“My hometown, where I once lived, is a mountain village with blossoming flowers.“
The lyrics to this folk song, which is sung in both Koreas, evoke nostalgia for a time and a place to which one can never return. It is playing at a makeshift shrine in downtown Seoul. There’s an altar with flowers, alongside photos of 42-year-old North Korean defector Han Seong-ok and her 6-year-old son, Kim Dong-jin.
In late July, the management staff for the apartment building where Han lived went looking for her, to see about months of unpaid utility bills. Smelling a foul odor from her apartment, they broke in and found both mother and son on the floor. They had been dead for two months. The bodies were so decomposed, authorities say they couldn’t determine the cause of death.
There was no food in the apartment except a bag of chili pepper flakes. Han’s bank account was empty. Police found no evidence of foul play, so many people assume Han and her child starved to death. The case has shocked South Koreans and refocused attention on the roughly 33,000 North Korean defectors living in the South.
Kim Yong-hwa, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, a defectors group, says South Korea should either take better care of defectors or not take them in at all.
Kim met Han Seong-ok in China in 2009, after Han had been trafficked from North Korea as a bride to a man in China. It’s not clear when exactly she was sold to the man. Kim helped Han get from China to South Korea that year.
Han returned to China last year, divorced her husband, and returned to Seoul with her son. Kim says Han applied to the government for welfare benefits last winter, but was rejected because she didn’t have proof of her divorce. Kim tried to persuade government administrators to help her, but to no avail. “I think that’s when she gave up on seeking help,” he says.
According to a survey last year by the government-funded Korea Hana Foundation, which helps defectors, the unemployment rate for defectors is 6.9% — 2.9% higher than the national average. They are concentrated in manual labor and service industries, and on average, work 8.8 hours a week more than the national average but are paid about a third less than South Koreans. Kim says defectors’ poverty in South Korea and the accompanying sense of shame often contribute to their isolation.