On the last day of July, the decomposing bodies of a mother in her 40s and her 6-year-old son were found in their apartment in Seoul, their deaths 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.
Portraits of Han Sung-ok and Kim Dong-jin are placed at the memorial altar in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, on Sept. 2. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
The National Forensic Service returned an open verdict on the cause of the death of the mother and her son. The family members 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, alone in a rented apartment in Gwanak-gu, Seoul. When the decomposing bodies were found, about two months after they died, the 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 better support system.
Among about 30,700 North Korean refugees living in the South, the ministry estimates that about 10 percent of them to have specific vulnerabilities, such as being single parents or senior citizens.
Blind spot in the welfare system
The vulnerable family had fell through the blind spot of the welfare system.
Han, who had no income, would have been eligible to receive basic livelihood security subsidy of at least 870,000 won ($730) a month, and other welfare benefits related to her situation.
But the only and the last government subsidy she received was 100,000 won in March for child-caring, 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.
Mourners stand in front of a memorial altar set up for North Korean defectors Han Sung-ok and Kim Dong-jin in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, on Sept. 2. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
An emergency planning committee organized by some 40 civic groups related to North Korean defectors, has set up a memorial alter for the mother and son in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul.
Speaking to The Korea Herald at the memorial altar, Park Eun-bok, not her real name, said she understood the difficulties Han would have had suffered, and lamented that it could happen in South Korea.
“Han could not pay her bills for months, and nobody looked into her. The public servants who were responsible for taking care of the vulnerable found her two months after she died,” said Park, who defected to South Korea in 2011.
Also the single mom of a 7-year-old son in Gwanak-gu, Park said she was also cut off from the government subsidy when she went to China for about a month. Park, who cannot work due to her disability, said she receives government subsidies of about 1 million won every month.
“I had to make a strong complaint at the borough office to receive the subsidy again. I hate how public officials give us discriminatory looks because we are defectors.”
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’s well-being.
Bureaucracy hindering efficient policy-making
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.
A North Korean defector receives 12 weeks of adaptation training in Hanawon, and is provided with a settlement fee of 8 million won and housing subsidy of 16 million won, although this amount 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 that is managed by the Welfare Ministry.
But the support program is largely limited once the five-year period is over, and for those who fail to adapt or get sick after, are placed in a difficult situation.
The complicated administration system and lack of information also make it difficult for the North Korean defectors to make use of the welfare program for the North Korean defectors as well, experts said.
According to 2018 Settlement Survey of North Korean Refugees in South Korea released this year from Korea Hana Foundation, the annual income of 40.3 percent of North Korean defectors was below 20 million won. The survey was conducted to 3,000 North Korean defectors who came to South Korea in between January 1997 to 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.”
While about 74 percent of North Korean defectors in the South are women, the 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 policymaking 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 Centre in Seoul told The Korea Herald.
“The annual budget of Korea Hana Foundation is 32.9 billion won, but they are not using it to where it should go,” Choi Jeong-hoon, a member of the emergency committee told The Korea Herald.
For example, while there are a lot of defectors who received certificates for social welfare work, but 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 who are 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.
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org)