Defectors tell of challenges before and after fleeing North Korea
That reverses a decline in defections that began when Kim Jong Un tightened border controls after taking power in 2011, the ministry said.
Officials largely attribute the trend to Kim’s moves to further consolidate his rule.
This year’s increase also is a sign that even elite members of society with the resources to overcome the country’s poverty and other limitations are seeking to escape, the ministry said.
That was highlighted over the summer when Thae Yong Ho, the North’s deputy ambassador in London, moved with his family to the South in one of the highest-profile defections to date.
North Korea called him “human scum” and accused him of being a criminal who had embezzled official funds.
Thae told South Korean lawmakers in a private meeting on Dec. 19 that he fled because of Kim’s “tyrannical reign of terror,” a lawmaker who was there told The Associated Press.
Lawmaker Lee Cheol Woo quoted Thae as denying Pyongyang’s accusations against him. Thae also said North Koreans are suffering from “slavery” under Kim’s regime, according to the AP.
North Korea also has ratcheted up pressure on overseas workers and diplomats to send more money home as the regime is squeezed by tougher economic sanctions.
A group of 13 North Koreans working at a restaurant in China defected to South Korea in April, followed by three others in June.
Learning new skills
Upon arriving in the South, defectors must undergo an investigation by the national spy service. Most have a mandatory three-month stay at a resettlement center known as Hanawon.
The main center — a red brick compound surrounded by green gates and barbed wire — is on the edge of a forested hill in Anseong, south of Seoul. The facility opened in 1999 and has a capacity for 400 defectors at a time. A second facility was opened in Hwacheon in 2012 with a capacity of 300.
Most of the occupants are women who come from the border regions, where it is easier to slip across to China, Unification Ministry officials said during a rare tour for foreign media in late November.
The residents live in dorms and receive vocational training, internet classes and English and Chinese language lessons as well as extensive health care at a clinic staffed by 20 medical workers.
Many suffer from nutrition and dental deficiencies as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders and other mental issues.
Critics complain the resettlement centers are like jails because residents aren’t allowed to have cellphones or leave without supervision, although several pay phones are available for use in the courtyard.
In an interview after the speeches, defector Sera Kim said she found her time there too boring, although she was grateful for the assistance.
Kim spent only about a week in China before arriving in the South, so she still had no idea about life in the modern world. Even ATMs confounded her.
Kim came to South Korea to try to bring her mother, who had escaped earlier, home to the North. When asked why, she said “because I love my country,” then laughed when her companions reminded her she should use the past tense.
TNKR is one of several South Korean organizations trying to ease defectors’ transition.
The organization began in March 2013 with five former North Korean teachers who wanted to work in the South but found their English wasn’t good enough. It has since connected more than 250 North Koreans with more than 450 volunteer tutors and coaches, Lartigue said.
First Lt. Matthew McGowan, 26, of Collegeville, Pa., is one of them. He liked the experience so much that he suggested TNKR bring some students to the air base to address the soldiers.
“Our leaders tell us why we’re here. We work with our partners, the South Koreans, and they reinforce that,” he said in introducing the refugees. “Today we’re gonna hear a third voice … and I think it’s gonna reinforce what we hear from our leaders and the South Koreans.”
Stars and Stripes staffer Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.