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(Yonhap Feature) N. Korean defectors find freedom in South, but limited marriage options

All Headlines 09:00 November 08, 2012

By Park Boram

BUSAN, Nov. 8 (Yonhap) -- On a sunny October afternoon in this southeastern port city, Kim Cheol-soo, 34, took his wedding vows, promising his wife that he will take good care of her and make every effort to provide a good life for them. There were four other couples standing around them in what was a group wedding. Not an uncommon sight, except that on this particular day, it was for people who had defected from North Korea.

"I am so grateful to all for holding this wonderful wedding, although my parents are not here to bless us," Kim said, requesting the use of an alias to protect his family members remaining in the North.

Being able to marry the woman he loves was the primary reason that Kim risked both of their lives, crossing the North Korea-China border some 10 months ago to find refuge in South Korea. Like other defectors, he also wanted to get away from his poverty-ridden life in the North as well as he and his lover's parents, who opposed their marriage.

The group wedding spared the couple of not only wedding expenses, including those for a honeymoon trip to the scenic southern island of Jeju. For other single defectors, however, footing the expenses is a secondary concern. Many are finding out that they are limited in seeking a spouse.

With more than 2,000 North Koreans coming to the South every year in search of freedom and economic prosperity, the number of North Korean settlers has exceeded 24,000 as of September this year.

The number of defectors that get married in the South is not clearly known because it is difficult to track their marital status. Statistics say 43 percent of the defectors entering the South are aged 30 or younger. Many who are older arrive in the South single after spending years trying to defect, often hiding in third countries like China watching for the right opportunity.

Defectors describe an unspoken, and sometimes not so veiled, prejudice and discrimination as they try to adapt, and such biases become starkly clear when trying to find a mate.

Seong-hee, a 24-year-old defector living in Seoul who only wanted to use her first name, said she realized that for people like her, the freedom to choose a spouse is even more limited in the South than in the North, where she would have been able to choose and marry.

"But considering the obscure background and negative images generally attached to women defectors, maybe I shouldn't be even dreaming of" such a thing, she said after attending the group wedding ceremony as a guest.

Her 10-month stay in the South so far has shown her that most newcomer defectors marry fellow defectors they meet during their long journey out of the communist country or the six-month compulsory settlement and assimilation assistance programs they are put into upon arriving in the South, she said.

"South (Korean) men are generally not so favorable to women from the North because of (perceived) uncertainties about our identities. I probably would not be able to get matched with them unless they are people of low standing," she said.

According to a January survey of some 8,300 defectors by the North Korean Refugees Foundation, nearly 30 percent of them earn less than 1 million won (US$913) a month, far less than their fellow South Koreans. Another 41 percent said they take home less than 1.5 million won a month, and the unemployment rate among defectors runs at 12.1 percent, far higher than the 3.7 percent for South Koreans.

Lacking social connections and a standard school education, the defectors are being driven to the fringes of South Korean society, advocacy groups say.

"Defectors have few choices when it comes to choosing a spouse because of a lack of family links and economic gaps," said Yoo Kyung-hwa, the head of the Unification Ministry-designated council for North Korean supporters in the Busan region. Many North Korean defectors want to marry people of the South in hopes of assimilating into the society, but they mostly end up with fellow defectors or ethnic Koreans from China, she said.

Even if a defector finds a South Korean spouse, the couple often fail to stay in the relationship mostly because of misunderstanding caused by differences in Korean language between the South and the North and the different lifestyle the defectors lived in the North, Yoo said. "As a result, defectors usually pair off with fellow defectors they meet during resettlement education programs at the Hanawon center or through a blind date with each other."

Yoo had arranged the joint wedding here in October, the sixth she helped organize. She said she has helped 30 defector-defector or defector-Chinese couples wed so far.

Kim Cheol-soo, the newlywed husband, is just happy to be married to his 24-year-old wife. For him, all worries are behind him and he has only the future to look forward to.

"I am still young and willing to make every effort to make a good living," said Kim after the wedding.


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