There are now 26,000 North Korean defectors in the South. No longer are they foreigners in a strange land; quite the opposite, they are full, contributing members of an increasingly diverse society. Successful settlement, where it occurs, not only has positive ramifications for South Korean society as a whole, but also for those left behind in the North.
The chairwoman of North Korean Refugees Foundation, Jung Ok Im works to facilitate this integration of North Koreans into South Korean society. She recently gave an interview to Daily NK to explain more.
What is the current situation for defectors in the South?
To me, defectors are “unification trailblazers.” The North Korean people are seeing these defectors succeed in becoming self-reliant and independent. This is incredibly important for North Koreans. Thus, defectors play the role of “stepping stone” toward unification.
The number of defectors entering South Korea has been decreasing in recent years. How do you explain this phenomenon?
Increasing border controls by the North Korean regime would be one variable. However, what we cannot see in the simple figures is the upward trend in defectors entering the country who had been hiding in China for a long period. There have been a number of cases where people have been entering South Korea quickly after defection, too, so it is too early to jump to the conclusion that there will be a drop in numbers over the long term.
There have been five known cases of defectors returning back to the North in the last year. What is behind this?
Most defectors have family and close friends still in North Korea. This weighs heavily on their hearts and they carry a real sense of burden and debt. This is due to the fact that their families are sometimes held hostage, and they are blackmailed. Also, defectors receive support and various benefits when they settle in the South, but many often struggle to adapt to a capitalist society and feel a real sense of loss.
Nevertheless, save a small minority, most defectors are satisfied [with life in South Korea]. A recent public survey indicated that the level of satisfaction for defectors exceed 96% [see linked article]. The fact that North Korea mobilizes the repatriation of defectors and holds press conferences where they criticize the South is evidence that North Korea fears the defection of its people.
What are the biggest difficulties that defectors face in the South?
Most work hard to achieve self-reliance and independence, but the largest difficulty they face is adapting to a different system. They suffer from economic, health and psychological problems, too. Our foundation not only provides tools for defectors to utilize in the initial resettlement period, but also medical treatment, education and employment support. The Foundation helps young people via scholarships, distributes employment vouchers and provides education on how to navigate this fast-paced information society. Since 70% of defectors are female, we also operate women’s shelters.
There are currently 19 organizations in South Korea alone providing various types of defector support. How do you address criticism from those who think that task duplication constitutes budgetary wastefulness?
It is most efficient to deliver support in those areas where it is absolutely needed. However, there is no single place serving as a “control tower” to harmonize the myriad of organizations and issues that are in play. We need to make adjustments from a policy standpoint. There is an urgent need in particular for customized assistance toward young and female defectors.
Do you think North Korea will go ahead with the impending separated family reunions?
They agreed to the reunions despite the fact that they coincide with the military drills. That they are attempting to improve North-South relations shows just how urgently they need economic support. We cannot trust the North Korean regime, so there is real concern that when the drills start the North could take drastic action over the reunions. We can only hope that these are imaginary fears. If they take an extreme position, they will be totally alienated from international society.
Will the reunions improve inter-Korean relations?
I hope that this is the case. [The reunions] are the desirable path for both North Korea and for unification. Furthermore, improved North-South relations are desirable for eventual unification and for the citizens of North Korea.
The North Korean Human Rights Act has taken center stage at February’s provisional session of the National Assembly. How likely is it to pass?
Even the leader of the opposition has talked about the act, giving hope for a positive result. Regardless; if it passes, it must include content that helps to enhance human rights. That’s the whole point of the act, after all. It must stand up to international scrutiny, and embody the meaning of our universal values.
The opposition says that it should include content pertaining to humanitarian support, too; politically this is the “art of compromise.” All it needs to really contain is a commitment to human rights and humanitarian support. That is, humanitarian support that ensures welfare for North Koreans and that they can function properly. This must also be verifiable.
What do you predict for the Kim Jong Eun regime?
It is too soon to tell, but it certainly appears that it will remain insecure. Kim Jong Eun’s youth adds to the anxiety surrounding the stability of the regime. Certainly, if it is to become stable then there will need to be economic support. Giving up its nuclear weapons and choosing to focus on its economy and people would make it stable. If they hang on to their nuclear weapons, however, international support will remain a remote possibility. Stability will be nearly impossible to achieve if Kim Jong Eun persists with the Byungjin line of simultaneous economic and nuclear development.
What do you hope to achieve as chair of the North Korean Refugees Foundation?
I would first like to build foundations of “unification trailblazers.” We must work to ensure that defectors can put down roots in this society of liberal democracy, a free market and constitutionalism. That is to say, we must work so they can be self-reliant and independent. Putting down roots is the first step toward integration. Youth and women form the majority of defectors. As they successfully adapt to this new society, they will set a good example.