SEOUL – A former North Korean defector who made a risky and rare cross-border return home last week struggled in South Korea, officials and media reports said Tuesday, sparking a new debate about how such defectors are treated in their new lives.
The South Korean military identified the man who crossed the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas on Saturday as a North Korean who defected south in a similar area just over a year ago.
The man’s plight sheds new light on the lives of the defectors and raises the question of whether they received adequate support after the dangerous journey from the impoverished, tightly controlled north to the prosperous, democratic south.
Officials who said they saw little threat the man was a North Korean spy have opened an investigation into how he evaded the guards despite being tracked by surveillance cameras hours before crossing the border.
North Korean officials did not comment on the incident and state media did not cover it.
Yonhap. from South Korea The news agency reported that police in the northern part of Seoul’s Nowon district, providing protection and other care, raised concerns about his possible relocation in June, but no action was taken due to a lack of concrete evidence.
The police declined to comment.
A cross-border affairs official at the Seoul Unification Ministry said Tuesday the defector had received government assistance for personal safety, housing, medical treatment and employment.
The man had little contact with neighbors and was seen throwing his things away the day before crossing the border, Yonhap reported.
“He dumped a mattress and bedding that morning and it was strange because they were all too new,” a neighbor from Yonhap is quoted as saying. “I thought about asking him to give it to us, but ended up not doing it because we’ve never greeted each other.”
By September, around 33,800 North Koreans had settled in South Korea and made a long, risky journey – usually via China – to find a new life while fleeing poverty and oppression at home.
According to the Unification Ministry, only 30 defectors have returned to the north since 2012. Defectors and activists, however, say that there could be many more unknown cases among those who have struggled to adapt to life in the south.
About 56 percent of defectors are classified as low-income, according to the ministry’s data presented to lawmaker Ji Seong-ho who defected. Almost 25 percent are exposed to state subsidies for livelihoods in the lowest category, which is six times the total population.
In a poll published last month by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and NK Social Research in Seoul, about 18 percent of 407 defectors surveyed said they were ready to return north, most of them citing nostalgia.
“There are a number of complex factors including longing for families left behind in the north and emotional and economic difficulties encountered in relocation,” said the reunification ministry official, promising to review policies and improve support for defectors.