Boomerang case raises new concerns about defectors

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Boomerang case raises new concerns about defectors

The suspected boomerang defection of a man to North Korea on Saturday has raised new concerns that defectors in the South are not being properly cared for.
 
North Korean defectors often experience discrimination and alienation in the process of settling in South Korean society and have difficulty making a living, according to writer Cho Gyeong-il, whose autobiographical story, “To Aoji,” was published on Dec. 15
 
Cho, who defected to the South at the age of 16, told the JoongAng Ilbo in an interview that the man who re-defected on Saturday “must have been very lonely psychologically, especially considering that he only spent a few months living in the South [on his own] after being released from Hanawon and questioning by the National Intelligence Service (NIS).” 
 
Defense Ministry officials believe the man who crossed over to the North on Saturday was a man in his 30s who defected to the South in November 2020 based on CCTV footage and their knowledge of defectors who crossed the same area in Goseong County, Gangwon, to make their way South.
 
Defectors from the North are mandated to undergo a 12-week course at Hanawon — officially known as the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugee — where they are prepared for life in the capitalist South. They also undergo screening by NIS investigators to ensure they are not spies sent by Pyongyang or ethnic Koreans from China posing as defectors.
 
Cho urged more psychological and career support for defectors trying to settle in South Korea, where they often struggle with discrimination, a lack of familial ties, and difficulty making a living in a fiercely competitive society.
 
Cho singled out the adjustment program at Hanawon as under-preparing defectors for their lives in the South.
 
“The institute needs to offer practical, hands-on training in fields where defectors can feasibly find employment, like hairdressing,” the author said. “Most defectors leave Hanawon and end up working in karaoke parlors if they’re women, and manual labor if they’re men.
 
“They just continue struggling to survive [after they leave Hanawon] because they’re left to their own devices.”
 
Cho also said that many defectors remain emotionally unmoored, even after living in the South for a long time. “Not only do they face discrimination, but they miss the families they left behind. Hanawon needs to maintain a counselling department to manage defectors over a longer period of time.”
 
The Unification Ministry’s estimate that a total 30 North Korean defectors in the past decade have boomeranged back to the North suggest that the struggle to adapt to South Korean society is so hard that they take the dangerous trek back, where they can face brutal recriminations.
 
The North has taken an even tougher stance on unauthorized entries during the Covid-19 pandemic.
 
When a North Korean defector surnamed Kim re-defected to his hometown of Kaesong in July 2020, the regime shut down the city for three weeks over Covid-19 fears.  
 
In September 2020, a South Korean official with the fisheries department disappeared near the border while on a patrol boat and was later shot dead and his body burned in North Korean waters by North Korean soldiers, according to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.
 

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]
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