Do South Koreans believe that North Koreans can assimilate into their society? Many South Koreans remain supportive of unification, at least in the abstract, but if and when unification will occur remains unclear. After all, experts predicted the regime would likely fall after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. However, if one seeks insight into the challenges that will come with unification, one need only look at the assimilation of North Korean arrivals so far.

Starting with the famine of the 1990s, arrivals from North Korea, often from poorer backgrounds, increasingly struggled to acclimate to life in South Korea. Arrivals, once seen as a valuable tool in an ideological war, were now often seen as an economic and societal burden instead. Earlier arrivals tended to be well educated and integrated more easily into South Korean society, with the help of hefty resettlement packages. Yet such assistance increasingly faced domestic backlash and was seen as an economic burden leading to program cuts  under President Moon Jae-In. Existing evidence further shows that most South Koreans do not know a North Korean arrival personally, likely impacting their understanding of arrivals’ unique challenges and the success or lack thereof of integration efforts.

Though South Korea does provide arrivals with short courses in the basics of society, these are not nearly enough to bridge the cultural gap between the North and South. The challenges are many, from unfamiliarity with South Korean technology and hiding their North Korean accent, to finding unskilled work and stereotypes about the work ethic and proclivity towards violence. Children face unique struggles, as many are several years behind their peers academically, due to the circuitous escape routes more recent arrivals use. Thus, if South Korea struggles to assimilate North Korean arrivals when they number just hundreds or thousands a year, and adequate funds for integration policies are unpopular, how will they cope when it is potentially millions to integrate at unification?

To capture public perceptions of South Korea’s ability to assimilate arrivals, we conducted a national web survey in South Korea on March 11-16, 2022, administered by Macromill Embrain and using quota sampling for age, gender, and geographic region. We randomly assigned 1,107 respondents to one of two prompts to evaluate on a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree).

Version 1: I believe North Korean arrivals can assimilate into South Korean society

Version 2: I believe if unification happens North Koreans can assimilate into South Korean society

We find that a slight majority believe that arrivals now can assimilate (50.82%) with only 14.65% disagreeing. However, when the focus is on North Koreans at unification, only 40.62% of respondents believed North Koreans could assimilate, with 28.7% disagreeing. In other words, we find a public more confident in South Korea’s handling of arrivals to date, despite inadequate policies, compared to the hypothetical handling at unification.

Broken down by party, we find that liberal Democratic Party (DP) supporters were more likely to agree or strongly agree with both statements (Arrivals: 54.59%; At Unification: 46.89%) compared to their conservative People Power Party (PPP) counterparts (Arrivals: 48.55%; At Unification: 40.56%). Additional statistical analysis finds that after controlling for demographic factors (age, gender, income, education) and party identification that those that received the second version were less likely to agree.

Why the public makes this distinction between assimilation of arrivals now versus at unification could be for several reasons, including the sheer number of North Koreans to assimilate, the additional challenges posed at the time of unification, and perhaps viewing those that took great risks to arrive in South Korea now in a comparatively more sympathetic light. Yet, for those from North Korea, the challenges would be similar. South Koreans, unsupportive of the resources necessary for arrivals to adapt to South Korean life and largely unfamiliar personally with the plights of these arrivals have perpetuated policies across administrations that poorly meet current challenges. In other words, the public may have rightly identified the challenges that will come in the assimilation of millions of North Koreans at the time of unification, but they may have convinced themselves that current policies for the hundreds to thousands of arrivals per year are sufficient, despite evidence to the contrary. How South Korea prepares for arrivals now should be seen as a rehearsal for what will be needed come unification, yet the disconnect shown here suggests the continuation of inadequate policies both now and at unification.

If South Korean politicians want to avoid the social and economic challenges faced by Germany at unification, they need to understand how current policies affect North Korean arrivals. While income inequality endures, most North Korean arrivals are optimistic about life in South Korea, this despite unemployment rates among arrivals doubling in 2020. South Korean officials must learn from these challenge and identify policies scalable for when unification may become reality. Given that most of the South Korean public doesn’t know a North Korean personally and doesn’t think often about North Koreans, it is unlikely that the public will push for the necessary policy changes. If President-Elect is serious about emphasizing human rights in North Korea, connecting this position to domestic policies to aid in the assimilation of arrivals may help overcome some of these challenges and better equip South Korea for the challenges that unification would bring.

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Ian Milden is a recent graduate from the Master’s in Public Administration program at Western Kentucky University. He previously graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Kentucky University.

Aurora Speltz is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in International Affairs, Arabic, and Spanish.

Katrina Fjeld is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in International Affairs and Arabic.

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Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).