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For the defectors, there’s no way home

In 17 December 2011, more than a dozen North Korean defectors at the Hanawon resettlement centre, an hour's drive south of Seoul, watched
a South Korean news anchor announce the death of the "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il. There was a stunned silence in which many wondered whether they were hearing the truth. Finally, they cheered. Riseul, an aspiring artist who defected five years ago, told me: "When I first heard of Kim Jong-il's death, I was so thrilled, as if reunification were just about to happen. But soon after, I began to worry about how the young, inexperienced Kim Jong-un was going to make it." Another young defector, who has dropped out of a South Korean university to make a living, agreed. "He's only a year or two older than me. Who's going to listen to him?"

Though much of South Korea felt relief at the relatively smooth succession of Kim Jong-un to "supreme leader", I was aware, as a supporter of the defector community in the country, that the changes may have little effect on its uneasy status.

For many years, North Koreans have left their country by crossing into China, jeopardising their lives as well as those of the families they leave behind. If caught in China, they are held in detention centres, then repatriated to face punishments ranging from jail to work camp and, on occasion, death.

The lack of legal protection has led to a vast range of problems, including a thriving sex trade, slavery, rampant physical abuse and stateless orphans. Escaping to a safe third country requires resources, as well as substantial courage and desperation. Capture in North Korea would result in almost certain death.

Yet, in a 2011 report titled Strangers at Home, the non-profit International Crisis Group noted that defectors in South Korea have been stereotyped as “heavy drinkers, prone to crime, shirking work and relying on state handouts". Just outside the Hanawon resettlement centre, a volunteer escort told two defectors who were riding in the car with us: "No one likes to hire North Koreans, because they're lazy. If you ask them to wipe this little spot on the window, they'll wipe just that spot but they won't wipe anywhere around it." She added disapprovingly that when North Koreans discover that they are paid three-quarters of a South Korean's salary, they get upset and quit. She nodded in agreement with herself.

Even among well-meaning sympathisers, this woman is not unique. Yet South Korea is home to exceptional defectors such as Kang Chol-hwan, a journalist at the Chosun Ilbo newspaper; Chang Hae-song, a researcher and writer at the Institute of Unification Policy; the painters Song Byeok and Sun Mu; and the pianist Kim Cheol-woong.

There are also countless defectors who enter South Korean universities despite the daunting disadvantages. One young woman named Nayeong left junior high school to cross into China and was subsequently caught and jailed three times in North Korea. After only two years of studying in South Korea, she will soon enter dental school.

Defectors play fundamental roles in nearly every prominent non-profit group dedicated to North Korean issues. There exist defector-run groups that "broker", or smuggle, North Koreans out of China and sometimes even North Korea. One of the most respected exiles is Ryu Sang-Joon, who has safely guided more than 60 North Koreans from China to South Korea. "I began rescuing other people in danger in China because I couldn't save my own family," Ryu says. "Helping my people was what kept me alive when I had nothing left."

Ask North Korean defectors and they will tell you that all these hard-won achievements can feel wiped out by a single dismissive comment that generalises the will and abilities of those who flee the north. The daily discrimination they face here leaves many longing for a new home. A few have even attempted to return to North Korea, as in the well-documented 1994 case of Kim Hyung-dok.

“Nearly all of them have [subsequently] returned to South Korea," says Kim Myeong-jin, a producer at Open Radio for North Korea. "They go to the north and find that everything's changed and there's nothing left for them." Like a people in search of a new homeland, many defectors flee to western nations - particularly the US, the UK and Germany - and Japan. At least 350 North Korean defectors settled legally in the UK in 2009; thousands more live underground.

“They feel that they failed in South Korea, so go out with another fantasy and usually fail again," says Kim. "If they stay, they stay because they realise there will be no home where they'll belong except for the one they cannot return to - so they settle for wherever they are." Yet younger defectors remain optimistic. Kim Jong-il's death seems to signify change. As Riseul predicts: “The history of reunification has already begun."

Krys Lee's debut short story collection, "Drifting House", is newly published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?