Friday, September 06, 2019

North Korean defector and son starve to death in South Korea

The question, of course, is How the hell is this possible? South Korea has its faults, but it's a land of plenty where its own citizens are starting to fatten up like us Americans. How on earth can a North Korean come to South Korea and starve? Sure, I can supply my own reasons: North Koreans often feel rejected by South Koreans; North Koreans have few survival/coping skills when plunged into South Korean culture, even after receiving intake-interview-style training to help them deal with their new lifestyle. One ROK Drop commenter to the post linked below notes that North Korea will use this death as propaganda about how awful life in the South must be. Read more here.

The woman came to Seoul alone and gave birth to a son while in South Korea. How sad for the son to have been so ill-served by his mother, who should have done everything in her power to take care of him, giving him up to the state if necessary. Then again, I've heard stories of suicidal South Korean parents who light up a brick of charcoal inside their apartments and kill their children along with killing themselves. Koreans would call such an act sad; Westerners would call it ghastly. After all, Westerners are far more likely to view suicide (and the murder of children) as selfish and cowardly; Koreans often take a different view, seeing suicide (and possibly murder, too) as a sort-of noble way out of a seemingly impossible situation. This represents a major clash in values.

In that spirit, then, I find such a situation impossible to understand. Let me flail around blindly for a moment in an attempt to make sense of this from my admittedly limited perspective. I've talked before about the "tarantula reflex" (see here): Koreans in general tend to freeze up when they find themselves in situations they haven't been specifically programmed to deal with. They don't possess the easy and inherent flexibility that Westerners have when it comes to adapting to one's surroundings. I've seen this problem up close in my own classes: students who can't answer a question will simply shut down and stare into space, basically waiting for the moment when the teacher's attention will pass to another student. This could be what happened to the North Korean woman in question: she (and possibly her son as well) may simply have shut down in the face of South Korean culture, which is radically different from life in the North.

Then again, the BBC article to which ROK Drop links seems to speculate that Han Sung-ok, the woman at the heart of this story, may have been painfully shy, almost to the point of mental illness. She was also going through a difficult family situation: her Chinese husband came to South Korea for a while with their first child (born outside of Korea, apparently); he found work at a shipyard but ended up leaving Han, abandoning her with her second son, the one found dead with her. This second son had had severe learning disabilities and had likely been a financial burden, however much Han might have loved him.

The BBC article claims that the South Korean community in which Han lived, now that it has belatedly become aware of her plight, is in turmoil. Other defectors have expressed outrage at South Korean indifference—both the indifference of fellow citizens and the indifference of a government-sponsored safety net that ought to have noticed the problem and done something about it. I turn a sour eye to the notion of competently run government programs, but surely more could have been done for Han at the local level, and Han could have done more for herself and her son. No one is talking about suicide; this seems to have been a simple case of preventable starvation. Which makes a sad situation all the sadder.

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