For most people, adapting to life in a foreign country is a challenge. For North Korean defectors, such challenges are much more imposing.
Take those who defect to South Korea, for example. “For them, it’s kind of like waking up from a time machine and finding yourself in the future,” Sokeel Park, director of Research and Strategy for Liberty in North Korea, an international non-governmental organization that works with North Korean defectors.
North Korea and South Korea started off on similar footing. Unlike North Korea, the South embraced globalization, democratization, and massive economic development. Where South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world today, most North Koreans have never used a computer.
North Korean defectors sometimes struggle with poverty, language barriers, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and suicidal thoughts, criminality, drug abuse, a lack of education and employable skills, and discrimination, Park explained.
North Koreans living in South Korea are reportedly three to four times more likely to end up prison than their local counterparts. “Under the burden of livelihood difficulties and homesickness, more defectors tend to get involved in crimes with the number of defector prisoners on the rise,” South Korean Rep. Kang Chang-il reported in late September.
Drug abuse is a noteworthy problem. Park noted that some North Korean defectors abuse drugs because that cultural norm exists in North Korea. Others use narcotics as a response to trauma, and for some other defectors, drug abuse is a type of self-medication.
For many North Koreans, freedom, while cherished, is sometimes bitter-sweet. The transition from a broken kingdom to the modern world is often overwhelming.
Most North Korean defectors despise the Kim regime for the tragedies inflicted upon them and their families, and pray for change in their former homeland.