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Defectors cite poverty and oppression, but also a growing awareness of the outside world as reasons they left home.
SEOUL, South Korea — There is just enough space in Ji Seong Ho's home for his textbooks, a few clothes and a mattress. He shares a bathroom and shower with neighbors, and his only kitchen gadget is a rice cooker.
Although his cramped accommodation in central Seoul is modest, it's still a world away from the life the 29-year-old led in North Korea until he fled in 2006 under cover of darkness.
Six months later, after a 6,000-mile journey that took him through China, Thailand, Laos and Taiwan, he completed the perilous trip that so many of his compatriots attempt, only to die en route or fall into the hands of unsympathetic Chinese authorities.
Yet more and more North Koreans are prepared to take such risks as they flee hunger and oppression in search of a new life in South Korea, where their newfound freedom is clouded by discrimination, mental health problems and financial hardship.
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At around 12 percent, the unemployment rate among defectors is far higher than the 3.4 percent among South Koreans. Those working earn significantly less than their southern counterparts, despite government subsidies and three months of mandatory resettlement training, according to the government-affiliated North Korean Refugees Foundation.
Even so, a recent government survey showed that seven out of 10 adult defectors are satisfied with life in the South; only 4.8 percent said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied, according to the unification ministry poll.
About half of those questioned left the North due to food shortages, while 31 percent said they came to the South in search of freedom. Just over a quarter fled because of the North's political system.
They are among more than 23,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South since the Korean War ended in a truce — not a peace agreement — in 1953. The trickle of defectors through the 1990s rose dramatically about 10 years ago, the result of a prolonged famine in which more than 1 million people may have died.
Last year 2,737 people — one of the highest figures on record — defected to the South.
Seong Ho would almost certainly have died traversing the freezing Tumen River, which separates North Korea and northeast China, had it not been for his younger brother, Ji Cheol Ho.
The elder Ji had most of his left leg and his left hand amputated after being involved in a car accident as a teenager. Using a prosthetic limb provided by the South Korean health authorities, he now walks with a barely perceptible limp.
But he journeyed to freedom on a set of wooden crutches made by his father. "The river was really high because it had rained a lot," Seong Ho says of the night he and his brother, 26, bribed North Korean border guards with money sent back secretly by their mother, who had defected to the South in 2005.
"The current was strong, but we knew we risked being killed if we stopped where we were. Our only choice was to jump into the river. I had to swim with my good leg and my crutches. At one point I started to sink and thought I was about to die, but my brother helped me across to the other side."
The pair split up in China to avoid arousing suspicion, agreeing they would swallow the poison they were carrying if they were caught. Incredibly, with the help of brokers, religious groups and a large slice of luck, they survived the long journey over land and sea. When they next met they were in Seoul — free, in one piece, and reunited with their mother.
Their bid for freedom could easily have ended in China, where the authorities are taking an increasingly hard line against defectors. Last week, South Korea's parliament condemned the authorities in China after it emerged that they had forcibly repatriated more than 30 defectors captured along the border.
But their joy at arriving in Seoul was tempered by the discovery that their father had died after making an unsuccessful attempt to defect.
"He died a week before I managed to phone home," Seong Ho says. "He waited for us to contact him, but after months went without hearing from us he decided to try to cross