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A shameful stigma

Sept 24,2019
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Lee Ae-ran, head of the Center for Liberty and Reunification, says the starvation deaths of two North Korean defectors resulted from our society’s alienation of defectors. [CHANG SE-JEONG]
이미지뷰
Chang Se-jeong
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Defectors from North Korea lie about their pasts and pose as ethnic Koreans from China when they apply for temporary jobs on construction sites or in convenience stores. They claim they feel more self-conscious about their backgrounds under the Moon Jae-in administration because of its friendliness with the Pyongyang regime,” said a female defector who has a Ph.D. in North Korean studies. She was amongst the mourners at a memorial set up in Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul for a mother and six-year-old son who were found dead at their home in Seoul. They are believed to have starved to death here despite the wealth surrounding them.

She spoke of the innate prejudice South Koreans have against North Korean defectors. “South Koreans usually look down on North Koreans, even below Chinese. Defectors instinctively hide their identity and feign as if they are from China,” she said.

Over 33,000 North Koreans have risked their lives to defect to South Korea. Yet they face a distinct form of sufferings in their new lives. A 55-year-old man who fled North Korea in 2014 told of his experience in the daily labor market in South Korea. “Everyone gets equal pay for a day’s work. But North Koreans are dealt with more harshly than the Chinese. We are often treated like bugs just because we are from a country poorer than China. So North Koreans lie and say they are Chinese when they are asked where they came from.”

A 62-year-old man surnamed Park, who defected from North Korea in 2003 had similar experiences on construction sites. “South Koreans no longer treat the Chinese as they did in the past because their living standards have gone up. But they still look down on North Koreans. The stress one feels from getting inhuman treatment goes beyond description. You, South Koreans, will never know,” he said.

Disillusioned by life in South Korea, some seek a new life in other countries. Park, who went to the United Kingdom and got British citizenship, explained the reason why North Korean defectors leave the South. “It is better to be mistreated by another people than by the same race,” he said.

Some parents even hide from their own children the fact that they are from North Korea to help them get along at schools. Kim Tae-hee, head of the Coalition of North Korean Refugees for Freedom and Human Rights, said that a state-sponsored after-school program for children of defectors is mostly shunned because the kids don’t want their friends to know their backgrounds. She puts the blame on the South Korean society’s bias.

North Korean defectors complain that their lives have become harder under the liberal Moon administration, which has tried mightily to engage Pyongyang. Groups in any way critical of Pyongyang have been losing funding. Seminars and lectures through which North Korean refugee groups earn money have been cut off.

Lee Yoon-geol, director of a center for North Korean strategic intelligence known for his pool of sources, was even arrested for spying and later freed after he was found not guilty. Other elite North Korean defectors went under similar hardship and pressure.

Hundreds of citizens last week attended the memorial for the North Korean mother and son who died from starvation. Huh Kwang-il, chairman of the Committee for Democratization of North Korea, decried that a mother and son had died from hunger under the Moon Jae-in administration, which claims to be “people-first.” The presidential office did not send any condolence message or flowers to the memorial. Neither did the head of the ruling party, Unification Ministry or the Seoul mayor.

The group of North Korean defectors sang the South Korean national anthem in choked-up voices, holding pickets reading “North Korean defectors are South Korean citizens too.” They marched up to the Blue House with photos of the deceased. Lee Ae-ran, head of the Center for Liberty and Reunification, said the deaths of the North Korean defectors resulted from our society’s ignorance and alienation of defectors.

Kim Tae-hee of the refugee coalition asked, “What wrong have we done? The government has said people come first. But weren’t the mother and son humans?”

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 23, Page 28