No Depression

November 12, 2012 6:00 AM

To most people who visit the Peterson Institute website, the word “depression” probably conjures up mental images of the unemployed standing in bread lines. I think that is how A.P. Carter meant it; I am less certain about Uncle Tupelo’s Gen X fans or the guys who started the music magazine.

As Yoonok Chang, Steph Haggard, I, and others have shown, the more personal sort of depression is a pervasive problem among North Korean refugees, particularly women. Last month the Korea Times carried the story of yet another study to document this. A survey of 140 female refugees conducted earlier this year by Kim Jae-yop and Kim Hae-jin of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of Social Welfare at the request of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that 30 percent suffered from depression. As found in past studies, depression is associated with the physical and psychological toll of their escape from North Korea and subsequent experiences in China. This rate was markedly higher than the 7 percent found in the general population. As Yoonok, Steph, and I found in our earlier work, things like fear of repatriation and exposure to trafficking while in China are an enormous source of anxiety and stress.  And as in our earlier work, more than half the respondents were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorders; astonishingly, nearly half of those in the new survey reported having attempted suicide.

The paper reports that “About 70 percent of those surveyed suffered from physical illnesses such as stomach disorders, neuralgia and other chronic diseases. These conditions developed as a consequence of various physical and sexual abuses defectors suffered both in North Korea and their defection.”

Female refugees face unique vulnerabilities.  Again, confirming earlier studies, fourteen percent of the respondents indicated that they were sexually assaulted or harassed while in North Korea; 18 percent reported such abuse in the defection process. Twelve percent said that they were physically abused after reaching South Korea, and a staggering 37 percent reported abuse at home. Again, these figures are vastly higher than those for the general population of South Korean women.

Being good scholars, the authors caution that the sample is not large, not entirely randomized, yadda yadda yadda.  But with all academic caveats, the basic point is clear: the mental health status of the refugee population, particularly women, is quite poor. It is incumbent on the relevant authorities, most obviously the government of South Korea, but also the governments of third-country transit camps, to devote some real attention and resources to addressing this epidemic.

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Marcus Noland Senior Research Staff

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