Defector Dilemma Upsetting Korean Diplomacy

SEOUL – "False expectations – that’s how I put my life in South Korea, now," says North Korean defector Lee Min-Sun (not her real name), who works in a restaurant in the capital.

"It’s like a marriage to lover who makes false promises," recalls Lee, who made her way to South Korea in 2001.

"It started with a sweetheart who promised a decent house with a fountain spring. But in reality the lover could only give a hut without even a bathtub," the 35-year-old told IPS.

"Life’s so hard in South. I’m discriminated against because I’m from the North and I can’t even get a decent job," laments Lee.

Adapting to life in the capitalist South is a challenge for North Korean refugees, but their difficulties may pale next to Seoul’s task of balancing delicate regional diplomacy.

Last week 460 North Koreans flew to Seoul from an unidentified Southeast Asian country believed to be Vietnam.

North Korea accused the South of committing "a terrorist crime" for granting asylum to the North Koreans.

Seoul has cloaked the exodus in secrecy partly to avoid provoking Pyongyang.

"South Korea will be held responsible for the aftermath of the operation and all forces that cooperated with it will pay a high price," the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland as saying.

For South Korean and Western activists, the suffering of North Koreans in their famine-stricken communist country justifies dicing with diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.

But the South Korean government has a different set of concerns. Topping Seoul’s fears are that a defector exodus will spark a chaotic Albanian-style collapse of North Korea, bringing hungry refugees southward by the millions.

"We obviously want to take them for humanitarian reasons but we can’t overly or unnecessarily provoke North Korea," a senior South Korean official tells IPS.

For Lee, the escape to South Korea began at the Tumen River at the North Korea-China border.

She bribed border guards to allow her to cross into China and then paid a "contact" to take her to the South Korean embassy in Beijing where she sought asylum. She then flew to Seoul.

Lee’s dramatic journey is typical of the over 5,000 North Koreans who have risked their lives to reach freedom in capitalist South Korea since the Korean war ended in 1953.

North Koreans have defected in growing numbers over the past decade, fleeing poverty and oppression. Most have escaped across the country’s long and porous border with China rather than the more heavily fortified frontier with South Korea.

However, China, an ally of North Korea, has refused to accept them as refugees and the defectors risk being sent back home if caught by Chinese authorities.

But the promise of better life outside the tightly sealed communist North Korea isn’t always the expected "bed of roses."

Having lived in a country where they have little personal freedom, the transition for North Koreans can be overwhelming. One of the biggest problems is unemployment.

As many as 50 percent of defectors have no job, or only part-time work.

Many quit their jobs, unable to cope with the competitive atmosphere in the workplace, says Chung Sung-Im, a researcher at the Center for North Korean Studies at the Seoul- based Sejong Institute.

"Of the 5,000 or so North Koreans in South Korea some are leading good lives as successful businessmen, entertainers or journalists," Chung tells IPS.

"But there are many North Koreans in the South who are struggling to cope with the harsh realities in the capitalist world that seem to confound them," Chung points out to IPS.

Chung says many of the refugees have a sense that they are being treated as second-class citizens and also suffer from culture shock.

Kim Mi-Ran (not her real name) was a herbalist in North Korea, when she defected to the South in 2001. And she was lucky enough to get a job in the same profession in a small town in her adopted home.

But the 37-year-old Kim feels her clients treat her differently when they discover she’s from the North.

"I feel miserable when my clients cancel their appointments or switch to another herbalist when they find out I’m from North Korea," she tells IPS.

Joon Soon-Young remembers the difficult transition she faced when she left North Korea in January 2003.

Joon was an actress in Pyongyang and is now a restaurant owner in the capital city with 15 North Korean defectors as workers.

"Of course, I have never regretted leaving the North; and I appreciate the attention and financial support I’ve received, both from the government and by private donors," she says in an interview.

"Despite all the hardship that I have got through, the bottom line is South Korea is still a better place to live," says Joon.

"I did not give up. I rose again and, now, I love what I am doing. You have to endure hardship if you want to win here," adds the former actress. "I had a dream to be free and I wanted it to work."

Last week’s cooperation between has been hailed as a sign that Asian countries are starting to address the defector issue after years of inaction.

But the intense secrecy surrounding the operation – Hanoi refused to acknowledge its role and Seoul would not confirm the defectors’ arrival – showed regional sensitivities to the issue.

"The massive arrival of Northern defectors is generally expected to compound a peaceful resolution to the nuclear standoff between Pyongyang and Washington which has kept the Korean peninsula under the grip of tension since October 2002," said a July 31 editorial in the Korea Times daily.

It is yet to be seen whether Pyongyang will use the issue of defectors to skip this week’s six-party security dialogue on the Korean peninsula – involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.