Cablegate: Day in Life of North Korean Defectors in South


DE RUEHUL #2402/01 3500823
O 150823Z DEC 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: SEOUL 004283

1. (SBU) Summary: Poloff attended the second annual group
wedding for four North Korean defector couples organized by a
South Korean NGO. The couples were grateful for the
ceremony, which they postponed because of lack of funding.
Poloff also met with two of the brides to discuss their
experiences in, and en route to, South Korea. Choi arrived
in South Korea in 2006, after leaving North Korea in 1998.
Lee escaped in 2001, finally arriving in South Korea in
January 2008 after spending four years in different prisons.
Both left North Korea in search of food, lost their lump sum
ROKG subsidy to brokers waiting at the doorstep, experienced
discrimination in the South Korean job market and continue to
face economic hardship because the KRW 590,000 (about USD
450) monthly handout from the ROKG is just not enough.
Despite current hardship, both brides were hopeful that a
brighter future is ahead for their children. End Summary.

Group Wedding for North Korean Defectors

2. (SBU) On November 29, four North Korean defector couples
held their wedding ceremony in Yong-in city, about an hour
south of Seoul. Approximately 150 guests attended the
ceremony, half of whom were volunteers from the sponsoring
NGO. The one-hour ceremony included exchange of vows, North
Korean wedding songs sung by a 10-member choir from Hanawon
equipped with an accordion, and reading of a poem composed by
a North Korean defector in the audience, followed by a
reception in the upper floor of the wedding hall. The mood
was celebratory, despite tears of many attendees, including
the couples themselves. VIP Guests included Hanawon Director
Ko Kyung-bin and Yong-in Deputy Mayor Choi Sung-dai.

Sponsoring NGO: Saripmoon

3. (SBU) The group wedding was sponsored by Saripmoon, an
NGO founded in 2003 to assist elders and physically and
mentally challenged individuals. Saripmoon, which refers to
the "front gate" in old Korean homes in the countryside,
began assisting North Korean defectors in 2006. Saripmoon
sponsored a wedding ceremony for North Korean defectors for
the first time in 2007, initially planned as a one-time
event. Three couples were married then. At the request of
defectors themselves, Saripmoon hosted another wedding
ceremony this year. Two of the three couples married last
year attended this year's wedding as volunteers. Saripmoon
consists of 10 board members, about 45 sponsors and 100
members, and receives no government funding.

4. (SBU) Saripmoon Chairman Kim Jin-hee, also a small
business owner trading construction material in the city of
Yong-in, said that North Korean defector couples are often
already married, some with children, but have never held a
wedding ceremony because of the cost. With no pictures of
the wedding day, or an anniversary date, defector couples
feel less committed to their partner and are likely to flee
at the first sign of trouble, according to Kim. Kim shared
that he received thank-you messages from couples who were
married on November 28, 2007, grateful for Kim's assistance
in making them feel like a "real married couple."

--------------------------------------------- -----------
Meet the Brides: Choi Kum-sil, Mother of Two, and Former DPRK
Army Lee Myung-ok
--------------------------------------------- -----------

5. (SBU) Poloff met with two of the brides on December 10 to
discuss their new lives in South Korea. Choi Kum-sil
(protect) defected from her hometown Haeryung in North
Hamkyung province in 1998 in search of food. She spent eight
years in China, working for food and hiding from the Chinese
authorities. Choi arrived in South Korea in November 2006.
She recalled the time in China, "not having my own country,"
as the most shameful period in her life. She does not have
regular contacts with her family in Haeryung.

6. (SBU) Former DPRK soldier Lee Myung-ok (protect) arrived
in South Korea January 2008. She left North Korea for the

first time in 2001 and was repatriated multiple times.
Altogether, Lee spent more than four years in prisons -- in
Chinese jails, North Korean interrogation centers and Thai
detention centers. Lee also spent almost two years in a
political prison camp in Oh-ro, which she described as "a
little better than Yodok." Lee explained that she was
surprised to have made it out alive, since about half of the
prisoners die in the prison camp. She credited six years of
experience in the DPRK Army for her survival.

--------------------------------------------- -------
Interrogation Questions: DPRK Deeply Concerned About Contact
with ROK Citizens, Media and Christians
--------------------------------------------- -------

7. (SBU) Calling herself as an "interrogation expert," Lee
listed the following questions as "standard questions" which
the DPRK authorities ask to all detainees returned by Chinese
authorities at the border. If a detainee would answer
anything other than a firm "no" to any of the questions, the
detainee would never be freed, Lee explained.

-- Did you meet any South Koreans?
-- Did you see any South Korean TV programs?
-- Did you listen to South Korean radio?
-- Did you meet any South Korean Christians?
-- Are you a Christian?

Because Lee "knew the drill" and did not provide answers to
any of the questions, she received an additional beating, but
a beating was far better than death, she said.

--------------------------------------------- ------------
Rough Beginning: Brokers at Door Step for Payment; Forced to
Forfeit All Subsidies Received from ROKG
--------------------------------------------- ------------

8. (SBU) Like other defectors, both Choi and Lee were
processed through Hanawon; Choi is the graduate of the 92nd
class and Lee the 100th. (NOTE: Hanawon's graduation classes
are similar to the Foreign Service A-100 classes, in class
size, length, and opportunity for bonding. Like FSOs,
Hanawon alumni will identify with their class batch, or "ki,"
number. By comparing each other's "ki" number, one can
easily estimate the time of arrival in South Korea.
Currently, the 122-ki began processing at Hanawon in the
second week of December, 2008. END NOTE.) Both recalled the
time in Hanawon to be the "most comfortable" in their lives.

