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South Korea's Indifference Blamed For Deaths Of North Korea Defectors


Not long ago, a North Korean woman and her young son were found dead in their apartment in South Korea. The two of them were, like around 30,000 other North Korean defectors, living in South Korea. They'd fled for their safety. But critics say South Korea is indifferent to these people. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Seoul.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The song is sung in both Koreas. Its lyrics say, my hometown, where I once lived, is a mountain village with blossoming flowers. The song evokes nostalgia for a time and a place to which one can never return. It's playing at a makeshift shrine in downtown Seoul. There's an altar with photos of 42-year-old defector Han Seong Ok (ph) and her 6-year-old son. The two were found in their Seoul apartment in late July. They'd been dead for two months.

Kim Yong-hwa (ph) is chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea. He says Han was sold as a bride to a man in China more than a decade ago. Kim helped her to get from there to Seoul. He says his first impression of Han was of her rough, calloused hands.

KIM YONG-HWA: (Through interpreter) She looked at least 15 or 20 years older than her actual age. She was growing corn and potatoes in a rural town in China. And unlike here, farming there was not mechanized.

KUHN: Han and her son's bodies were so decomposed, authorities say, they couldn't determine the cause of death. But there was no food in the apartment and no money in Han's bank account so many people assume they starved to death. Kim says Han applied to the government for welfare benefits but was rejected because she didn't have proof of her divorce. Kim says he tried to help Han but failed.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I think that's when she gave up on seeking help, thinking that if I couldn't make a difference, neither could she.

KUHN: Han's death anguished Kim and made him doubt himself.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I thought, why did I bring her here?

KUHN: Of course, he brought her here to help her find freedom. But what was the point, he wonders, if she just starved to death in a land of plenty? He suggests that if South Korea's government can't take better care of defectors, it shouldn't take them at all. Another one of the few people that knew Han Seong Ok was a fellow defector, surnamed E. In 2009, they were in the same class at a government-funded training center which all defectors to the South must attend. She asked that we only use her last name to protect her family from the discrimination defectors often face in South Korea.

E: (Through interpreter) I was really glad and grateful to know that she's from my hometown. I liked her so much that we promised to remain friends and move to the same district together.

KUHN: E remembers that Han seemed bright but sometimes sad. She believes Han was distraught about a husband and child she left in China.

E: (Through interpreter) Almost every female North Korean defector feels torn between the family they already have and the possibility of a new spouse and a new family in South Korea.

KUHN: E says that Han could not have died unknown in North Korea. That would require a kind of privacy and anonymity that doesn't exist there.

E: (Through interpreter) You even know how many spoons your neighbor has. Even during the famine of the 1990s, we would know the morning after if someone had died overnight.

KUHN: In other words, defectors' privacy in South Korea is often just a form of isolation borne of society's indifference. Groups who help them say defectors are often traumatized by their experiences. Many lack the skills to thrive in a capitalist economy. Defector Choi Jung Hun (ph) is manning the downtown shrine to Han. He blames the government's policy of trying to engage with Pyongyang diplomatically in order to end its isolation and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

CHOI JUNG HUN: (Through interpreter) The Moon Jae-in government is walking on eggshells to look good to Kim Jong Un. That takes away defectors' freedom. We are always in a blind spot, treated as immigrants and not citizens of the Republic of Korea.

KUHN: The government rejects such criticism and is negotiating with defector groups about Han Seong Ok's funeral. Already, a struggle is taking shape over how Han Seong Ok died and who is responsible. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.