Seoul, South Korea
South Korean authorities have launched an investigation after the decomposing remains of a North Korean defector were found in the capital Seoullast Wednesday.
The defector was a woman in her 40s who escaped to South Korea in 2002, according to police and South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
The woman had missed multiple rent payments and could not be reached, so the Seoul Housing & Communities Corporation – a public housing company – sent workers to visit her apartment, where they found her body, according to Seoul police.
Her body was severely decomposed, to an “almost skeleton status,” police said. Based on the winter clothes she wore, police suspect she has been dead for about a year – but more exact details are expected after an autopsy.
The Unification Ministry did not name her but said authorities had once touted her as an example of a resettlement success story.
From 2011 to 2017, the woman had worked as a counselor at the ministry-run Korea Hana Foundation, helping other defectors resettle in the South, the ministry said.
South Korean authorities routinely monitor North Korean defectors and provide welfare checks during their resettlement process – but in 2019 the woman asked police not to extend their protection services, according to Seoul police.
The Unification Ministry also said the woman was not on its own watch list.
The police said they had submitted a request for investigation to the National Forensic Service.
An official from the Unification Ministry said the case was “very sad,” adding the ministry would re-examine the crisis management system for North Korean defectors, and work on areas that needed improvement.
South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare had previously warned there were “signs of a (welfare) crisis,” prompting local Seoul authorities to begin their own probe.
Defectors began entering South Korea in significant numbers around the turn of the century, most fleeing first over North Korea’s lengthy border with China.
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Since 1998, more than 33,000 people have defected from North to South Korea, according to the Unification Ministry, with the annual numbers peaking at 2,914 in 2009.
Those figures have dropped sharply since the pandemic began, with only 42 defectors recorded so far this year – compared to more than 1,000 in 2019.
The trip across the border is laden with risks, such as being trafficked in China’s sex trade, or being caught and sent back to North Korea, where defectors face torture, imprisonment and death.
But those who successfully make it to South Korea often find a host of new challenges, including culture shock, hostility from some South Koreans, financial pressures and difficulties finding employment in the country’s notoriously competitive job market.
As of 2020, 9.4% of defectors in South Korea were unemployed – compared to 4% of the general population, according to the Unification Ministry.
In early January, a defector in South Korea – reportedly a construction worker in his 30s – crossed back into North Korea, just a year after he had originally fled the isolated and impoverished nation. His unusual return made international headlines, putting a spotlight on how challenging life in the South can be for North Koreans.
This story has been updated with additional information from South Korean authorities.