|▲ Jeon Jin Yong, the psychiatrist at Hanawon|
Upon their arrival in South Korea, North Korean defectors usually require psychotherapy due to their fear of arrest and concern for the family they have left behind. However, the notion of “psychiatry” raises feelings of unease in most people, and North Korean defectors are no different. For them, the “No.49 Hospital” (as North Koreans refer to psychiatric hospitals) is remembered as a place where people stay, rather than a place for counseling and therapy.
This is the main reason why North Korean defectors very seldom visited the Hanawon psychiatrist during the early stages of their 3-month stay. So, as Jeon Jin Yong, the incumbent at Hana Clinic told The Daily NK on March 22nd, “Doctors must begin by gaining the trust of the North Koreans rather than with therapy itself.”
The name “Hanawon” was unfamiliar to Dr. Jeon until he applied for a job at Hana Clinic, nor had he ever met a North Korean defector before. Yet Jeon, who applied for the position because he sought a different and fulfilling job, is now in his 3rd year.
The job was not easy at the beginning, with the most difficult part being language and cultural differences, he says. For example, Jeon was confused when one North Korean defector showed up in the psychiatric ward and expressed his sickness in terms of being “busy,” a linguistic form unique to the North.
“I also had to explain English terminology like ‘gargle’ and ‘X-ray’ and South Korean colloquialisms for pain in different words,” he says.
“One time, I told a group of North Korean defectors, ‘Those who get stressed, come for counseling,’ but they asked me, ‘Doctor, I didn’t get stress yet, where can I get it?’ Due to the unfamiliar loan word, North Korean defectors thought stress was one of those things given to them by Hanawon.”
Furthermore, Jeon says, they have their own, wrong, ways to deal with illness. If they have indigestion, they use mugwort, and they apply toothpaste to dermatitis.
However, since he started to form an intimate bond with the defectors and communication became freer, the number coming to see him has increased. It is long overdue, for there is much to address.
There are so many causes; the person who risked his life to meet his mother in South Korea but received news of her death just months before his arrival; and the lucky ones who escape alongside their family members but are forced to live separately for a number of years. Jeon says that tension and anxiety felt during the escape process, concern about a new environment and the stress of family separation all require detailed therapy.
He believes, therefore, that the Hana Clinic has to employ doctors on a permanent basis in order to provide stable treatment for the emotionally fragile North Korean defectors.
“They need to hire doctors to work here exclusively,” Jeon says, “Regular doctors are transferred frequently, but this reduces treatment continuity, while new doctors also require time to adjust.”
Hana Clinic was established in 2004 when regular doctors were first positioned at Hanawon. In the initial stages, there was only one treatment room, and one nurse took care of everything. However, starting with internal medicine, dentistry and Chinese medicine, it has grown to include psychiatry (in 2008) and obstetrics & gynecology in 2009.
Currently seven doctors, five nurses and an auxiliary nurse all work at the facility. However, Jeon argues that this is still insufficient.
Despite all the problems, Jeon hopes to see greater integration between defectors and the community, because things can only get worse from here. “While working in Hanawon as a doctor,” he says, “I have had an opportunity to ponder reunification. I have come to hope that many people encounter North Korean defectors and offer them help, in preparation for the unification process.”
“When I look at North Korean defectors, I realize that we have lived with a different language and culture for too long to adjust in a short period even though we are of the same race. This chaos will only worsen when unification arrives.”