A bumpy road from North Korea to South

Communist-regime defectors and released political prisoners struggle tofind their place in freedom of South.

Hwang Jang Yop, one of the original architects of North Korea's communist ideology, mounted the stage of the posh ballroom and surveyed his audience of North Korean defectors. Like him, they had fled the system he helped create.

"We should never forget the people we left behind, and we must fight for their liberation also," said Mr. Hwang, North Korea's highest-ranking defector.

But life isn't easy even after escape. So on Friday, Hwang became honorary chairman of the Association of North Korean Defectors, a new group wanting to help thousands of refugees roaming China, and hundreds troubled with adjusting to life in South Korea.

Twenty defections from the North have already occurred this year, accelerating a sharp increase since 1994. According to the Unification Ministry of South Korea, a third of the crossings that have taken place since 1949 - shortly after the peninsula was divided - have occurred in the past five years.

The defectors group intends to help North Koreans "materially and spiritually," says Kim Dok Hong, Hwang's assistant. Although no plans are set, several defectors at the meeting said they wanted to deliver humanitarian aid to refugees in China. Isolationist policies and a brutal ruling elite are commonly blamed for an ongoing famine that may have killed close to 10 percent of North Korea's population, a situation that many refugees want to escape.

But China doesn't consider the tens of thousands of North Koreans roaming the country to be refugees and deports them to North Korea.

According to some defectors and Korea watchers, South Korea discourages the less valuable defectors from coming here. By doing so, Seoul can placate China and prevent a mass exodus that could be a huge national burden.

The group's biggest job will be to help defectors living here cope with a tough job market and culture shock. The government recently doubled the defector resettlement allowance to about $30,000 - which may seem a large sum but is easily consumed on necessities such as hefty deposits required on apartments in South Korea.

But money isn't everything. "Our government doesn't give them sufficient orientations," says Woo Jae Sung, president of the Freedom Center, where the meeting was held. Defectors are "left alone ... nobody accepts them wholeheartedly," says Mr. Woo. Unaccustomed to a life of independence, many have trouble adjusting to life in fast-paced capitalist South Korea.

According to the group, the average income of defectors is low, they live in small apartments, and 21 percent don't feel capable of adjusting to South Korean life.

It could be worse. A separate group of defectors filed a lawsuit with the South Korean government last week claiming they had been beaten by intelligence authorities and subjected to unreasonable surveillance well after beginning normal lives in South Korea.

The government claims the defectors made the complaint only after they were denied more resettlement money. One defector at Friday's meeting said he doubted the others were beaten, but could imagine a little "physical pressure."

Inconceivable to those who risked their lives to come here, another group of North Koreans may soon go back home. Seventeen unrepentant North Korean spies were released from long prison sentences by President Kim Dae Jung on humanitarian grounds Thursday, marking the first year of Mr. Kim's presidency. Many had spent decades in solitary confinement, including Woo Yong Gak, believed to be the world's longest-serving political prisoner, who was caught infiltrating South Korea in 1958.

It was the first time spies were released in South Korea without having to renounce communism. Most are now elderly men and might know little of the world outside of their prisons. "[I will] carry out my responsibilities in bringing about a more speedy unification," Mr. Woo declared to a throng of reporters. Conservative newspapers quickly noted that Woo the former spy didn't say what his responsibilities might be. Clueless about what North or South Korea have become over the years, the freed spies might be traded like chips in a big game.

The North Korean Red Cross welcomed the release as "an important turning point." The spies are now under the care of human rights groups at a sort of resting house, or with family members in South Korea. But President Kim hopes to trade the spies for some of the estimated 300 South Korean POWs still held in North Korea. Analysts predict North Korea won't go along with the deal, and the spies may be stuck in prosperous South Korea after all.

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