By Jo He-rim / The Korea HeraldOn the last day of July, decomposing bodies of a mother in her 40s and her 6-year-old son were found in their apartment in Seoul. Their deaths were apparently due to starvation.
The case would be shocking on its own, but the impact of the news was compounded when it was revealed that the mother was a North Korean who had fled the North for a better life in the South.
As questions piled up as to how the defector and her young son died of hunger in South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, alarm bells rang over its system for supporting North Korean refugees and other vulnerable people.
The National Forensic Service returned an open verdict on the cause of the death of the mother and her son. They did not suffer from diseases that could lead them to die and no signs of external injuries were found, the NFS said. But circumstantial evidence pointed to starvation as the cause of their deaths.
Han Sung-ok, 42, lived with her son, Kim Dong-jin, in a rented apartment in Gwanak-gu, Seoul. When their bodies were found, about two months after their deaths, electricity and water had been cut off for months and the only food in the house was a bag of red pepper flakes.
The Unification Ministry started the one-month survey of vulnerable North Korean defectors on Sept. 2, saying it would figure out their living conditions and come up with a better support system. Among about 30,700 North Korean refugees living in the South, the ministry estimates that about 10 percent of them have specific vulnerabilities, such as being a single parent or old.
The vulnerable family fell in a blind spot of a welfare system. Han, who had no income, would have been eligible to receive a basic livelihood security subsidy of at least 870,000 won ($730) a month, and other welfare benefits related to her situation. But the only government subsidy she received was 100,000 won in March for childcare, which had been cut as well because her son was to turn 7 years old. The mother withdrew the last 3,858 won from her bank account in mid-May.
Han visited a community service center three times to apply for the basic living security subsidy, but was rejected, reportedly because she was not able to provide paperwork such as a certificate of divorce from her former husband who lives in China.
Aside from the unpaid maintenance costs, Han’s unpaid apartment rent went unnoticed due to administrative errors. An emergency planning committee organized by some 40 civic groups related to North Korean defectors, has set up a memorial altar for the mother and son in central Seoul.
Speaking to The Korea Herald at the memorial altar, a woman said she understands the difficulties Han had suffered and lamented what happened in South Korea.
“Han could not pay her bills for months, and nobody looked into her. Public servants responsible for taking care of vulnerable [people] found her two months after she died,” said the woman who defected to South Korea in 2011.
The woman, who is also single and the mother of a 7-year-old boy, said she was also cut off from a government subsidy when she went to China for about a month. She cannot work because of her impairments and receives a government subsidies of about 1 million won every month.
“I had to make a strong complaint at a borough office to receive the subsidy again. I hate how public officials give us discriminatory looks because we are defectors,” the woman said.
Just a month after the bodies of Han and Kim were found, another North Korean defector was also found dead in his gosiwon, a tiny one-room accommodation in a shared house, in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province. The 45-year-old, who is said to have suffered from destitution since he came to the South in 2005, left behind a note wishing for his parents’ well-being.
Policy not centered on defectors
North Korean defectors in South Korea are supported by the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act, of which the Unification Ministry takes charge. The defectors receive 12 weeks of adaptation training in Hanawon and are provided with a settlement fee of 8 million won and a housing subsidy of 16 million won. The amount of such money can be higher for refugees with dependents or special needs, according to the Unification Ministry.
During their first five years, the settlement support usually continues and the defectors are given advantages in applying for the basic livelihood security subsidy managed by the Welfare Ministry. But the support program is largely limited once the five-year period is over to those who fail to adapt or get sick after they are placed in a difficult situation. A complicated administration system and lack of information also make it difficult for the defectors to make use of the welfare program for them, experts said.
According to the 2018 Settlement Survey of North Korean Refugees in South Korea, released by the Korea Hana Foundation this year, the annual income of 40.3 percent of North Korean defectors was below 20 million won.
The survey was conducted on 3,000 North Korean defectors who came to South Korea between January 1997 and December 2017.
“Among various reasons for the deaths, I believe the difficult and isolated environment has led defectors to give up hope for life,” a unification studies professor who refused to reveal his name told The Korea Herald.
“There has never been a real defector-centered policy, as they are often swayed by the change of governments. I am skeptical that much will change with South Korea’s deep-rooted bureaucracy,” said the professor.
While about 74 percent of North Korean defectors in the South are women, policies fall short of meeting the needs of the specific population, defectors say. North Korean defector groups argue that they should be involved in the policy-making processes, because they know what is actually needed to adapt to life in South Korea.
“The government says it is going to revise the law, but it does not give details of how it will improve the policies. Looking from the top, they do not understand that the policies are mere policies. They are not effective,” Lee Yun-keol, a North Korean defector who heads the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center in Seoul said.
“The annual budget of the Korea Hana Foundation is 32.9 billion won, but they are not using it where it should go,” said Choi Jeong-hoon, a member of the emergency committee.
For example, although there are a lot of defectors who have certificates for social welfare work, they are unable to find employment, Choi said.
“Setting up a system to have defectors with the licenses use their abilities to help other defectors in need could be an idea,” Choi explained.
The Emergency Planning Committee of the North Korean defector groups said it will hold a “funeral of the people” for Kim and Han on Sept. 21. The belated funeral will take the form of a rally to demand better policies, the committee said.