25% of North Korean Defectors Suffer PTSD
With more women escaping than ever before, mental and gynecological care is critical
Pulling out a tooth must have been scary for an elderly defector at Hanawon, a government-run resettlement center in Seoul. He quickly gets up and says he will come back, as soon as the dentist suggests the prognosis of an extraction. ?2005 Jang Y.S.
Between 20 to 30 out of 100 North Korean defectors require mental health assessments, and some women defectors are in need of gynecological treatment, a volunteer nurse at Hanawon said in an interview with OhmyNews.
Jeon Jeong Hee, a 43-year-old nurse based in Seoul, volunteers at Hana clinic, a hospital affiliated with Hanawon, a South Korean government-run settlement center for North Korean defectors. South Korean government mandates that all North Korean defectors go through the three-month adjustment training at Hanawon, which is largely closed to the media. But on Oct. 19, Hanawon was opened to the several members of the press.
Jeon Jeong Hee ?2005 Jang Y.S.
Jeon works with at least 80 patients a day: Hanawon guests frequently seek medial treatment, she said. Settlers complain of illnesses varying from headaches to bad teeth and indigestion.
Many times, the physical symptoms stem deep within, coming from the mind and heart. About 60 percent of defectors speak of psychological difficulties such as depression, panic attack, anxiety disorder and hysteria.
“They tend to reveal these emotional conflicts through physical symptoms,” she said. “Some people I talk to have hard time controlling their emotions when they talk about their past ordeals. They repeat a pattern of reliving their ordeals even amid a new-found safety in the South.”
“Also gynecological treatment is needed as more and more women their 20s and 30s, are defecting,” Jeon said, adding that 70 percent of the new settlers that defect via a third country are women.
Multiple Hanawon officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, detected signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Women are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder because in their long course of defection, they have been subject to prostitution or witnessed indescribable tragedies such as murder of their children, right in front of their eyes,” the official said.
In a change from initial defection following North Korea’s 1995 famine, where mainly men fled the North, more women and family-unit defectors are arriving in the South. Part of the reason is that husbands who have settled first in the South are bringing in their wives and family members.
Hanawon offers treatment in internal, Oriental and dental medicine.
The internal medicine department has ultrasound and endoscope equipment. The dental department last year provided dental prosthesis including dentures for 98 recent North Korean defectors, making use of a government-subsidy worth 60 million won.
Jeon is one of the three South Korean recipients who will receive the Nightingale Award from the International Red Cross on Oct. 27.
Jeon believes what is more crucial for the North Korean defectors is after leaving Hanawon to treat PTSD, that treatment continue at the local level. While at Hanawon, they at least have access to decent medical services.
“It’s hard for people who have lived in peaceful times to understand the hardships of these people who traveled with no identity or nationality,” Jeon said.
Kim Won Ho, an official with Hanawon, said that the facility is providing individual mental health programs to deal with post-arrival anxieties for its inmates.
“We are currently talking with the Ministry of Health and Welfare about having a resident psychiatrist at Hanawon,” Kim said.