[Viewpoint] Open hearts to defectors

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[Viewpoint] Open hearts to defectors

On one cold day when the Yalu River was completely frozen, I considered crossing into North Korea. It was the winter of 1995 and I had traveled 4,800 miles along the Yalu from the Tumen to Changbai to Tonghua and to Dandong to investigate North Korean defectors.

I spoke little Chinese and had little local knowledge. An ethic Korean told me that if I bribed a North Korean soldier with $10,000, I could penetrate into a village in the North. I was tempted, and I had little suspicion about the offer made by my guide, who had become something like a sworn brother.

I called Seoul from Yanji and briefed my editor about the plan. But he woke me up from my daydream.

“Are you crazy? Cut the crap and come back right now,” he said.

I guess I had been overly motivated to pursue the defector issue.

North Korean defectors have been a “hot potato” issue in Korea since then. Whenever I cover or read stories about North Korean defectors, my heart is filled with sympathy and sorrow. They are going through severe pain and suffering.

Recently, the North Korean Defectors’ Family Group released two photographs that remind us of the critical situation defectors find themselves in. Two 24-year-old women, Choi Yeong-ae and Yun Yeong-sil, were standing like criminals before their forced repatriation after they were captured by Chinese security forces.

They were labeled “08099” and “08097” on their prison uniforms. Defectors’ group president Choi Seong-yong said that Choi Yeong-ae was likely to be executed when she was sent back to North Korea since she had fled three times already. Authorities execute many defectors who are caught and sent back.

In the last 15 years, I have visited China and Southeast Asia to write stories about defectors. I came to have one question: Why do the ethnic Koreans in China, especially those living near the China-North Korea border, help the defectors unconditionally? Is it because they share the Korean background? No, they are supportive because they were once in the same situation.

In the 1960s, China was going through severe chaos and starvation due to the extreme leftist line of Mao Zedong. Korean-Chinese people used to cross the Yalu River in search of food.

A Korean-Chinese man in Yanji told me his story: “When I was 6 or 7, my father took me to a relative’s house in North Korea. We had a hearty meal and received a sack of grain. On the way back, we were caught by Chinese guards. My father was forced to kneel down and was beaten. They took the grain from us, and we returned home crying.”

But what he added shocked me. The late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung ordered: “The Korean-Chinese are our fellow people. Starvation is the biggest pain, so we should help them even if it means less food for us.” Thus, the Korean-Chinese people still keep grateful memories in their hearts.

So, then, does South Korean society properly embrace the North Korean defectors who come here in search of a new start?

As more than 20,000 defectors have settled in the South, the report card shows a grade of “C” at best. Some say they’d rather live in China. More defectors remain poor and alienated than those who achieved success. The areas with high defector populations are turning into slums.

Last year, the budget allocation for defectors was 63.5 billion won, far too little to support the population here. They had big expectations, and they now experience great frustration. The North Korean defector issue should be approached from two perspectives - human rights and unification. Whenever defectors are repatriated forcibly, we need to address the human rights infringement with China. As long as the Chinese government ignores international law and practice in order to please Pyongyang, the tragedy will continue.

The Lee Myung-bak administration, which is hosting the G-20 summit meeting, should be different from past administrations that have been submissive when negotiating with China.

Support for the defectors needs to change as well. The defectors should receive help to become successful so that they can explain the market economy and capitalism to North Koreans in the future.

If they continue to remain alienated in Korean society, they cannot become “evangelists of the system.” The 12-week training sessions and meager subsidies are not sufficient.

When even bright, young university degree holders have a hard time finding a job, it is too harsh to demand competitiveness in the South from defectors. Their rehabilitation, vocational training and education should be extended by two to three years, and various programs need to be developed to help them. They should also be offered assistance with educating their children so they don’t fall into poverty and disadvantage.

Fortunately, in October 2008, President Lee Myung-bak directed that defectors be offered a year’s worth of educational programs.

North Korea is going through a transition of power. Until the succession structure of Kim Jong-il is settled, the country’s neighbors are on edge. Should the North Korean system fail to reach resolution smoothly, the sentiment of its citizens is a critical variable that will determine the future of the Korean Peninsula.

If North Koreans had a choice between the South and China in an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, which would they choose?

It is a shame for us to discuss human rights in North Korea and unification when we cannot embrace the defectors who risked their lives to come here.

*The writer is a political and international news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

by Lee Yang-su

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