North Korean refugees under protection at a South Korean resettlement center told their stories as Seoul opened the facility to the public for the first time yesterday in commemoration of its 10th founding anniversary.
Hanawon, meaning the "House of Unity" and located in Anseong, just an hour's drive south of Seoul, is the first stop for North Koreans who enter the South.
The facility, surrounded by hills and monitored by security guards, is a restricted area under South Korean law where photographing and disclosure of the trainees' personal information are limited.
The facility provides a compulsory 12-week education program to help defectors better adjust to life in the capitalist South.
More than 16,000 North Koreans have fled to the more affluent South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War to escape hunger and oppression. The number of new defectors has been on the rise annually, from 1,138 in 2002 to 2,809 last year. Over half of all defectors are women.
The government expects some 3,000 more arrivals this year.
"A truly advanced society is where minorities are protected and humanitarianism and human rights are cherished," Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said in a video message sent to the anniversary ceremony yesterday.
"The issue of North Korean refugees is not simply a matter of providing support for their resettlement here but is becoming a touchstone for national advancement and unification."
About 400 members of the government, National Assembly, former unification ministers and vice ministers, local government leaders, volunteer groups and those who have completed the training course at Hanawon attended the ceremony yesterday.
The North Korean refugees currently staying in Hanawon entered the South in the first half of this year.
"I was sought after by (North Korean) authorities for criticizing socialism when I got drunk near the Daedong River in April last year," a 62-year-old former laborer surnamed Kim from Pyongyang and current trainee of Hanawon told reporters yesterday.
"People told me if I get arrested now, I would die in prison, so I fled."
Female defectors in Hanawon are mostly from the northern-most provinces of Hamgyeong where the shortage of food is suspected to be the most severe.
"I have a five-year-old child in the North and I cried endlessly for a year after fleeing in late 2005," said a 37-year-old former laborer surnamed Lim from North Hamgyeong Province.
"But then I thought crying wouldn't help me get my child back and decided to focus on moving on with my life and arrived in the South in February this year."
Lim said she lost favor with the North Korean authorities after getting caught watching a 1998 South Korean romance film named "The Promise."
After the defectors complete the 12-week cultural orientation and career development programs in Hanawon, they are given state stipends of 19 million won per person in monthly installments to live on their own - 13 million won of which is for housing.
Still, defectors generally say employment is their biggest challenge in the competition-driven South. Coming from different academic systems centered on the cult worship of leader Kim Jong-il and socialist ideology, most defectors settle for blue-collar jobs that don't require advanced education - working in the manufacturing sector (30 percent), lodging facilities or restaurants (19 percent), construction (12 percent) and retail (12 percent), according to government data released in March.
Manual laborers (paid by the day) accounted for 43 percent of employed North Korean defectors, compared to the 9 percent recorded for South Koreans.
The newcomers from the North earned an average of 937,000 won ($741) per person a month, about one-third of what South Korean workers earn.
Although a majority of the defectors struggle adjusting to life here, there are many who lead successful and happy lives in their land of dreams.
Thirty-five-year-old pianist Kim Cheol-woong, who graduated from a major music school in Pyongyang and arrived in the South just six years ago, is now a professor of an arts college here.
Kim Chul-yong, 35-year-old North Korean college graduate who left Hanawon in 2001, worked as the assistant director of the 2008 movie "Crossing" on North Korean defectors.
Well-educated women from North Korea find it easier to adjust to life in the South.
Yoo Hye-ran, 45-year-old former doctor in the North now works as a vicar at a church in Gangnam. Yoo left Hanawon nine years ago and undertook graduate courses in theology here.
Some 14,000 people who fled the North - 9,900 of them women - have completed the cultural orientation courses at Hanawon, which opened in 1999.
The main Hanawon facility in Anseong now has the capacity to house 750 refugees. A second Hanawon for male adults only officially opened last Friday to house another 250 people.
Hanawon is now looking to extend its three-month orientation to offer life-time support for the newcomers, who face a string of daunting challenges including unemployment, stereotyping and cultural barriers, said Youn Mi-ryang, the center's new director-general.
"Hanawon is now 10 years old and I believe it's time for the center to draw a bigger picture," Youn told reporters last week ahead of the 10th anniversary.
Youn said language is an unexpected major barrier for North Korean defectors, who often have distinct accents and aren't familiar with the slew of English words that have fallen into regular use here.
The demographics of North Korean defectors has drastically expanded - from borderline soldiers in the Cold War era to diplomats, party officials, fishermen, farmers and other working-class people who began to stream in during the mid-1990s.
They were mostly male at first, but 80 percent of new defectors now are female.
As their numbers increased, South Korean state incentives for defectors decreased. New defectors used to receive a hero's welcome in the 1960s and 1970s, and were often awarded luxury housing and hefty stipends.
Financial support has since been cut, but the number of defectors is now well over 16,000.
Despite all of the challenges, Youn said she is seeing small improvements, and believes Hanawon is a kind of litmus test for how South Korea could reunite with the North.
"I sense that there is a stronger will among the newcomers to stand alone. There is a better attitude to get a job rather than live off welfare," she said. "I hope our society will become more tolerant to embrace people who come from different cultures."
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