Seoul (AFP) – When elite North Korean soldier Joo Seung-hyeon made his way through the Demilitarized Zone, avoiding minefields and watchtowers to defect to the South, he thought he was going to a prosperous new life.
The reality was more complicated than that.
Ostracised by Southerners who he says see their Northern cousins as “poor, uncivilised barbarians”, he was dismissed at countless interviews for menial jobs as soon as he revealed his thick accent. One restaurant paid him half the wages of Southerners.
But he persevered, eliminating his original tones by repeating radio broadcasts, earning a degree in his spare time, and following up with a PhD in unification studies — the first such doctorate ever earned by a North Korean defector.
Now he has written a book detailing the challenges faced by Northern defectors in what has become a radically different society.
The peninsula has been divided since a 1950-53 war, with little official contact between the two sides. A summit in the DMZ at which North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in this week will only be the third such get-together.
More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled poverty and repression in their homeland since the end the war to make a perilous journey to the South, and are often held up as a symbol of human yearning for freedom.
The goal of unification is enshrined in South Korea’s constitution and it welcomed them with great publicity, some of those arriving in the 1970s and 80s enjoying nationwide fame as “heroes.”
But the fanfare died down as the trickle of defectors turned into a torrent in the 1990s, when a famine in the North left hundreds of thousands dead.
Public sentiment soured and now many defectors bemoan difficulties finding decent jobs or making friends, with most of their knowledge and skills deemed outdated or irrelevant, and many Southerners viewing them with suspicion and contempt.
Joblessness among defectors is seven percent, nearly twice the overall figure in the South, while their monthly income is about half the national average.
About 20 percent of them fall victim to fraud, theft and other crimes, a study showed, noting many lose a state cash subsidy worth almost $19,000 intended to help them resettle.
– ‘Scarlet letter’ –
Joo defected in 2002, partly lured by the promise of a “free and prosperous life” blasted from giant loudspeakers set up by the South’s army along the border — where he used to broadcast the North’s own propaganda.
Abandoning his guard post, it took him just 30 minutes to cross the DMZ, crawling under electric barbed wire fences and walking across minefields.
But South Korea’s pressure-cooker society was a shock.
“I was suddenly thrown into this ultra-competitive world ruled by the survival of the fittest,” he wrote. “This reality felt colder than the wintry night when I crossed the border alone.
“I realised that I… may never be able to remove this scarlet letter of ‘North Korean defector’.”
Even after graduating, more than 100 job applications in which he identified himself as a defector were rejected, but as soon as he hid the information he started securing interviews and even a few job offers.
Now 37, he teaches at several universities in what he described a “rare, lucky case”.
His book tells many heartbreaking stories — including one refugee who committed suicide after struggling to earn a college diploma but still being unable to secure a job.
Some see the refugees as “untouchables” — another emigrated after South Korean parents at his child’s school publicly protested that their offspring should not mix with his.
Joo is one of just nine soldiers to have crossed the land border to the South since 2000, the latest making global headlines last November with a daring escape under a barrage of gunfire from his colleagues in which he was hit several times.
But two of the others are in jail for drug use or attempted murder, and another became an alcoholic and died of liver cancer.
A fourth was left disabled after being hit by a car while handing out nightclub flyers. Another moved abroad.
“Many of the soldiers say they regret coming to the South,” Joo told AFP.
But he has no such thoughts, adding he also sees “tremendous hope” in young defectors in their teens and 20s, who successfully integrate into the South’s society far faster than older peers.
– Dark glimpse –
A government survey showed that almost a quarter of North Koreans in the South have at least once considered returning North due to homesickness.
Some do go back — at least 20 have appeared in Pyongyang’s state media in recent years, tearfully recounting their days in the “hell” of the South and saying they were treated like second-class citizens.
But Seoul accused Pyongyang of kidnapping some of them, their media appearances are largely believed to be scripted, and their fates are unknown — rights groups say defectors face harsh punishment in the North.
“I have never agreed that the South’s society is a hell,” Joo told AFP. “But it broke my heart seeing those who risked their lives to come to the South killing themselves or emigrating elsewhere due to social discrimination and stigma.”
And the issue offers a dark glimpse of some of the social difficulties that could await if the peninsula is one day reunified, he warned.
“North Koreans are very proud people who will never tolerate those who disdain their national and personal pride.”