Leaving North Korea for New Lives

A steady trickle of refugees and defectors continues to leave North Korea. And after often harrowing escapes, refugees face daunting challenges fitting into South Korea. Young defectors face many challenges.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

The exodus of refugees and defectors from North Korea is one of the last relics of the Cold War. Some of the lucky ones make it to South Korea. But even there, they face daunting challenges in fitting in to their new home.

The transition is especially tough on young defectors, who are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn met some of them in Seoul and filed this report.

ANTHONY KUHN: It's Saturday afternoon, and a dozen young North Korean defectors are hiking up Seoul's Mount Inwang. Joining them are a dozen volunteers from the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a civic group whose members befriend and mentor the defectors.

One of the defectors is a spunky, petite young woman surnamed Kim. She has family that could be arrested for defecting, and she asked that we only use her family name. She remembers the famine that drove her to leave.

KIM (North Korea Defector): (Through translation) At the height of the famine in 1997, I went to market and saw hungry babies crying in the streets. Apartments stood empty after the residents left in search of food.

KUHN: An earlier escape attempt ended in failure and led to a stint in a North Korean labor camp. Kim's father died from disease and malnutrition. In 1998, Kim and her mother and sister took one of the most common refugee routes out of North Korea, crossing the frozen Tumen River into China, where they hid in the mountains. They spent eight fearful years evading capture in China, and learning about the outside world before finally reaching Seoul a couple of years ago.

Kim started speaking in Chinese.

KIM: (Through translator) China did not recognize our status as refugees, and we were always afraid of being caught. But in Seoul, we felt free. If you work hard here, you can get what you want.

KUHN: After missing out on her education in China, she's finally going to high school at age 23. She says she wants to become a fashion designer.

There are so many things I want to do, she says.

The group stops for a picnic on the mountain top. One shy young boy dressed in black, 17-year-old Pak Young Ho(ph) agreed to talk to us. He says he tried unsuccessfully to leave China 12 times before finally reaching Seoul.

Like other young defectors, it hasn't been easy for Pak to make friends in South Korea. Many defectors his age feel lonely, alienated and insecure.

Mr. PAK YOUNG HO: (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: Of course, everyone's story is different, he says, but there are those who are unwilling to open their minds and they tend not to talk. It's especially true of the boys.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: One success story is that of defector Jung Nam(ph). This is his wedding day. Jung and his family were once loyal supporters of the regime in Pyongyang, but the government turned on them and one of Jung's brothers disappeared into a labor camp. But Jung finally managed to escape with his parents to South Korea. Jung is marrying a South Korean woman, and his family sees this as a sort of Korean unification.

Jung himself takes it all in stride.

Mr. JUNG NAM: (Through translator) Other people may see this wedding as a major event. But to us as a couple, it's just a very personal and private thing. But I do hope this event will narrow the distance between the two Koreas.

KUHN: The civic groups that help defectors adjust to life in their new homeland are a distinctive part of South Korea's vibrant civil society. South Korea's government helps by offering the defectors citizenship and financial aid.

But because it's so hard for them to integrate into society, there are only around 12,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea compared to 200,000 in China and elsewhere.

Sou Chang Rok(ph), a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul, explains.

Mr. SOU CHANG ROK (North Korea Expert, Korea University): The South Korean government has been reluctant to bring aboard(ph) North Koreans for two reasons. One is they don't want to hurt the relationship with the North Korea. And second reason is the economic reasons, because they have to support them.

KUHN: Professor Sou is hoping that the recently installed administration of President Lee Myung-bak will welcome more North Korean defectors to the South.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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