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Korean crisis: the view from defectors

Defectors say the North's recent hostilities betray regime's desperation.

A South Korean government ship (right) sails by a navy offshore base near the South Korea-controlled island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea on Dec. 22, 2010. (Kim Jae Hwan/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — For North Korean defectors, Ryu Kyong Ok is much more than a reminder of home. The restaurant in central Seoul is where some come to discuss North Korea in sympathetic company as they dine on pork belly and kimchee pickles, washed down with generous quantities of soju spirit.

While the governments of North and South Korea engage in a new round of rhetoric in the wake of the attack on Yeonpyeong and Seoul’s latest firing exercises, defectors say hope is fading for a way through the diplomatic impasse, let alone for their long-held goal of reunification.

The waitresses at Ryu Kyong Ok refuse to be interviewed out of fear, they say, that their criticisms will put relatives and friends in the North at risk.

But other defectors, like Kim Hung-kwang, are openly hostile to the country they risked their lives to leave and build new ones in the South.

“The most obvious difference between the two countries is that here we have freedom, whereas in the North there is none,” said Kim, who left in 2002 and is now president of the pressure group North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity.

“Human rights are guaranteed and no one dies of hunger here, but in North Korea those basic needs are met only if you work incredibly hard.”

Yet life for many of the 20,000 defectors in South Korea contrasts dramatically with the one they initially learned about watching illicit screenings of TV dramas or on radios ballooned in from across the border.

Though they initially receive financial assistance, lack of education and discrimination among employers means that defectors earn well below the average wage in South Korea, the world’s 15th biggest economy, and almost one-fifth are in debt.

The hardship experienced by defectors, say South Korean government officials, pales in comparison to the lives they left behind.

“It’s very difficult for them to make the transition to living in South Korea,” said Kyung Kyu Sang, senior staff director of the governing Grand National Party’s foreign affairs, trade and unification committee.

“That’s partly because they come from a country that doesn’t understand democracy or respect global standards. The people of North Korea want liberty, but it has been denied them by the Kim dynasty.”

Kyung says the recent rise in the number of North Koreans fleeing across the border to China is a symptom of rising discontent with the regime’s disastrous handling of the economy, and the prospect that power could soon be passed to another member of the Kim family.

“You only have to look at how China has changed to see that the North Korean situation is a tragedy,” said Kyung. “China is normalizing its society and economy. That’s the direction in which history has taken it. The North Korean people are unable to effect regime change, but history will take them in the right direction, too.”

For now, history appears to be on the side of the Kim dynasty. Defectors in Seoul say that plans by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, to hand over power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, are likely to succeed.

Lee Hye Kyung, a pharmacist who fled the North eight years ago, believes the succession is inevitable, but she is confident that the regime will eventually collapse.

“Some South Koreans doubt the succession can go ahead successfully, but as a North Korean, I believe it will, because the people have been brainwashed for decades. The transfer of power is going to happen, and there is nothing we can do about it.

“The attack on Yeonpyeong was a sign that the North Korean regime is worried about its own survival. It showed the world just how desperate it is, and I believe it doesn’t have long left.

“It was done to justify the succession plans, to prove to the North Korean people that the regime is still strong. It advertises the attack as a major accomplishment.”