Is the Purpose for North Korean Defection “Well-Being”

[imText1]Our society has become more interested in North Koreans recently. Perhaps for this reason, the recent academic lectures and seminars regarding North Korean defectors have suddenly been increasing. Having been a loner who had been agonizing about North Korean defectors for long, I would have liked to enjoy this new environment. However, as I came across some of recent researches and reports, saying that the purpose for North Korean defection is no longer about survival but has changed to “well-being,” it burdens me with tremendous responsibility.

“Slightly Above the Poverty Line” and Well-Being

This was because I was already presented in my report in 2001 that not only North Korean defectors suffering from severe food shortages and financial difficulties were attempting to defect but also were those who did not. I was the first one to point out that defection was not merely for survival but also in pursuit of a better life. Soon after its publication, my work received a wide range of criticism by major newspaper reporters and NGOs assisting North Korean defectors. North Korean defection is yet to be recognized as a serious problem. With a constant increase in the number of defectors, the issue started to receive more attention which helped to arouse sympathy for North Korean defectors assistance and protection. Their criticism was that contrary to public sentiment, my work could splash cold water on the emerging warmth towards North Korean defectors.

I agreed with their criticism, but I did not change the result of my research arguing that my studies are based on facts, which cannot be altered. However, that caring criticism is now hurting my heart. My previous expression, “pursuit of better life” has been taken to another level with the term “well-being.”

“Well-being” is now a new social trend in South Korea. “Well-being” means, literally well (satisfactorily, pleasingly) and being (living), or living a good life. The dictionary definition of “well-being” is “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous.” However, the pervasive meaning of “well-being” in our society is enjoying yoga, spa, or fitness clubs drinking expensive natural spring water, eating organic foods, and being obsessed with an unnecessarily luxurious pursuit of health and beauty. Along the same lines, could we say that purpose of North Korean defection is for “well-being”?

North Korean Defector Problem, Is the Negative Perception to Be Pervaded?

With the international assistance, North Korea’s severe food shortage has been somewhat relieved. Compared to 1996-1998, when there were massive deaths due to starvation, we can say that many people no longer face the direct threat of death from starvation. In that sense, it is evident that life in North Korea has improved but it is not true that they risk their lives to come to Korea with an ultimate goal of drinking spring water for their health or eating organic food and worrying about their health or going to a fitness club to work out.

There has been an effort to disseminate negative ideas about assisting North Korean defectors recently, arguing that the government has been providing defectors with excessive settlement money, ineffective employment assistance, aggravating inter-Korean relations, increasing crimes and other social problems. Have they not created an environment where a term such as “well-being” is allowed to be used to describe North Korean defectors?

A mass influx of North Korean defectors entering South Korea is not the right or the best way to deal with North Korean defection problem. What is more important for us is not to predict future occurrence, but to rightly recognize the present situation. Arguing that the purpose of North Korean defection is “well-being,” is distorting facts in order to merely arouse a public sentiment through media to stop North Korean defectors coming into South Korea

The situation that motivated the North Korean defectors to defect is an important element of characterization of the North Korean defectors. This characterization can be the very factors that will determine the level of assistance North Korean defectors receive. Therefore, we must approach the issue of “the state of being” in which North Korean defectors were in before with much prudence. If the North Korean defectors’ purpose of defection and entrance to South Korea was political persecution, they must be recognized as refugees, but if their purpose was to avoid threat to survival, then they must be protected and given aids as the first people in need of care. However, if their purpose of defection was “well-being,” then how many of those in our society will be willing to assist North Korean defectors? Even in South Korean society, “well-being” is something to envy, but hard to apply in reality.

The term “well-being” is wrongly used to describe North Korean defectors who are actually “those slightly above the poverty line.” “Those slightly about the poverty line” are the people who do not receive government subsidies under the National Basic Security Law but whose monthly income exceeds the basic maintenance level, but is less than 100/120. Most of the North Korean defectors were living below the poverty line, and defect to escape poverty. I feel responsible in that “Pursuit of better life” has been transmuted to “well-being” and feel more responsible at providing correct terms to be used in characterizing the purpose of North Korean defection. Would it be too greedy for me to wish that North Koreans desire for “well-being”?

Yoon Yeo Sang / President of NKDB Center