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North Koreans face new challenges after they defect

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They faced potential starvation, imprisonment, torture, and made a dangerous journey to freedom only to discover new struggles that they never could have comprehended in their former lives.

Stories and reports of North Koreans fleeing their country aren’t particularly unusual. There are dozens of books written by or about North Korean defectors. Last week, thirteen North Koreans who worked for a restaurant fled to South Korea. It’s also been recently reported that a high-ranking colonel from North Korean military’s General Reconnaissance Bureau defected to the south sometime last year.

Writing for the Associated Press, Tim Sullivan profiles a man who, though relatively prosperous in North Korea, fled to South Korea seeking a life of ease and higher wealth. What he found was back-breaking labor and, he believes, discrimination by South Koreans. He was a policeman back in the north and he enjoyed the respect (as well as the handsome bribes) of the people around him. While he was fairly well-fed and even owned a TV, there was starvation and poverty all around him and he wanted to get away from it. A little over a year ago, he met with a smuggler and decided to try his fate in the South. He sneaked across a river into China and began a new life outside of the DPRK.

Like the restaurant workers, the policeman, and the military colonel, there are many North Korean defectors:

More than 27,000 North Koreans exiles live in the South, most arriving since a brutal famine tore at the country in the mid-1990s. Government control foundered amid widespread starvation, and security loosened along the border with China. While security has again tightened, nearly 1,300 refugees reached South Korea last year, according to statistics compiled by the Seoul government. For most, the journey required bribing border guards, life underground in China for months or years, and weeks of travel through still more countries.

They left behind one of the most isolated nations in the world, where the ruling family has been worshipped now for three generations, and only a minuscule elite are allowed to make international phone calls. It has no free press or political opposition. While the famine is over, the country remains very poor, with hunger and malnutrition serious problems.

“I didn’t have problems with money back then,” The unnamed former policeman now laments. How does he sum up his decision to escape to South Korea? “There are times when I regret it a lot.” Unable to get a job as a policeman or even join the military, he is now a day laborer, carrying cement throughout construction sites. Sullivan reports that this man is not alone with his sense of regret and that up to one-third would return to the isolated, totalitarian country. The former DPRK citizens “often find themselves lost in a nation where they thought they’d feel at home, struggling with depression, discrimination, joblessness and their own lingering pride in the repressive nation they left behind.”

Their journey to freedom and prosperity certainly doesn’t end when these men and women step into South Korea.

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Sarah Stanley

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