March 12, 2015 12:15
Around 27,500 North Korean defectors live in South Korea. They began escaping from the repressive country around 1995 during the height of a devastating famine, and in just 20 years their numbers have grown to almost 30,000 -- and far more if defectors hiding out in China are included.
Defectors are the link connecting South Korea with the 25 million people living in the North. Success stories of defectors who settled in the South could serve as beacons of hope for millions of North Koreans oppressed by the regime. But the reality facing many defectors here is anything but hopeful.
According to a special report by the Chosun Ilbo, some defectors actually regret coming to the South, while others do not like living here. In a recent survey of 1,785 defectors by the Korea Hana Foundation, which helps them settle here, 20.5 percent said they harbored suicidal thoughts during the past year, while 79 percent said they were depressed.
The suicide rate among defectors is three times higher than the national average.
Defectors find it especially hard to cope with discrimination and unemployment here. Most North Korean defectors, including those with university degrees from the North, end up working at construction sites or doing odd jobs in restaurants.
According to the Unification Ministry, defectors work longer hours than their South Korean counterparts but earn just two-thirds of their wages. And jobs are hard to find, due to the discrimination they face from employers. Defectors have been stereotyped as being difficult to train and prone to complaining. Things are no better for young defectors who were educated at college here.
One defector said she had to pretend to be an ethnic Korean from China in order to find work in a restaurant. Residents in some neighborhoods complain to school officials when a defector's child is enrolled in their district. Such treatment is unlikely to make defectors feel that this country is their home.
The time has come to take a closer look at the support defectors get from the government. The focus at present is on helping them adjust to life here. They do get perks such as benefits in college admission and scholarships, but what they need are more job training programs.
The government should also consider legal measures against discrimination in hiring and other activities, and incentives for employers who hire defectors.
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