Why defectors rarely brag

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Why defectors rarely brag

Since last month, I have been writing a series of profiles on North Korean defectors living in the South. I have profiled six of these brave and troubled souls.

To my surprise, it was relatively easy to find defectors struggling in South Korea - and willing to talk about it. But it was far more difficult to find a successful defector who was willing to be featured in the newspaper.

This was not because there are no successful defectors. There are success stories, as can only be expected now that 26,800 people have left their lives in the North to settle here since 1950.

Defectors are largely divided into those who came before and after the Arduous March, a devastating famine that killed many North Koreans from 1994 to 1998. There were only 947 defectors before 1998.

“Those who defected to South Korea before 1998 came mostly for political reasons, through their own routes, and they were mostly men,” said Kwon Eun-seong, a Unification Ministry official. “Many of the defectors who came after 1998 were women who came for economic reason. After 2007, 70 percent of defectors were women.”

As the numbers mushroomed, so did the variety of experiences and fates befalling defectors. Some failed, but some succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The reasons I couldn’t find successful defectors willing to sit down and talk are equally varied.

Some are downright scary.

“One of my friends is a doctor working at a large university hospital,” a defector told me. “But she doesn’t want to be written up in the media. She has a family left behind in the North. She’s worried that if she is portrayed as a successful defector in the media, her family will be punished by the regime.”

Some had practical reasons: They’re trying to “pass” as southerners.

“Many defectors running their own businesses here in the South hide their identities,” another defector said. “They speak Korean like southerners and no one can tell they are from the North. They’re worried their reputations could be ruined if they were revealed to be defectors.”

In fact, the general public probably has misconceptions about how the average defector lives in the South. Prominent North Korean defectors who frequently give interviews to the media have transformed themselves into North Korea specialists, and their whole lives are about North Korea and defectors. But average defectors are just trying to get a decent job to survive and they usually extract themselves from the defector community.

“Most of the successful defectors do not interact with other defectors,” said a North Korean defector who has a decent job in Seoul. “We are busy trying to interact with South Korean people. That’s our way of surviving here.”

Some defectors who have made decent fortunes in South Korea say they shun other defectors because they inevitably ask them for money. The last thing they want is their success to be reported in the media.

“So many North Korean civic groups ask me to give donations,” said a defector who runs his own business. “I can’t select one group because it would make the other groups angry.”

If you ask the government to introduce you to model defectors who have succeeded in their new lives, they can’t offer much help. First, the successful ones have no need to keep in touch with the government.

“We have no idea how the really successful defectors are living,” a Seoul official said. “That’s because they never ask us for subsidies or support.”

Second, success for defectors also invites risk, the government says.

“We always suspect that a successful North Korean defector could become a spy for the regime,” said a high-ranking Seoul official. “The more they are publicized in the media, the more likely it is that they could be targeted by North Korean authorities to become a spy or earn foreign currency for the regime. North Korea can use threats on them, or otherwise win them over.”

Han Pil-su, a defector who became CEO of H&L Financial Club, a trading company based in Seoul, was an iconic defector who succeeded as a businessman in the 2000s.

He was renowned for hiring defectors to work at his company. H&L had about 60 billion won ($58.4 million) in sales in 2011. He was lauded in the local media as one of the most successful businessmen who ever defected.

Last April, Han, 49, vanished while on a business trip to China. A group of North Korean defectors ended up accusing Han of absconding with their investments in his company, about 10 billion won, according to police.

Ten former prisoners of war from the 1950-53 Korean War, who are in their 70s or 80s, said they had pumped their government rewards into Han’s company, 2.8 billion won in total.

Han is still on the run.

“It is hard to introduce a successful defector turned businessman to the media, because we’re never sure their businesses will continue to be successful in the future,” said Kwon Eun-seong, of the Unification Ministry.

Up until the early 1990s, a North Korean with a university degree was rare. But with the increasing number of defectors, there are now about 1,700 who had university degrees when they arrived in the South, according to the Ministry of Unification.

But even elite North Korean defectors have difficulties getting decent, white-collar jobs.

“One of the specialties that a North Korean defector can use in the South is oriental medicine or electric machinery,” a defector said. “In oriental medicine, it’s easy for a defector to become a doctor as the medical terms used in both Koreas are similar. Also, there is a perception in South Korea that a North Korean oriental medicine doctor would be good at acupuncture, assuming they learned it in China.”

Many defectors from the North Korean elite work at civic groups, such as fighting for improving North Korean human rights.

“Men from the North find few ways to make a living with their college degrees,” a female North Korean defector said. “So many male defectors form civic groups with political purposes.”

But civic groups formed by North Korean defectors receive no subsidies from the South Korean government by law. They have to live on donations from the public or even U.S. Congress.

The ruling Saenuri Party is trying to pass a bill on human rights for North Korean organizations that includes legalizing funding for those groups. But lawmakers from the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy say the bill will worsen inter-Korean relations.

“No one in our civic group can make a living by working as an activist at an NGO,” said one defector who is a member of a North Korean defectors’ civic group.

He has a university degree.

“They mostly have other jobs, such as going on TV news programs as a North Korean specialist or giving lectures about North Korea at government organizations.”

Some defectors try living off their defector status, creating a kind of defector racket. “A friend of mine is a well-known former member of the North Korean elite and is frequently written up in the media,” another defector said. “But she make no effort to get a decent job or run her own business. She just tries to stay close to politicians or search for government-run programs for defectors.”

BY Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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