After reports surfaced in the South Korean media about a story involving a female defector who decided to return to the North, more and more defectors in the South are hearing this question.
These types of questions cause significant discomfort for the 30,000 plus defectors trying to resettle and readjust to life in the South, and shows that people born in the North and the South still need to invest in understanding one another.
When North Korea engages in military provocations, defectors often bear the brunt of negative public opinion.
In preparation for unification, we should ask ourselves, “How are we treating defectors now, and how does this measure up with the way they deserve to be treated?
As more defectors come to resettle here in the South each year, South Koreans are coming into contact with them with greater frequency. They are becoming more deeply engrained in the fabric of society and our lives. When North Korean defectors build successful lives in the South, they serve as a living example to their peers in the North that happiness can be found here. This also improves the likelihood of a successful unification and shows that we are doing what we can to prepare.
Unification means that North and South Koreans are together under one system, harmoniously living and working together in the same community.
However, to us, North Korea remains a distant place, and people from North Korea often seem shrouded in mystery. The majority of South Koreans have a very limited understanding of life in North Korea.
Unfortunately, the media portrayals of North Korea do not present unification in a realistic way and don’t always show positive depictions of defectors.
According to research carried out in 2016 by the Hana Foundation, North Korean defectors identified prejudice and discrimination (34%), and cultural clashes (24%) as the top issues in adjusting to life in the South.
While certain markers of success, such as academic performance and employment are improving over time, there is a need to focus further on improving mental well-being for defectors here in the South. Hana Foundation conducted a survey last year in collaboration with a media partner targeting areas in which defectors live in high densities. The research revealed that local South Koreans tend to feel more psychological distance towards defectors than vice versa.
We may talk about wishing for unification, but in truth, many of us don’t feel a great sense of urgency about it.
According to research carried out by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), about 58% of respondents said that we need unification, whereas 46% indicated that they can accept peaceful separation. About 57% viewed unification and separation as being irrelevant to their lives.
Although unification may feel like a distant dream, we are constantly working to build a stronger foundation for integration. North Koreans have become accustomed to a market economy and have learned about the outside world thanks to the introduction of the market system. They are secretly viewing media from South Korea, helping them feel more comfortable with ideas and culture from the South. In South Korea as well, more defectors are settling in and engaging with South Koreans. This has helped establish a basis for understanding and empathy with one another, an important step in preparing for unification.
Much like the Berlin Wall, there is a possibility that the DMZ may open up overnight. The more important thing, however, is that North and South Koreans receive each other warmly.
This requires hard work and patience. Unification is not some far-off, unreachable event. We need to start by embracing defectors as members of our local communities. Through one-on-one contact and relationships, we can make our great big country feel like a tight-knit community.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.