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Improving quality-of-life for North Korean defectors living in South Korean society

Yoon Yeo Sang, Chief Director, Database Center for North Korean Human Rights  |  2016-11-04 14:40
Although it remains to be determined whether the invitation is still valid, president Park Geun-Hye openly welcomed North Korean citizens to come to South Korea in her Armed Forces Day speech on October 1, announcing that they are, always welcome in the land of freedom - the Republic of Korea. She also emphasized that preparations are underway for an increasing number of defections. 

I have personally met many North Koreans who either defected or were dispatched for overseas work. These people leave North Korea because they want to, and many others hold a similar desire to leave the country. But not all wish to move to South Korea. Defecting from North Korea and moving to South Korea are two separate decisions that do not always coincide.

Two forces drive North Koreans to move to South Korea. First, hardships in North Korea make it challenging to live there. The number of defectors arriving in South Korea reached a few thousand per year in the past, but these numbers have reduced by about half since Kim Jong Un came to power. Although the number of defectors increased in the first half of this year, it is unlikely to be sustained, as most of those defectors were restaurant workers, diplomats, and traders, who were already outside North Korea at the time of defection and therefore arrived in South Korea from abroad. Whether the declining number of defections is due to the improved economy or strengthened border surveillance must be further examined. There have also been prominent cases of defections by members of the elite, who have felt threatened by the frequent purges, including the execution of Jang Sung Taek. But the number of defections by ordinary citizens has waned. 

To attract North Korean people to settle in South Korea, incentives are just as important. For example, if the Chinese government welcomes those who cross the border and offers them protection, it would become a powerful motive for defection. Likewise, it will also incentivize defectors if the South Korean government invests in the well-being of the defector community. But the reality is quite different. China has never welcomed North Korean defectors since the 1990s, when massive numbers of refugees arrived in China. The defectors in China are still regarded as illegal immigrants, and are forcibly repatriated when arrested, despite the fact that they will receive severe punishments. The lives of defectors in South Korea, who undergo significant hardships to defect, can also be fraught with difficulty. Although the government's support policies are systematically implemented, defectors often feel like strangers in society as they face discrimination and prejudice.

North Koreans often desire to move to South Korea because it is believed to be an advanced society which is free and prosperous. But after arriving, some defectors choose to leave the country and move to Europe or China instead. There are even cases of re-entry into North Korea. 

Most defectors in South Korea still communicate with their family in the North via phone and send them money. The stories they tell their family members are far more influential on shaping opinions than the presidents words. If they suggest that it is better to stay poor in North Korea than to be a little better-off in South Korea but faced with discrimination, the former is likely to be more attractive. 

It is said that our defectors are the vanguard of reunification efforts, as they are previewing life in a reunified Korea. However, South Korea is currently neglecting to provide proper support for the current 30,000 defectors who reside here. However, if much larger numbers of defectors arrive, it may galvanize society to focus its efforts. 

Therefore, preparation for unification should start with making South Korean society a place to call home for its current defector community. We, as South Koreans, must also play our parts by empathizing with the defectors around us in our neighborhoods, schools, and at work. There must be consistent efforts from the government, the private sector, and the defectors themselves, to make social integration successful and avoid exclusion and segregation. The Ministry of Unification is reportedly developing a policy for social integration to emphasize the roles of regional governments and the private sector, thus creating a new opportunity to reshape the lives of 30,000 defectors. Hopefully, these new policies will create the social foundations necessary for making South Korea a true home country for North Korean defectors.

*Translated by Yejie Kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

 
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2017.04.25
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