A North Korean woman who fled to South Korea was found dead along with her young son late last month and authorities suspect the pair may have starved to death at home while living in extreme poverty in Seoul.
The story first surfaced Monday in South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, which cited Seoul’s Gwanak Police Station as saying the bodies of a 42-year-old woman, identified by her surname Han, as well as her six-year-old son, were discovered on July 31—up to two months after they died—in their apartment building in the district’s Bongcheon-dong division. Neighbors complained of a foul smell coming from the residence and South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that a janitor eventually entered the apartment.
With no food in sight other than chili powder, rent and gas bills overdue for over a year and Han having withdrawn her last 3,858 won—$3.16—from her bank account around the estimated time of her passing, Dong-A Ilbo reported that police suspected starvation to be the likely cause of death, though investigations continued. Yonhap said water service had also been cut off due to unpaid bills and that no signs of foul play were discovered.
“We did not see any signs of murder or suicide,” an officer at Gwanak Police Station told the Agence France-Presse on Tuesday. “We are waiting to get the autopsy results from the National Forensic Service.”
Han reportedly defected from North Korea to South Korea in 2009, making her one of 2,914 people to have done so that year, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. She was said to have come to South Korea via China and Thailand, living for a time in the southern city of Tongyeong and marrying a Chinese-Korean man in 2012 before moving to China.
Following a divorce, she and her son reportedly returned to South Korea last year and moved to Seoul, where she struggled to find work. Han would become one of many North Koreans struggling to cope with life in a radically different society. [A highly competitive and classist society which looks down on the Northerners.]
The United Nations and human rights groups have regularly accused North Korea of human rights abuses and numerous reports have highlighted potentially fatal food shortages made worse by international sanctions and droughts. Still, some that manage to make it to South Korea often face a whole new set of challenges with a few even trying to escape back to their homeland.
An article published in September by the American Psychological Association’s Jeea Yang found that “North Korean defectors struggled to acculturate to the capitalistic society’s culture, language, politics and lifestyle.” Citing previous studies, she noted “a higher prevalence or level of psychiatric symptoms, particularly PTSD and depression” among this community.
Months earlier, Women’s Association for the Future of Korean Peninsula President Nam Young-hwa told the Korea Biomedical Review that North Koreans who fled to South Korea had a suicide rate three times higher than South Koreans, citing a 2015 report by South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
Rivals since their post-World War II and subsequent three-year conflict in the 1950s, North Korea and South Korea have pursued diplomatic efforts at a historic peace in the past year and a half, holding some three bilateral summits since last April. Their dialogue was accompanied by the first-ever top-level talks between North Korea and South Korea’s longtime ally, the United States, which has sought Pyongyang’s denuclearization in exchange for peace to decades-long hostilities.