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Korean defectors find new life bittersweet

Play September 25, 1996
Web posted at: 11:35 P.m. EDT (0535 GMT)

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- Some North Korean defectors are sharing glimpses of the lives they left behind through the theatrical group Omani, which means 'mother' in their native dialect.

In part of the play, audience members can ask questions about their shrouded northern neighbor, and listen to songs popular in a country few outsiders have visited.

"People here have been told so many lies that many still think North Korean people are all red, and that they know nothing except their leader, Kim Il-sung," said actor Kim Kwang-wook.

"That has always made me mad. But during the play as people ask questions and we answer as honestly as we can, I see the audience change their way of thinking."

In the past, defectors served as important tools for the South in the propaganda war with the North. During elaborate press conferences, they would talk about the unbearable conditions they left behind.

Half a century after the Korean War, the Cold War still grips on the Korean peninsula. But with South Korea's growing affluence and communism's diminishing threat, the propaganda need has virtually evaporated.

Financial support for the growing number of defectors has been drastically reduced. A psychiatrist who has interviewed a number of defectors found finances can be a real problem.

"Their knowledge, their school education in North Korea cannot be used in South Korea," said Dr. Jeon Woo-taek. "So they have ... difficulties in their making money, in their job selection and their job working."

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But what may be even more difficult to bear is the emotional pain which comes with having fled their homeland on a one-way trip.

"You have this open scar in your heart, so much guilt about leaving my brothers and sisters, and my parents behind, and loneliness," said the actor, Kim.

"Before this play, I would come home after work and I would be alone, and thoughts about North Korea would come, and I would become so lonely."

worship Choi Ju-hwal, a former North Korean colonel, left behind a wife and three children. He still sees them in his dreams, but believes they have been sent to prison camps because of his defection.

Some observers believe such harsh realities lead many North Korean defectors to find comfort in religion.

Kim Shin-jo, a defector who had been sent to assassinate the South Korean president in 1968, became a missionary and has written books on how he found inner peace in Christianity.

spy "These young people call me, and say, 'I want to see my mother,'" said Kim. "They made the decision to defect spontaneously. But once they get here, the emotional conflict is too heavy to bear, so many are lost. Some start to drink to forget."

In capitalist South Korea, defectors from the North do find affluence and freedom, but they also find it comes at a heavy price.


Correspondent Sohn Jie-ae contributed to this report.
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