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[Editorial] Big loophole

Death of N. Korean defector and her son should raise alarm bells

The recent tragic death of a North Korean woman defector and her son raises two big questions -- one about the nation’s overall social safety net and the other about the way the government takes care of North Korean escapees.

First of all, the death of the 42-year-old woman and her 6-year-old son once again revealed gaps in the nation’s welfare system for the poor. Indeed, it is shocking that their destitute state is believed to have resulted in the tragedy.

Police and welfare officials believe that the two died of starvation. They said the rented apartment in Bongcheon-dong, southern Seoul, in which they were found dead did not have any food or drinking water.

There was a bankbook which showed that the woman withdrew the last of her balance -- 3,858 won ($3) in May. No wonder she could not pay the 90,000 won monthly rent and utility bills for over one year.

Authorities said the two are believed to have died two months before they were discovered by a janitor, who was alerted by a water service person who had tried to visit the house.

In other words, the woman and her son, without enough money to pay their bills and buy food, were starving to death in their apartment and no one knew about their situation or their eventual death. How could this happen in the heart of the nation’s capital?

This shows that little has changed since the three suicides five years ago -- a woman and her daughters -- in Songpa, southeastern Seoul, which led the government to take steps to strengthen the social safety net for the extremely poor.

For instance, the case of the North Korean defector and her son should have been checked by the authorities, who -- under the guidelines worked out after the Songpa tragedy -- should monitor those below the poverty line showing signs of abnormality, like failure to pay utility bills and medical insurance premiums.

The whole nation, not least the government, should go through some painful soul-searching, all the more because it failed to fulfill its obligation to provide extra care and help to those who resettled here after risking their lives to escape from poverty and oppression in North Korea.

Authorities said the North Korean woman came to the South in 2009, married a Korean-Chinese man and moved to China. The woman returned to South Korea with her son late last year and they divorced early this year.

It is believed that, except the 100,000-won monthly subsidy for child-rearing, she did not have any income after the divorce. Local community officials said she was entitled to government support, including subsidies for single-parent households and the extremely poor.

That the woman had not applied for state support should not excuse the community and welfare officials for failing to fulfill their duty to locate people in such a plight and provide due help. There are about 33,000 North Korean defectors in the country, and it is quite possible that some of them are going through the same hardships as the Bongcheon-dong mother and son.

Currently, newly arriving North Korean defectors are given a 12-week program for resettling. The government then helps them find jobs, provides a rental house and resettlement funds, and the police and relevant authorities put them under their care for five years.

The case of the woman in Bongcheon-dong alone shows that the government care system for North Korean defectors does not work properly.

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, said in a social media post that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be happy with their death and Pyongyang would use it as a propaganda to vilify the South Korean society and discourage North Korean citizens from defecting.

Thae said that the government is responsible for the Bongcheon-dong case as the Constitution calls on it to protect everyone’s lives and properties. It is indeed a shame that the government, which is so keen on sending food aid to North Korea, citing humanitarian grounds, lets people who escaped from hunger there to die of starvation in their dreamland.