Health

Returned N Korea defector struggled to resettle in South, lived meagre life

South Korea’s military identified the man who
crossed the heavily armed Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas on
Saturday as a North Korean who defected to the South in a similar area just
over a year ago.

The man’s plight shed new light on the lives
of re-defectors and raised questions about whether they had received adequate
support after making the dangerous journey from the impoverished, tightly
controlled North to the wealthy, democratic South.

The re-defector was in his 30s and making a
poor living while working as a janitor, a military official said.

“I would say he was classified as lower
class, barely scraping a living,” the official said, declining to
elaborate citing privacy concerns.

Officials, who said they saw little risk of
the man being a North Korean spy, have launched an inquiry into how he evaded
guards despite being caught on surveillance cameras hours before crossing the
border.

North Korean officials have not commented on
the incident and state media have not reported it.

LITTLE INTERACTION

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported
police in the northern Seoul district of Nowon who provided safety protection
and other care to him raised concerns in June over his possible re-defection,
but no action was taken due to a lack of concrete evidence.

Police declined to comment. An official at
Seoul’s Unification Ministry handling cross-border affairs said on Tuesday the
re-defector had received government support for personal safety, housing,
medical treatment and employment.

The man had little interaction with
neighbours, and was seen throwing away his belongings a day before he crossed
the border, Yonhap reported.

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“He was taking out a mattress and bedding
to garbage dumps on that morning, and it was strange because they were all too
new,” a neighbour was quoted by Yonhap as saying. “I thought about
asking him to give it to us, but ended up not doing that, because we’ve never
said hi to each other.”

As of September, around 33,800 North Koreans
had resettled in South Korea, daring a long, risky journey – usually via China
– in pursuit of a new life while fleeing poverty and oppression at home.

Since 2012, only 30 defectors are confirmed to
have returned to the North, according to the Unification Ministry. But
defectors and activists say there could be many more unknown cases among those
who struggled to adapt to life in the South.

About 56% of defectors are categorised as low
income, according to ministry data submitted to defector-turned-lawmaker Ji
Seong-ho. Nearly 25% are in the lowest bracket subject to national basic
livelihood subsidies, six times the ratio of the general population.

In a survey released last month by the
Database Center For North Korean Human Rights and NK Social Research in Seoul,
around 18% of 407 defectors polled said they were willing to return to the
North, most of them citing nostalgia.

“There’s a complex range of factors
including longing for families left in the North, and emotional and economic
difficulties that emerge while resettling,” the Unification Ministry
official said, vowing to examine policy and improve support for defectors.

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