The long road for North Korean defectors

North Korean defectors living in China can spend 5-10 years there without legal status, with the goal of making their way to South Korea and becoming South Korean citizens.

After seeking asylum in South Korea, defectors spend two months undergoing investigation. A human rights lawyer is on site to ensure that their rights are not violated during this process, but they cannot freely contact the outside world. They then enter Hanawon, a three-month program that provides healthcare (physical and emotional), education (including courses on history, democracy and human rights), job training, and settlement support or life planning.

With their monthly allowance they can buy phone cards to call family or friends in China or elsewhere. (Some have spouses or children still in China.) They are taken on field trips and spend a night with a South Korean family. One surprise for the residents has been when U.S. service members come to the facility to put on talent shows. Seeing those they’ve been taught to view as mortal enemies singing ballads and making jokes is shocking and eye-opening.

Trainees, which is what defectors at Hanawon are called, also secure South Korean citizenship while at Hanawon; they receive help in finding an apartment and their security deposit is paid for by the government. After leaving Hanawon, individuals can receive employment subsidies, college tuition, and incentives for savings (if you save $500 a month, the government will match that) for an additional five years.

 [Excerpts of Des Moines Register article by Mary M. McCarthy, professor at Drake University]

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