Coun­sel­ing pro­gram helps NK de­fec­tors over­come trauma

The Korea Times - - FEATURE - (Yon­hap)

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

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