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2008/09/04 11:19 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 19 (September 4, 2008)


N. Korean Defectors under Spotlight after Arrest of Woman Spy Suspect

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Public concerns over the legitimacy of North Korean defectors living in the South have grown after the arrest of a North Korean woman on espionage charges, the first North Korean defector arrested for allegedly violating the National Security Law.

   If proven in the courts, the case would confirm long-held concerns over infiltration by North Korean agents posing as refugees. The investigation could expand to other North Korean defectors, as prosecutors believe more spies could have entered the country under the guise of defection.

   But North Korea claimed the South fabricated the spy case to suppress progressive groups and deflect blame for deteriorating inter-Korean relations. In a statement on Sept. 3, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said the woman suspect was a convicted criminal implicated in stealing and shams while living in the North, who fled to South Korea after being caught in illegal activities.

   The 35-year-old suspect, Won Jeong-hwa, was indicted by the South Korean prosecutors on Aug. 27 on charges of spying for North Korea, using her romantic relationships with several South Korean military officers to procure information.

   Defections have been growing rapidly both in numbers and frequency in recent years, and nearly 14,000 North Koreans have resettled in the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The number has sharply increased since the late 1990s.

   According to unofficial tallies, more than 300,000 North Koreans are believed to have fled their impoverished homeland, mostly to China, since a nationwide famine hit the communist country in the 1990s. The number of North Korean defectors who came to South Korea reached 2,000 in 2006 alone, and this year the number will likely be over 3,000.

   South Korea offers the newcoming defectors various kinds of incentives for their resettlement here in the South. However, the rest, mostly in China, live in fear of being deported to their communist homeland where they face severe punishment, such as torture, imprisonment and even execution.

   This year alone, the number of North Korean defectors who arrived in South Korea rose 42 percent in the first half of this year from a year earlier, the Unification Ministry said Aug. 26. If the trend continues, the number of defectors will likely be over 3,000 at the end of this year, the largest number recorded in a single year.

   In the early 1990s, the number of North Koreans who fled to the South were merely 10 more or less each year. But the number began to increase sharply in the middle and later years of the 1990s when the food situation deteriorated in the communist country. A total of 100 defectors came to South Korea in 1999, then it grew 10-fold to 1,000 in 2002 and then soared 20-fold to 2,000 in 2006.

   The Unification Ministry estimated the number of North Korean defectors coming to the South in the first six months of this year to be 1,744, up 41.7 percent from 1,230 during the same period last year. The figure represented a growth of 101 percent from 869 in the corresponding period in 2006.

   A ministry official said the government is swiftly processing entries for defectors waiting in third countries to come to South Korea. The number of North Koreans who have defected to the South since 1998 has reached about 14,000, including 2,544 in 2007 alone.

   Every North Korean defector must undergo intense scrutiny before being allowed into the country. For about one month, they are required to undergo a government investigation for identification clearance. After the scrutiny is over, they are sent to Hanawon, a resettlement facility where they undergo social adaptability education for eight weeks.

   They are then offered resettlement money and an apartment, with various other forms of assistance relating to administration, employment, social welfare, personal security.

   As the number of defectors increased, increasing cases of failure to adapt to the South Korean society, and particularly the capitalistic system have become prevalent. In a recent survey of a North Korean human rights information center, the unemployment rate for North Korean defectors ranged from 16.8 percent to 27 percent for the period from 2005 to 2007. This percentage is comparable to an ordinary South Korean unemployment rate of about 3.4 percent during the period.

   A recent survey by the Korea National Police University research center said that a total of 1,687 defectors, or 20 percent of the total defectors of 8,885 from 1998 to the January of 2007, have committed crimes of various kinds. Of them, some 899 people committed criminal crimes such as murder, robbery and assault, a figure which accounted for 10 percent of the total defectors during the period.

   The increase in crime has been widely attributed to the decreasing amount of resettlement money provided for each household, as the budget limit for their settlement could not adequately accommodate the rapid increase of North Korean defectors to the South. North Korean defectors are rewarded 20 million won (US$20,000) by the government upon their arrival, and then an additional 15 million won once they land a job here. But the total budget for their resettlement does not meet the increasing number of defectors.

   The government slashed its financial support for North Korean defectors arriving here to 20 million won in 2004 from 36 million won to encourage the North Koreans to receive job training here. The North Koreans are eligible for an additional incentive of up to 15 million won upon completion of their job training or successful employment.

   But they have difficulties in adapting to the laws and various regulations of the South, which differ radically from their socialist homeland.

   North Korea experts pointed out that the Hanawon facility should increase education for the North Koreans newcomers so that they could quickly adapt to the capitalistic economy, and to the variety of life in the South.

   Moreover, North Korean defectors are highly susceptible to fraud here due mainly to their lack of knowledge of the market system, which they never experienced in the communist North. A survey of 214 defectors jointly conducted by the state-funded Korea Institute of Criminal Justice Policy and Cheongju University showed that 21.5 percent of the respondents have been cheated out of financial assets, a figure that is 43 times higher than the 0.5 percent among South Koreans.

   The survey also said that 23.4 percent were victims of various crimes such as fraud, theft and robbery, which is five times higher than the 4.3 percent for South Koreans as of 2005. Of the 42 fraud victims, 19 percent said they lost money to those who made false promises of arranging reunions with their families in the North. In addition, 28.6 percent of them said they were deceived in business-related scams, while 26.2 percent said they were not paid back, it said.

   The survey said over 60 percent of the respondents showed distrust toward South Korean society, and suggested that a separate facility be set up to help them develop a proper understanding of business laws.

   Worse yet, many North Korean defectors feel they are discriminated in their workplaces. According to a poll, more than six out of every 10 North Korean defectors living in South Korea feel discriminated against at their workplace while five out of 10 also believe they are paid less than their South Korean colleagues.

   The National Human Rights Commission said there were no serious violations of the human rights of North Koreans who settled in the country, but said the defectors feel they are often discriminated against because of their origin. The finding came in a report, which included a survey of 500 former North Koreans now living in the South.

   More than 67 percent of the respondents said they were being unfairly treated at their workplaces, while 52.7 percent said they were unfairly prevented from receiving promotions because of their background. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed also said they felt ostracized by their colleagues at work. Some 50 percent of them said they were being paid less than South Korean workers doing same kind and amount of work.

   The report said the findings provided some evidence of continued discrimination against North Korean defectors at workplaces, but said the problem also arises from the North Koreans' lack of job experience and education. "There is a need to consider establishing training centers for the newly-settled people to help them adjust to life in a different society and provide education opportunities," the report said.

   The report also said there is a need to expand the government's support for North Koreans defecting to the country. It said the current support system may not be enough to guarantee the North Koreans' livelihood here, considering the country's high prices compared to those of North Korea.