Dae Hyeon Park was 17 when he fled North Korea with his mother, grandfather and sister in 2007. He says the fear never leaves him. “Most of North Koreans have the experience – the fear [of] death. … I mean 30,000 North Korean defectors are also facing those kind of problems and the fears – even now, every day.”
The East Asia Research Director for Amnesty International, Roseann Rife, said of North Koreans who manage to slip into China are tough and there is not always a happy ending. “We hear stories of people who actually spend most of their time in hiding, trying to avoid being noticed,” she said. “And it is very common in detention centers in China for torture to occur. A lot of the judicial system is based on unfortunately, confessions, and many of these confessions are extracted through torture.”
And even those who manage to reach South Korea, she adds, “They are coming under greater scrutiny and being detained and questioned about this transiting across the border.”
They also struggle to integrate into a very different country to the one they have left behind. They stand out because of their strong dialects, poor education and short heights, caused by severe malnourishment. Rife said of North Koreans in the south: “They often find it difficult to integrate and find jobs, and it’s a very difficult transition for many of them.”
The owner of a factory near Seoul which employs defectors from the north requests not be named because of fear of what the regime in the north could do to her brother, who is still there.
Once, she shared her real name and hometown with a client, who subsequently returned to the north. “So if that client was really a spy and exposed everything to the state, her younger brother could be in danger,” she said, through an interpreter.
Family members in South Korea paid NZ$80,000 (more than US$50,000) to brokers for the family of Dae Hyeon Park to make the dangerous crossing into China and later South Korea. It turns out the reality for those finally arriving in South Korea can be very different than the South Korean soap operas shown in the north.