BUCHEON, South Korea — Kim Kang Chul steered past the clutter of fast-food restaurants that make up the bustling streetscape of this Seoul suburb. There are KFC restaurants and Dunkin' Donuts, and towering above them billboards advertising mobile telephones and yet more fast food.
Kim hasn't stopped marveling at the incongruity of it all: that he, having fled a small North Korean town where you're counted rich for eating rice instead of corn, should be living amid this 21st century capitalist bounty, driving his own car, albeit a snub-nosed subcompact Hyundai purchased with installment payments.
"I can't believe I'm driving myself around. There are no private cars in North Korea," said Kim, deftly braking at a red light, yet another novelty. There isn't enough electricity in the North to power traffic signals.
One of a new breed of North Korean defectors, the 42-year-old Kim settled in Bucheon a year and a half ago and brought his children south last summer. Now they are working hard to assimilate, trying to lose their telltale Northern accents and recover from what can only be diagnosed as an epic case of culture shock.
Until recently, only a handful of North Koreans managed to escape to the South. Most were border guards or members of the elite who had unique opportunities to defect. That has changed as North Koreans find new routes out, usually slipping first across the border into China and then making their way to South Korea through third countries.
A record 583 defectors came south last year, nearly double the number who arrived in 2000, according to South Korean statistics. So far this year, at least 88 have arrived--including a soldier who braved the land mines of the demilitarized zone last month near where President Bush just hours later urged that North Koreans be given their freedom.
Few observers are forecasting a mass exodus, but the numbers are expected to climb as more North Koreans flee the chronic food shortages and extraordinary isolation that make life so difficult at home.
The trend puts the South Korean government in a delicate position. Any perception that it is encouraging defectors would pique the North, which classifies them as traitors, and further undermine South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's efforts to maintain a dialogue with his nation's Communist neighbor. Too many new arrivals also could breed resentment among his people, who already fear that impoverished North Korea will one day become an economic burden for them.
At the same time, the government is well aware that a successful resettlement effort would be a dress rehearsal for the possible reunification of the Koreas after more than half a century of estrangement.
"If this relatively small group of North Korean defectors fails to adjust, our prospects for reunification are gloomy," said Yoon In Jin, a sociologist with Korea University who has written extensively about the subject. "If they succeed in making a new life here, we have hope of integrating. For that reason, we have to make every effort to help them so we can learn from their trials and their errors."
Extensive research is underway in South Korean academia about resettling the defectors. The government Unification Ministry has studied models ranging from Israel's airlift and resettlement of Yemeni Jews in the 1940s and '50s to German reunification in 1990.
It is generally assumed that integrating North and South Korea would be even more difficult than Germany's costly effort. While West Germans were about four times richer than East Germans just before reunification, the income disparity between South and North Koreans is 16 to 1. South Koreans throw away 4 million tons of food each year, more than North Korea, which has about half the population, produces in food staples annually, according to a report last week by the South Korean government.
"They lived under a totalitarian system. They are very ignorant about the outside world. They don't know how to open a bank account, how to drive, how to use a mobile telephone," said Jo Sang Ho, an official with the Assn. of Supporters for Defecting North Korean Residents, a government-supported foundation.
In a survey published by the association in December, defectors complained of difficulties finding jobs, combating prejudice and adapting to the radically different life in the South.
"They are like newborns. They have to forget everything they learned in North Korea and start fresh,"' said Lee Jung Kuk, who defected in 1995. Now a successful businessman in Seoul, he volunteers to work with newcomers.
Jeon Woo Taek, a psychiatrist at Yonsei University who works with defectors, said psychological problems handicap their adjustment to new lives. They often suffer guilt over family members left behind and live under assumed names in fear that the North Korean government might punish their relatives.