The soprano in the blue dress sang a sad tune about a sacred mountain. Soon the women brought tissues to their eyes and began sobbing over memories of home.
That’s when the cameras moved in -- crowding for a better angle, zooming in, panning faces, until many of the defectors ducked their heads in embarrassment and shame.
For the first time, officials on Wednesday allowed outsiders into the Hanawon resettlement center where North Korean defectors are debriefed. The open-house came at a time of increased tensions with North Korea, which in recent months has detonated a nuclear device, launched numerous missiles and amplified the rhetoric directed toward Seoul. Any event having to do with the North becomes an instant news media free-for-all.
The celebration of the center’s 10th anniversary was equal parts propaganda ploy, talent show and sob fest. Proud of their efforts to repatriate these lost cousins, South Korea officials produced several North Koreans to show just how fulfilled they were once free of the clutches of leader Kim Jong Il.
These defectors sang! They played piano! They showed off paintings and poetry!
But several later expressed disappointment that South Korea was not the nirvana they had thought. The life they have carved out here is at best bittersweet. While enjoying freedom and creature comforts, many find themselves second-class citizens. They pine for their families and simpler pleasures of home.
“I have memories of the mountains and the rivers of North Korea,” said Kim Chu-woong, a 35-year-old concert pianist. “The cigarettes and the alcohol taste different here. Often I get together with friends and we sing the old songs and our eyes get teary.”
The wake-up call for this new reality often comes at Hanawon.
About 60% of the defectors are women. Each year, hundreds of refugees spend several months at this leafy center 30 miles south of Seoul. Nearly 90% of the 16,000 defectors in South Korea are Hanawon graduates -- most of whom made their way to South Korea after slipping across the border into China.
They get a crash course in modernity and capitalism, learning how to use a computer and an ATM. But they’re also being grilled by intelligence agents trying to weed out spies.
Another center prepares defector children for enrollment in South Korean schools.
A 2008 report by a South Korean lawmaker showed that 75% of nearly 600 residents at the center suffered from depression or other mental problems. Many contemplated suicide because of the stress of their escape, the report said.
“They’re lonely people,” provincial Gov. Kim Moon-soo said of the defectors. “We offer them psychiatric care.”
He then motioned toward scores of women who sat together, most dressed in matching yellow shirts and black pants.
“Look,” he said. “They’re crying.”
And then the cameras moved in again.
Officials imposed tight security on coverage of Wednesday’s anniversary. Most of the residents could not be interviewed or even photographed. The faces of those who were captured on film had to be blurred to protect families back in North Korea. Only a handful of graduates, dubbed “settlers” by the center, were made available for interviews. Many spoke with northern accents that pegged them as outsiders.
“I was surprised at the reality of South Korea compared to my anticipation,” said Kim the pianist. “I thought it would be the start of my happiness. But it was the start of a hard life. The toughest was to feel the eyes of South Koreans and the stereotypes.”
“When I first got to South Korea, I thought it was the center of my dreams,” said film director Kim Chul-yong, another defector. “Then I found out it was just a country where people lived. Those dreams were just fantasies.”
But for South Korean officials here, Wednesday was a day of celebration. They announced plans to break ground on a new facility next year.
“North Korea is like a black box,” said parliament member Park Jin. “It is our responsibility to accept these people and help those who went through their unbearable pain.”
Many in the crowd began to fall asleep during the lengthy program. But when two defectors read emotional letters they had sent home explaining why they chose to leave, women in the audience wept. And that brought on the cameras again.
Aides from Seoul’s Ministry of Unification badgered cameramen: Someone had taken a picture showing a woman’s face, and it already had been posted on the Internet.
Later, some of the 160 journalists touring the facility pushed to get a shot of two North Korean women at computers. The scene was so tense that one woman covered her face and ran from the room.
Several former Hanawon residents who returned for the anniversary were asked whether they missed North Korea.
“Why do you ask me that kind of question?” responded Kim, the pianist. “We’re supposed to be exemplary settlers.”
Then Yoo Hye-ran, a 45-year-old preacher, said she heard of a grandmother who wanted to go back until she made a secret phone call to her daughter, who talked her out of it.
“The daughter said, ‘Don’t ever come back here. We’ll die, and you’ll die, too,’ ” Yoo said.
She added a somber note to end Hanawon’s day of celebration.
“I thought of how tough and lonely her life must be here,” she said of the grandmother, “for her to want to go back to that.”
Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.