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(News Focus) After fleeing North, female defectors face plight-ridden path to freedom

All Headlines 16:27 February 22, 2010

By Tony Chang

SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- For many female defectors from North Korea, one of the worst human rights violators in the world, the escape from the country is just the beginning of their grueling plight during a life-staking gamble for freedom.

In their tumultuous journeys, a vast number of North Korean female defectors -- apparently finding no hope in a country where hunger is a chronic problem -- remain exposed to violence and exploitation, according to a survey released by South Korea's human rights watchdog.

The survey by the National Human Rights Commission was conducted on 248 female defectors admitted to Hanawon, a resettlement center south of Seoul, last year. The center also had face-to-face interviews with 26 other female defectors who recently settled down in South Korea.

More than 16,000 North Koreans have settled in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, with the number rising annually, from 1,138 in 2002 to 2,809 last year. Nearly two-thirds of them are women.

In the survey, nearly 20 percent of female defectors have said that they were coerced to offer sexual favors or bribes when caught by patrollers at both sides of the border with China. Nearly 70 percent of them said they fled their country to seek economic freedom.

"Border areas are where most human rights abuses against women take place," Lee Im-ha, a history professor at Seoul's Sungkyunkwan University who took part in the study, told a press conference.

They are also often exposed to sexual harassment and exploitation while staying in a third country, finding themselves vulnerable while employed, without paperwork, by small businesses for food and shelter, according to testimonies from defectors.

One female defector, who requested anonymity, said that she was ratted out by a male in-law of a restaurant owner in China where she worked after she resisted continuous sexual molestation.

"Someone told me to run away, saying that I have been reported to the police. I fled to Harbin to find work just after working about a month at that restaurant," the defector said.

Many of them are also exposed to human trafficking, according to one interviewee.

"Female defectors have been trafficked when they don't have any relatives to meet them across the border (when arriving in China.) Most of them are virtually forced to marry Chinese men after being thrown into the arranged marriage market," the unidentified defector said.

"The degree of mental trauma from sexual abuse and human trafficking is on a serious level, and the trauma appears in various forms of physical illnesses even after arriving in the South," the watchdog said in a statement.

According to data from the Unification Ministry last year, six out of 10 North Korean female defectors who entered Hanawon from 2003 to August of 2008 were diagnosed with ovarian or cervical illnesses.

Park Sun-seong, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University, who led the commission's study said that the survey was aimed at shedding "light on their human rights issues by trying to hear the voice of North Korean women through in-depth interviews."

"Based on the results, we will put in efforts to improve the human rights of North Koreans and recommend proper policies to the government, if necessary."


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