Building a New Elite for the Post-Kim World

When considering the future of North and South Korea, we can see that the time has come to raise an alternative elite, the kind that meets the expectations of the modern world and has no relationship with the Kim Jong Il regime.

But since it is impossible to participate in any political activity or gain a great deal of knowledge while inside North Korea, this kind of elite can only be formed in South Korea. For North Korean intellectuals with a sense of the modern world, South Korea is a base from which they can go into action and even receive an education. The birthplace of the alternative elite is the defector community in South Korea.

In 2010, the number of defectors in South Korea reached 20,000. The number of defectors is growing, and their social backgrounds are very different from those who escaped in the 1990s and after. Most of the defectors who crossed over to South Korea in and after the 1990s were farmers, laborers and soldiers. Being realistic, it is difficult to view them as talented people who could have been converted into an alternative elite.

However, there are a growing number of exceptions now. First of all, there are intellectuals among the defectors. Secondly, there are quite a lot of people who are young, talented and eager to get educated. The number of juvenile defectors who need to be educated in South Korea has now reached 1,800.

We can view the North Korean intellectuals living in South Korea as an existing alternative elite, and they have a great deal of potential. In Eastern Europe, the activities of dissident writers contributed a lot to the changes in their society. For example, in the cases of Poland and Hungary between the 1960s and 1980s, many of the most popular artists were in exile or intentionally avoided cooperating with the government in their own countries.

Their literary pieces did not always directly criticize communism, but they challenged the outlook the government forced upon the people and honestly described its internal contradictions. From 1970, it became common sense that a writer who obeys his or her government cannot produce meaningful work.

Among the defectors in South Korea today are writers, poets, journalists and people working in the movie industry. But most of them find it difficult to continue their creative lifestyles. The experiences that are the themes in their work are, of course, close to the reality of North Korea. However, it is a matter of regret that South Korean mainstream society is indifferent to both North Koreans and their experiences. Under such conditions, works that deal with North Korean life are not marketable. This is why North Korean artists cannot make a living in creative activities without external support.

There are various ways to support them. Giving financial support to North Korean writers, supporting magazines and publishing companies that publish their work and promoting exhibitions by North Korean painters are just some of the examples. Broadcasting stations for North Korea such as Free North Korea Radio can act as a base of financial support for the alternative elite.

While it is important to help North Korean elites, however, it is more important to pursue the formation of a new North Korean elite group. Intellectuals who were educated in North Korea know well about the reality of the country, but they face a lot of obstacles in learning modern knowledge. On the contrary, young North Koreans can learn about world class technology and knowledge when educated in South Korea.

But I find a lot of problems when I listen to the experiences of defectors studying in South Korean universities. Most either quit school or are regularly absent. Of course some leave school because of a lack of ability, but for many of them the reason why they do not graduate does not have anything to do with their ability at all.

Instead, North Korean university students who are admitted to South Korean universities face too difficult a challenge. First of all, despite the fact that they went to middle school and high school, the facilities and education standards of North Korea are far behind those of South Korea, with the exception of a few privileged schools. Secondly, most of them couldn’t get access to any kind of education while they were in China after defecting. Thirdly, the social culture and school culture they are used to is different from that of South Korea.

However, the most important obstacle they face is the different content of the education. Most of what they learn in North Korea is lies, worthless in the modern world. For example North Korean students learn a lot about the Kim family, but such knowledge is not helpful in any way.

On the contrary, there is a lot of knowledge that North Korea does not teach, but is thought of as basic knowledge in the modern world. For example, most North Koreans cannot speak English or use a computer. Kim Chul Yong, the vice director of the movie “Crossing” said, “whatever you learned in North Korea, it is always better to learn it again in South Korea.” This is correct. So in order to adjust to school life, North Korean university students have to work much harder than South Korean students. Therefore, even if North Korean students are talented, it is difficult for them to excel in South Korean schools.

We can also see how difficult it is for North Korean students to study when we consider the economic status of defector families. The income of a North Korean family is about 50 percent of that of a South Korean family. This forces them to put more effort into making a living than studying hard, and those defectors who could serve as the future elite cannot focus on their studies because they have to support themselves.

This is why we should consider providing scholarships for defector students. Current scholarships support them only with tuition fees. However, considering the financial problems North Korean students suffer, that is far from enough. Not all the defector students should receive living expenses and scholarships. It is a better policy to provide opportunities to those students who are determined to perform the role of future elite.

This method is not only economic, but it also encourages them to study harder. 25 to 30 percent of the whole defector student community would benefit. Of course, in order to select nominees objectively, there should be well-organized evaluation standards with grades and an interview at their core.

It would be a good idea to provide those top students with a living expense subsidy of 400,000 won to 500,000 won a month and a scholarship for graduate school. This program is not a big pressure. Scholarships could be provided by the government, but there will be only about 100 students who deserve the scholarship in the whole country, so any foundation or social organization would be able to support them, too.

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