With little ability to relocate, N. Korean defector women endure stalking in silence

Posted on : 2023-04-21 17:07 KST Modified on : 2023-04-21 17:13 KST
After leaving the Hanawon resettlement center, North Korean defectors are required to live in a designated residential area where they must live for 2 years
(Getty Images Bank)
(Getty Images Bank)

A woman who defected from North Korea endured stalking for three years after arriving in the South.

Early each morning, her stalker would come by and knock on her door. The psychological effect was so extreme that she would be scared out of her wits every time delivery workers rang her doorbell in the daytime.

But she didn’t dare report the stalking to the police for fear of retaliation. She was deterred by the difficulty of changing her place of residence as a North Korean defector.

“It would have been nice to file a report and move somewhere else. If the stalker didn’t know where I’d gone, he couldn’t have harassed me anymore,” she said.

“But I have to live in an apartment subsidized [by the government]. If I report the issue to the police, they’ll let the stalker off with a fine, and [then the retaliation] might get even worse.”

According to a new report by the South Korean government, North Korean women living in the South are reluctant to report stalking and other gender-based violence to the authorities because of the difficulty they face moving.

On Thursday, the Hankyoreh obtained a Ministry of Gender Equality and Family-commissioned report titled “A Study of Methods to Reinforce Aid Programs for North Korean Female Defectors Victimized by Violence,” from the office of Yang-Yi Won-young, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party. The report contains the stories of North Korean women who have become targets of violence since settling in South Korea.

The report contains a survey of 109 women between their 20s and 50s and interviews with 25 women between their 20s and 60s and 13 people involved in the aid programs, all of whom had defected from North Korea.

In the survey, 22.9% of the women (25) said they had experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence. But only 16% of them said they had reported those crimes to the police or asked for help from support groups for victims of violence against women (multiple answers were allowed on the survey). Most of the women said they hadn’t taken action because they didn’t know how or because they were afraid of retaliation and rumors.

The report cites restrictions on moving as one of the reasons women from the North are reluctant to report gender-based violence to the police. After leaving the Hanawon resettlement center, North Korean defectors are required to live in a designated residential area. And the first rental unit defectors are given comes with a stipulation: they aren’t allowed to move for two years.

To move before that period is up, they must meet one of 10 conditions, which include moving into public housing, marrying someone with housing of their own, being hospitalized for at least six months for treatment of a disease, or attending university or graduate school in another area.

An official from Korea’s Ministry of Unification offered the following explanation. “According to Article 20, Paragraph 6, of the North Korean Defectors Protection and Settlement Support Act, a protected individual can be given the assistance needed for relocation if the exposure of their place of residence has endangered or will likely endanger their physical safety or life.”

But victims still have to prove that their safety or life is endangered, and “assistance needed for relocation” doesn’t mean they’ll be able to immediately move to another rental unit. Both of those factors discourage victims from contemplating a move.

Chun Su-mi is an attorney with the Good Lawyers Public Interest Reporting Center who gives legal advice to women from North Korea who have faced sexual violence.

“Because the rental units North Korean defectors move into after leaving Hanawon are so inexpensive, moving to other housing isn’t easy [even after the two-year lease is over]. Defectors who suffer sexual violence at home often continue to live there despite the trauma doing so involves,” Chun said.

“The guidelines for helping defectors move should be improved to ensure their safety. That should include allowing women to ask to be relocated because of gender-based violence,” the attorney added.

“The reality is that North Korean women face a high risk of suffering gender-based violence. The National Assembly needs to take an interest in setting up a resettlement support system that takes their circumstances into account,” Yang-Yi Won-young said.

By Yi Ju-been, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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