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Ground broken for N.K. defectors’ center

Officials clap during the ground-breaking ceremony for Hanawon, a new settlement training facility for North Korean defectors, in Hwacheon, Gangwon Province, Thursday. (Yonhap News)
Officials clap during the ground-breaking ceremony for Hanawon, a new settlement training facility for North Korean defectors, in Hwacheon, Gangwon Province, Thursday. (Yonhap News)

A new resettlement facility for North Korean defectors will open late next year, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Thursday, as ground was broken for the additional building to accommodate and train thousands of North Koreans annually.

The move to build a new center for defectors comes as the number of North Koreans abandoning their impoverished communist state to live in the wealthier South has recently been increasing at an overwhelming speed.

Feeling the need for an additional center to accommodate North Koreans until they are ready to begin a new life on their own, the Seoul government made the decision to build the second Hanawon center in Hwacheon, some 120 kilometers northeast of Seoul. South Korea has already been running the first Hanawon for defectors in Anseong, just outside of Seoul, since 1999. The existing center can only hold up to 750 people at a time.

“The opening of the second Hanawon symbolizes the Korean government’s principles and willingness to actively support North Korean defectors,” Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said in a speech addressing participants of the groundbreaking ceremony Thursday.

“Each and every brick laid down to build this center will be carrying North Koreans’ aspirations for freedom, South Korea’s will to support them and the whole nation’s yearning for reunification,” he said.

Despite harsh punishment for defection, a growing number of North Koreans ― especially youngsters in their 20s and 30s ― have been fleeing to the capitalist South, indicating the deepening food shortages and instability in the communist state.

The new center will not only offer three months of mandatory resettlement training for defectors, but also provide re-education for North Korean professionals who already completed the basic training, head of the institution said.

A maximum of 5,000 North Korean defectors will be able to receive training each year once the new center opens, added Yoon Mi-ryang.

“We took note of the fact that some of the highly educated defectors had pointed out problems in the basic training programs,” said Yoon. “The new center will have various programs designed to provide even the highly educated defectors with effective training.”

Nearly 22,000 North Koreans are known to have defected here since the 1950-53 Korean War, braving the dangerous escape from the ironfisted North Korean regime and its fierce crackdowns as well as China, which as a policy repatriates North Koreans home despite the harsher punishment that awaits them.

Seoul believes tens of thousands of North Koreans are currently hiding in China for the chance to cross the border for freedom in the South. The Unification Ministry, which specializes in affairs with Pyongyang, expects at least 3,000 more North Korean defectors to come to the South by the end of this year.

Most recently, nine North Koreans crossed the western maritime border aboard two engineless boats, asking to live in South Korea. Citing international practice and humanitarian reasons, the Seoul government said it will not return the nine despite Pyongyang’s request to have them back.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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