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By Lee Minji
ANSEONG, South Korea, July 10 (Yonhap) -- Three North Korean defectors who recently arrived in South Korea after living on the run in China said their ordeal significantly worsened due to strict restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a rare glimpse of how they went through hardships during the period.
The three women -- who, respectively, left North Korea in 2004, 2014 and 2019 -- made the remarks during a group press interview at Hanawon in Anseong, a government-run facility located south of Seoul that offers a 12-week resettlement program for new defectors from North Korea.
The three, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are among the defectors who managed to escape North Korea before the secretive regime tightened its grip on the people and closed its border since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After leaving the North, the three women built new lives in China. They learned the language, found new jobs, got married and had kids.
Despite living under the constant fear of being deported back to North Korea, where they could face the death penalty, life in China felt better than the life they left, even if it meant living as ghost citizens.
"I crossed the Tumen river out of fear that I would die in North Korea. Living in China, I felt that it is much better than North Korea, even if I do not have an official identification card," a defector in her 30s who left North Korea in 2004 said.
But that notion began to change as the pandemic tore through the world.
"The toughest part was going to a hospital when I was sick since I didn't have an ID. When I had to travel, I couldn't ride a train since I don't have an ID. I could not receive the money from work because I did not have a bank account," she said.
Things were tougher for a nascent defector hailing from a North Korean border town just before the pandemic began.
"Employers were afraid to hire me, and since I didn't have an ID, I received less than half of what local people earned. It was depressing," a defector in her 20s who left North Korea in 2019 said.
"Because of COVID-19, I could not go out. I wanted to go to South Korea, since I could be documented. I wanted to live confidently as a human being in a place where my identity was guaranteed," she said.
Such a desire was stronger for a North Korean defector who became a mother while living in China.
"Before, I was fearless since I was alone," a defector in her 30s who left North Korea in 2014 said. "But I had something to protect now. I could have lived my past life if I had not known this life, but now that I know it, I could never return to life back in North Korea."
"Illegally staying in China meant that safety is not guaranteed. I wanted to be safe, I wanted to protect myself," she said.
The number of defectors who arrived in South Korea has sharply dwindled in the past few years. The figure, which hovered at over 3,000 before and after 2010, more than halved to 1,167 in 2019 and plummeted to 59 in 2022, according to government data.
Following the 12-week training, packed with sessions on the Korean language, mental health and South Korean society, the three women will take on the challenge of building another new life in South Korea.
"As long as I am documented, I can strive and live confidently," the defector who escaped North Korea in 2004 said.
For the defector who left in 2014, the training she received at Hanawon signaled that she now has the autonomy to choose her life options.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do, whether I could do it and what options are out there. But this institution has given me the opportunity to think about this."