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Defector Work Programs in Need of Change

Kim Yong Hun  |  2012-02-16 14:04

There are more than 23,000 defectors currently living in South Korea. The government has been implementing policies intended to support their adjustment to society for many years now; however, recently it has been talking about moving away from a system of payments in favor of developing policies that help refugees become more independent and self-reliant. And yet, the employment rate of North Korean refugees is as low as ever, and the majority of defectors still talk about the difficulties of settling into South Korean society. On that note, Daily NK presents an evaluation of various suggestions for a more effective system of settlement assistance for these vulnerable individuals.

There are increasing calls for the government to urgently reform and supplement its current policy offerings to North Korean refugees looking for work. The aspect of the system most in need of change, according to many experts and defectors themselves, is that it rewards people with subsidies while they are looking for work, but not for holding onto a job for any length of time.

Now the government is focusing on developing training and employment programs to assist North Korean refugees attain more independence, rather than handing out direct welfare subsidies.

The 2012 employment assistance budget for the Ministry of Unification has been set at US$12.8m, while the North Korean Refugees Foundation has its own similar assistance budget of $4.46m. If you include the Ministry of Employment and Labors work-training subsidies, the government is contributing around $17.84m dollars to the employment of North Korean refugees to find work this year.

The Ministry of Unification distributes subsidies to refugees for employment training, job-seeking and obtaining qualifications. People who complete over 500 hours of job training receive between $1,070 and $2,141; those who complete a state-recognized qualification receive $1,784. The ministry also provides North Korean refugees who find employment with $4,906 in their first year, then $5,352 and $5,798 in their second and third years respectively.

The North Korean Refugees Foundation, for its part, spends its budget on the operation of a job-seekers support center, information sessions to encourage employment, job-related advertizing and support to socially-oriented enterprises.

The system needs to be reformed

Although there are some who believe that the current help system for job-seekers has played a positive role in increasing the desire of many refugees to find work, there are some who claim that it is still ineffective in bringing about effective employment for those it seeks to help.

As one official from the Ministry of Unification says, The current system is based on the assistance programs for foreigners, so there are parts of it that just dont work quite work for North Korean defectors. We are going to, among other things, undertake research regarding the employment assistance system to reform and supplement the programs we have in place.

North Korean refugees themselves make up many of the voices crying out for an alternative system that focuses less on the provision of money.

Although the subsidy system has been an effective motivator for some defectors to find work, the major flaw of the current arrangement is that it has a built in incentive for refugees to change jobs after three years of service, with the result that defectors rarely hang around any longer than they need to. It therefore comes as no surprise that many workers merely hold out for their three years to finish, given that staying in one job for three years is an easy way to receive $16,056 in cash subsidies from the government.

Changing the logic and changing awareness

So rather than the current system of subsidies, there are calls to provide the cure and not just the prescription; in other words, policies which motivate refugees to find and stay in jobs. Whatever guise this support system assumes, it must be aimed at fostering stable careers in the workforce well after securing initial employment.

The subsidy system has done some good things in getting defectors into the workforce for three years, says one expert who would not be named. But there is a fundamental problem with a system that gives people money just to find a job.

The Ministry of Unification official agreed, explaining, We need to increase counseling for job-seekers through employment assistance centers and create a more robust system connecting job-seekers with decent jobs. After-service is especially important; we need to make follow-up visits to their places of employment every month to see how theyre getting along and provide more professional counseling to help resolve workplace issues.

Minor changes are also needed in employment training subsidies, which amount to about $178, and in the development of government programs to make defectors more aware of the benefits available to them.

One defector who received a years training as a nurses assistant says, There are parts of the governments employment training that just dont result in effective learning because of the way they hand out money. There are many examples of people who are in learning programs just to get the benefits on offer, rather than to end up with a job.

Heo Seon Haeng, planning director for the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKnet) says that It is rare in the current system for job training to result in actual employment, so we need to consider moving to a system where these refugees are rewarded for finding employment relevant to the training they have undergone. We also need to develop programs to change the prevailing mentality and get people more actively involved in finding and staying in work.

There is a wide range of abilities amongst defectors, so any employment training needs to offer an incremental structure of learning from the basics to more advanced levels in order to overcome the shortcomings of the current system.

Major steps towards achieving this could include constructing new professional employment education agencies and using such centers to provide systematic support in finding quality employment.

Jeong Gook Yeong, the head of the Korea Total Education Center says, Because North Korean refugees tend to have trouble understanding how people talk here at first, there needs to be a gradual approach to learning: the early stages of teaching should be carried out by other defectors, and then continued later on by other professional lecturers. The quality of employment training needs to be raised, by the government providing systematic aid to the employment training agencies and simultaneously increasing their supervision of them.

Some also say that the government needs to more proactively market its employment support system. The majority of defectors are aware of housing and income support, but only a few are properly informed of the employment assistance available to them.

Park Jeong Ran from the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University says The North Korean Refugee Foundation needs to listen to the opinions of defectors themselves about how they are conveying their message across, and what demand is like for their services. That cant be a formality; they need to hear some objective appraisals and then promote themselves as a complementary support facility.

Seo Jae Pyeong, the director of the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea, says that The North Korean Refugee Foundation needs to send out their materials more than once every financial quarter. And as for those materials themselves, right now there arent enough concrete examples of people finding work within them, or information on government policies.
 
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