Seoul, South Korea
South Korean authorities have launched an investigation after the decomposing remains of a North Korean defector were found in the capital, Seoul. last wednesday
She was a 40-year-old deserter who fled to South Korea in 2002, according to police and South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
The woman had missed numerous rent payments and was unable to attend, so the Seoul Housing & Communities Corporation – a public housing company – sent staff to visit her apartment, where her body was found, according to Seoul police.
His body was badly decomposed, “almost in a skeletal state,” police said. Based on the winter clothes he was wearing, police suspect he has been dead for about a year, but more specific details are expected after an autopsy.
The Unification Ministry did not name him, but officials said he was once considered an example of a successful resettlement.
From 2011 to 2018, the woman worked as a consultant at the ministry-run Korea Hana Foundation, helping other defectors settle in the South, the ministry said.
South Korean authorities regularly monitor North Korean defectors and provide welfare checks during their resettlement process, but in 2019 the woman asked police not to extend protective services, according to Seoul police.
The Unification Ministry also said the woman was not on its watch list.
The police said they had submitted an inquiry request to the National Court Service. Local government agencies are also investigating, the ministry said.
After his death was reported, South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare notified the Ministry of Unification, calling it “a sign of a crisis.”
An official at the Unification Ministry said the case was “very sad”, adding that the ministry will re-examine North Korea’s defector crisis management system and work on areas that need improvement.
At the turn of the century, defectors began to enter South Korea in large numbers, most first fleeing North Korea’s long border with China.
Since 1998, more than 33,000 people have left North Korea for South Korea, according to the Unification Ministry, with the annual number reaching 2,914 in 2009.
Those figures have dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic, with only 42 defectors registered this year, compared to more than 1,000 in 2019.
The journey across the border is fraught with dangers, such as being trafficked into the Chinese sex trade or being caught and sent back to North Korea, where defectors face torture, imprisonment and death.
But those who successfully arrive in South Korea often encounter a host of new challenges, including culture shock, hostility from some South Koreans, financial pressures, and difficulty finding employment in the country’s competitive labor market.
As of 2020, 9.4 percent of South Korean defectors were unemployed, compared to 4 percent of the general population, according to the Ministry of Unification.
In early January, a South Korean defector – believed to be a 30-year-old construction worker – returned to North Korea, a year after originally fleeing the isolated and impoverished nation. His unusual return made international headlines, highlighting how challenging life in the South can be for North Koreans.