9. (SBU) The tough reality in South Korea began as early as
Hanawon graduation. The day Choi received her resettlement
money (distributed in a lump sum back in 2006), her broker
was waiting at the Hanawon gate. The broker also waited for
Choi at the door steps of her new government-funded
apartment. She owed KRW 3,500,000 (about USD 3,500 at the
time). Choi gave all of her ROKG lump sum subsidy, KRW
2,700,000 (or USD 2,700) to her broker and worked in multiple
restaurants to pay back the remaining sum within a month,
before the high interest payment started to compound. Choi
explained that "everyone" is aware of brokers' practices,
including the police and Hanawon, but they "cannot interfere"
since it was an oral agreement made between her and the
broker, which ultimately led Choi to South Korea. On her
"real first day" in South Korea, on her own in her new home,
Choi painted a grim picture of a new beginning with no
furniture, no food, and no friends -- just like her days
before arriving in South Korea.

10. (SBU) Lee, who arrived three years after Choi, also had
a broker waiting at her new home. Lee owed KRW 4,500,000 (or
USD 4,500) to the broker and she is still making payments,
because the subsidy that Lee received at the end of her
Hanawon stay is no longer distributed in one lump sum, but
divided into multiple installments of smaller sums. The
broker price has gone up in the past few years also,
according to Lee.

--------------------------------------------- --------------
Continued Difficulties: Widespread Prejudice; Still Without A
--------------------------------------------- --------------

11. (SBU) Choi said that even after three years living in

South Korea, She does not feel like a South Korean, nor is
she accepted as one. Choi recalled numerous job interviews
where the interviewer's behavior drastically changed once
Choi provided her national identification (KID) number.
(NOTE: Korean ID numbers include the ID holder's gender,
hometown and DOB. Earlier cohorts of North Korean defectors
share the same "hometown" number, which identifies them as
defectors. This issue has been addressed within the ROKG KID
issuing office and recent KIDs issued to newly arrived
defectors do not allow such easy spotting. END NOTE.) Choi
also said that some South Korean restaurant owners did not
pay the full day's wage when they found out that she was from
North Korea.

12. (SBU) With no real connection to South Korean society,
Choi admitted that South Korea does not feel like her
country. In China, she had food, but no peace of mind in her
hiding place. In Korea, her mind is at peace, but she
struggles economically and socially. She hoped at least that
her children will "feel at home" in South Korea when they
grow up. Choi is a mother of two; her youngest daughter is
six-months old.

--------------------------------------------- --------------
Down, but Not Out: Small Subsidy, but Big Dreams for Future
--------------------------------------------- --------------

13. (SBU) Choi and Lee said that they receive a monthly sum
of KRW 390,000 (about USD 300) per adult defector in the
family from the ROKG. Their husbands are not eligible since
they are Chinese nationals whom they met during their stay in
China and invited to the ROK after their settlement.
Assistance is available for their children, however. Each
child born to a defector mother receives KRW 200,000 per
month, or approximately USD 150.

14. (SBU) Despite difficult economic circumstances, Choi and
Lee both dreamed of having a better life in the future. One
of the defector brides who wed last year through Saripmoon,
Kim hae-young, enrolled in a beauty school, also subsidized
by the ROKG. Choi hopes to follow Kim's footsteps as soon as
she finishes nursing. Lee, who is a trained masseuse in
China, was disappointed that the massage culture is not as
widespread in South Korea as is in China. She hopes to work
hard in South Korea to save enough money to open a spa
specializing in massage in China. Just as dreamy, Lee
recalled the wedding day, when she wore "a dress for the
first time in her life."

--------------------------------------------- --------------
Fond Memories of Kim Il-Sung, but Deathwish for Kim Jong-il
--------------------------------------------- --------------

15. (SBU) Lee blamed Kim Jong-il for hundreds of corpses she
saw along the roads in North Korea, as a result of
starvation. "I hope he (KJI) will rot soon," Lee said. When
speaking of her childhood, including the time when she was
the final candidate picked from her hometown to participate
in the prestigious "state receptionist training program" in
Pyongyang, she referred to Kim Il-sung as "our beloved Great
Leader and General" and spoke fondly of the Kim Il-sung days,
freeing him of any responsibility for the current state which
North Korea is in. Lee said it was good to have food in
South Korea, but "everything else was better in the North,"
referring to South Korea's high cost of living compared to
virtually "free" items in North Korea.


16. (SBU) Despite a common language and shared history,
South Korean society and North Korean defectors are not yet
ready and willing to accept each other fully. These
defectors, like others we have spoken to, feel discriminated
against and don't think they can compete with South Korean
candidates in the job market. After relying on the state for
all aspects of their lives, they find the new life in a
free-market system too competitive and exhausting. As the
quality of ROKG support for defectors likely to decline as
more North Koreans arrive, the gap will only get wider.

© Scoop Media

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