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Despite escaping an antagonistic and controlling state, North Korean defectors face depression in South Korea

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    The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is known for their belligerent missile testing, including their recent nuclear test, and human rights abuses. Their citizens are kept faithful by the threat of prison camps and starvation, and most are brainwashed into believing the leader, currently Kim Jong Un, is some kind of deity. These conditions cause many to defect, and there are currently about 29,000 defectors in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Though they have escaped North Korea, these refugees encounter a rough transition, leading to depressive disorders.

North Korea has conducted their largest nuclear test to date

    The DPRK reports they have successfully completed its fifth nuclear test on Sep, causing a 5.3 magnitude tremor near their testing site. The UN has repeatedly banned the DPRK from experimenting with nuclear technology and sanctioned them after their first test in 2006. South Korean officials say this is the North's biggest test to date, the blast yielding 10-20 kilotons (for reference, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima yielded about 15 kilotons).
   Recent plans to install an anti-missile defense system in the South in addition to annual U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises have angered Pyongyang, who deemed it an "open declaration of war." North and South Korea have been in an armistice since the end of the Korean War in 1953, creating the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). No peace treaty has been signed to officially end the war.
 

Citizens of the DPRK are kept in check by threats of harsh punishments and famine

    The Workers’ Party of Korea, controlled by the Kim regime, is the majority and leading party in North Korea. They've established a system that rewards those faithful to the party and punishes the suspected opponents or those not in outright support. This designation, called songbun, is kept for generations, affording little maneuverability to those in the lower two classes. Those with the highest songbun are allowed to live in the capital, Pyongyang, attend the most prestigious schools, and get the most comfortable jobs with the main party. This demographic is most likely to revere the Kim regime, as they have been given these opportunities from the “Great Leader.”
    On the other end, hard labor-based prisons are a strong possibility to any citizen not in the immediate pocket of the Workers’ Party. They can be charged with “crimes against the state” for any small transgression, and be moved to one of these labor camps. Awaiting them are systematic starvation, torture, rape, and possibly execution, according to UN reports. One imprisonment will ruin a family for generations, regardless of their previous standing. Often, it is these conditions that make people want to flee.
   

North Korean defectors living in South Korea are more susceptible to depressive disorders than their Southern counterparts

Fig. 1 from Um et. al. describing the effect perceived
discrimination has on the depression and adaptation of
North Korean defectors.
    Despite leaving behind political and economic turmoil in North Korea, defectors show symptoms of depressive disorders two times more than South Koreans. According to a 2015 study, upon their arrival in South Korea, they face “poor mental health, unemployment, discrimination, and social exclusion.” The study’s reach is limited in a lack of information on respondents (who would prefer to remain as anonymous as possible for the safety of them and their families). However, they were able to conclude that poor sociocultural adaptation and perceiving discrimination were related to more depressive symptoms.
   The government re-educates and rehabilitates defectors when they reach South Korea, including topics like Korean history, the free market, and job training. But the perceived discrimination and rapid transition to the South Korean lifestyle in addition to the famine and torture they suffered in the North will often lead to these depressive disorders or PTSD. In addition, it is usually those in the higher caste or those with connections who manage to make it out to the other side to tell their stories, leaving the world to wonder what life is like for those at the bottom of the totem pole.
            

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