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She Fled North Korea, but Her Death Has Rattled South Korea

Han Sung-ok and her son are believed to have starved to death in Seoul
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 23, 2019 10:35 AM CDT
A file photo of North Korean defectors in front of a wire fence decorated with ribbons and messages wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas in Paju, near the demilitarized zone of border village...   (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

(Newser) – The deaths of a North Korean defector and her young son in South Korea have delivered a jolt to residents of Seoul because of the bitter irony: Han Sung-ok fled famine in her own country and is believed to have starved to death in her adopted one, reports the New York Times. The bodies of Han, 42, and her 6-year-old boy were found in their subsidized apartment in July, roughly two months after they died. The only food in the apartment was a single bag of red pepper chili flakes, reports the BBC. How Han fell through the cracks is now a topic of debate in Seoul. She would have been eligible for government help in caring for her epileptic son, and it's not clear whether she tried and perhaps failed to navigate the system, or was too overwhelmed to try at all.

"I am still struggling to understand this: She escaped a famine in North Korea—only to starve to death in the heart of South Korea, where there is so much food that going on a diet is its biggest fad," the leader of a North Korean defectors group tells the Times. The details of Han's life story are patchy. She fled the North for China more than a decade ago, and a refugees' advocate says traffickers sold her as a wife to a rural Chinese man, with whom she had a son. She arrived in Seoul in 2009 on her own, though her husband and son joined her there. A second son was born in 2013. The family moved back to China in 2017, but Han returned to Seoul with only her younger son last year after getting divorced. "Thinking back, it gives me shivers," a food vendor in Seoul tells the BBC. "At first I hated her for being picky, but now [that] I think about it, I am sorry for her." (Read more North Korea stories.)

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