some people are lonely because they have no friends or family in a society that is very different,” she noted. “Some get involved in crime, others lose their money. The suicide rate is high among defectors. For some, there is a deep disappointment in the South Korean society that they have run away to.”

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru