SEOUL—As part of its effort to integrate North Korean defectors, South Korea is largely financing the removal of their tattoos, which North Koreans say worsen the discrimination against them.
The Association for Assistance to North Korean Escapees, which operate under the Ministry of Unification, now says it will pay 70 percent of the cost of tattoo removal, up to 500,000 won (U.S. $320).
“Revolutionary tattoos are O.K. in North Korea,” Jang Hae-Sung, a defector and former reporter for the [North] Korean Central Television.
...because of my facial tattoos, the vendors think I’m Chinese, and they tend to look down on me or ignore me."
They are also popular among North Korean soldiers, he said, adding that South Koreans look down on tattoos.
In North Korea, “You can get in serious trouble because of tattooed images that symbolize or advocate for peace, such as pigeons. When tattoos were in fashion, I was working for the Event Guidance Bureau at [North] Korean Central TV station, and I recall having seen 10 people wearing the same kind of tattoo,” Jang said.
The aggressive-looking tattoos worn in North Korea mark those who wear them as defectors, aggravating discrimination against them, he said.
Through a spokesman, the Association cited discrimination as a key rationale for the program.
“The Ministry of Unification has come to realize that many North Korean defectors are having trouble finding employment because of their tattoos,” the Association spokesman said.
“Women wearing tattooed eyelids face instant discrimination, as they immediately give the impression that they came from China, and this creates numerous difficulties for them, to the extent that even finding a job becomes nearly impossible.”
“Many defectors tell us that during the hot days of summer, everybody around, both men and women, wear short sleeves or shorts. But they have to wear long sleeves, long pants, and other clothes that conceal the tattoos on their arms, legs, or backs.”
Kim Seo-Yeon, a North Korean defector now living in Seoul, said she recently visited a dermatology clinic to have her tattooed eyeliner removed.
“I had laser pulse surgery to have the lines tattooed under my eyes three years ago removed at a neighborhood dermatology clinic, for 200,000 won [about U.S. $127],” she said. “It takes several sessions to have the tattoo removed completely.”
“It doesn’t look so good when I go in for a job interview. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s just that the tattooed eyelid lines make my gaze too intense, and people feel uncomfortable. When I go shopping, because of my facial tattoos, the vendors think I’m Chinese, and they tend to look down on me or ignore me.”
More than 15,000 North Koreans have fled to the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, most of them in the last decade.
But the defectors, most of whom are women, say South Koreans treat them coldly and often discriminate against them.
Original reporting by Jung Young in Seoul. Translated by Greg Scarlatoiu. RFA Korean service director: Francis Huh. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han