Defector and young son found dead in apartment

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Defector and young son found dead in apartment

A woman who had defected from North Korea a decade ago and her five-year-old son were discovered dead in their apartment in Seoul last month, according to police on Monday.

Police believe the woman, who was 42 years old and identified by her surname Han, and her son, surnamed Kim, had died several months ago, given the state of decomposition their bodies were found in. A building manager at their home in Gwanak District, southern Seoul, discovered the bodies on July 31.

While the exact causes of death have yet to be determined through a forensics investigation, police say the victims may have succumbed to starvation, as their bodies were extremely emaciated, and no traces of food were found in the home, apart from some chili powder. No evidence suggesting foul play or suicide was found at the site, investigators said.

According to police, Han escaped the North in 2009 and passed through China, where she married an ethnically Korean Chinese citizen before arriving in the South. After having her child, she lived in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang, before the family relocated to China due to her husband’s job.

Police believe that she and her son were reduced to poverty after she divorced her husband in January this year and returned to South Korea, where they lived in public housing. Local support groups for defectors say she had no contact with fellow defectors or neighbors and had lived a relatively secluded life without internet or even a mobile phone.

Government records show Han received welfare assistance from the state for a year in 2009 but otherwise got no other subsidies reserved for defectors or South Korean citizens, other than a monthly stipend of 100,000 won ($82) for childcare purposes.

Han’s bank account was also empty after she withdrew all 3,858 won of what was left in May. Her son allegedly had a disease that kept her from seeking work due to a possible inability to find a caretaker.

The Ministry of Unification, which oversees the resettlement process and care of North Korean defectors in the South, expressed condolences, saying the case may testify to blind spots in the government’s care for defectors. Yet given the length of Han’s residence in South Korea and the lack of records showing she had received help, a ministry official said she may have opted to not seek assistance or may not have known she was eligible to do so.

The official added the ministry would verify whether there was an issue with the way it notifies defectors of the help they can get but added that some prefer not to be under the government’s radar after a mandatory monitoring period of five years, due to privacy concerns.

Defectors are usually given a resettlement education at the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, more commonly known as Hanawon, for around 12 weeks. After this, the government provides them with a resident registration number, arranges housing and usually provides a job. The defector is put under the government’s care for a minimum of five years, though they can choose to extend this period of assistance if necessary.

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