Counseling program helps NK defectors overcome trauma
North Korean Choi Soon-young (an alias) was a non-swimmer and crossing a rough river unaided could put her life at risk. But when she was fleeing the repressive regime years ago, she had no other choice. She managed to make her way across the Tumen River that flows between the North and China.
Her initial attempts were not successful. She was repatriated twice and had to do the scary journey all over again. When she finally got to Seoul in 2009, Choi believed everything would be perfectly fine here, but the reality was not so.
The terrifying experience in the river continuously haunted her, especially after the 2014 tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol that left over 300 people dead.
“I did not know why I felt terror and had difficulty breathing at night because of the ferry sinking,” Choi, 41, said. “I later learned that the incident evoked my memories of a traumatic experience in North Korea.”
Choi is among defectors who have trouble in adapting to South Korea due to what they went through in North Korea or during the defection process.
She has attended the North Korea System Trauma Healing and Coun- seling Center that runs a counseling program to help relieve defectors of such psychological pain.
Yoo Hye-ran, president of the center, said that North Korea’s repressive rule makes its people develop a “false self” for survival.
The North stages propaganda campaigns to force its citizens to worship the Kim family, which has ruled the country for three generations. If they are not submissive, they could face punishment or exe- cution.
“North Koreans are under constant surveillance and their right to freedom of choice is being infringed on,” she said. “North Koreans’ development of a false self helps the Kim family maintain and amplify its dictatorship.”
Yoo, also a North Korean defector, came to South Korea in 2000 with her family after her relative was arrested as a political prisoner. In North Korea, she worked as a doctor for six years at a military unit.
After studying theology here, she began to focus on the psychological traumas of defectors when she studied counseling for her doctorate. Yoo, 53, set up the center in 2013 to support North Korean refugees.
“North Koreans cannot help being psychologically fragile as their nation is a sick society,” Yoo added.
The number of North Korean defectors coming to the South stood at 30,992 as of end-August, according to Seoul’s unification ministry. The two Koreas remain technically at war, as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
North Koreans are seeking to escape to the South in search of freedom, but it is easy to neglect their emotional stress that stems from the processes of defection and adaptation.
The suicide rate of North Korean defectors stood at around 16 percent, three times higher than that of South Koreans, showed a report from the ministry.
Yoo said that the North Korean leadership is using a reign of terror to make its people feel fear and uneasiness, thereby distrusting each other.
“Many defectors are having trou- ble communicating with others here as they were trained in the North to suspect others’ goodwill and find faults with them,” she added. “Such experiences in North Korea are affecting their life in South Korea.”
Lee Su-jin (an alias), a 49-year-old defector, said that she had difficulty in getting along with her colleagues in South Korea as she could not open up her mind for unknown reasons.
“I increasingly felt isolated and lonely. My depression became serious and I attempted to commit suicide,” she said. “It was like living trapped in a prison named North Korea.”
The center’s six-month group counseling program starts from encouraging defectors to recognize that they could not help being hurt as they are victims of North Korean rule.
After refugees realize that they have problems, they get professional help with the belief that their psychiatric conditions can be treatable.
“As time goes by, I’ve learned how to share feelings and communicate with others through the project,” Lee said.
Yoo expressed regret over prejudices held by some South Koreans toward North Korean defectors, calling for embracing them as members of society.
“Defectors should not be ashamed of the fact that they’ve come from the North. They risked their lives to escape from the repressive regime. I think that defection made it possible for them to regain humanity,” she said.
Participants in the program said that they want to play a role in helping other refugees cope with such stress. Some defectors including Choi and Lee are studying counseling courses at the center to that end.
“I’ve come to know that I was not alone in suffering from repatriation-driven trauma,” defector Choi said. “I would like to help refugees who suffered like me.”
The center’s chief said that she believes that preparation for unification starts with understanding North Korean defectors.
“I think that if we do not understand why some defectors are having such trauma, we could have problems in dealing with North Koreans when the two Koreas are unified,” Yoo said.
“I believe that the more we seek to grasp and support them, the more thoroughly we can prepare for unification.”
Yoo Hye-ran speaks to North Korean defectors who want to relieve their psychological pain through a six-month counseling program at the North Korea System Trauma Healing and Counseling Center in this Sept. 29 file photo. Yonhap