March 14, 2015 08:13
North Korean defector Kim Young-mi crossed the frozen Duman River early last year with her husband and daughter. But waiting on this side of the border were tens of millions of won in debt owed to the brokers who smuggled them out.
After the mandatory adjustment program at the Unification Ministry's Hanawon resettlement center, Kim and her family were given a lump sum of W18 million (US$1=W1,110) -- W6 million per person -- to help them settle in the South.
But every last won went to paying the brokers and she still owes them W10 million.
"I thought my life here would be like a TV soap where everyone lives happily ever after," Kim said. "But the minute we stepped out of Hanawon, I found myself already chin-deep in debt with no idea how to repay it."
When she left Hanawon in October, Kim thought she would find a job and make a decent living, but the reality was profoundly different.
Kim promised to repay the broker W1 million a month starting in April, but none of her family have found a job here so far.
They still get W1.07 million a month in government support, but half goes on rent and bills and the reminder is simply not enough.
Back in the North, Kim's husband worked for a state agency that sends workers abroad, which did not make them rich but ensured a reasonably comfortable life. Here in the South, they are heavily in debt and constantly racing against time.
"I need to find work as a laborer or do odd jobs in a restaurant, but I'm seen as too old so it's not easy," Kim said. "To be honest, the thought that it’ll soon be April again fills me with dread."
They are not alone. A clear majority of North Korean defectors end up saddled with debt to people smugglers and slide into poverty fast. Many jump from one temporary job to another in the struggle to repay their debts, which creates vicious cycle of casual labor and dwindling prospects.
Nam Young-hwa at the Women's Association for the Future of Korean Peninsula said, "For defectors the top priority is to arrive safely in South Korea, so they'll pay brokers whatever it costs without thinking of the consequences. It's only when they arrive here that the reality hits them, and since repaying the debt can take up all the time there is, it often triggers physical and emotional suffering."
A few years ago the North Korean leader regime stepped up crackdowns on defectors, which made little dent in the numbers who are fleeing but sent brokers’ fees through the roof.
According to civic groups that help North Koreans, brokers used to charge W2-W4 million for the passage to South Korea via China and Southeast Asia, and they met the defectors across the border in China.
But since Kim took power, brokers have to guide defectors all the way across the border, often risking imprisonment. As a result, brokers now charge up to W10 million.
It is almost impossible for a North Korean defector to make it to the South without the aid of brokers, who have networks of informants, couriers and messengers across North Korea and China. Brokers have to be aggressive about getting their money back, since they have to advance the money for transportation, lodging and food bills for defectors and to grease the palms of government workers or border guards in the process.
One North Korean defector who fled the North in 2011 got in bigger trouble after going on the run without paying the trafficker back. He slept in saunas to evade his broker and changed his mobile phone number several times. That made it difficult finding a job, so he had to spend all the W4 million from the government on living expenses. Without money in his pocket, he may now have to give up the flat the government provided so that he can use the deposit to buy food.
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