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Homepage > Publication Type > Media Releases > Strangers at Home: North Koreans in the South

Strangers at Home: North Koreans in the South

Seoul/Brussels  |   14 Jul 2011

As the number of defectors from North Korea arriving in the South has surged in the past decade, reconfiguring integration programs for them has become crucial.

Strangers at Home: North Koreans in the South, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, draws attention to the difficulties South Korea is facing in absorbing North Korean defectors. The two sides of the Demilitarised Zone have diverged so much in economics, politics, language and social organisation that people are now strangers to each other. The possibility that it one day might have to handle a vast outflow of refugees from a collapsing North looms over the South.

“Some South Koreans believe a rapid unification could come soon, but the economic and social realities suggest such an event would be very costly”, says Crisis Group’s North East Asia Deputy Project Director, Daniel Pinkston. “The difficulties of handling just over 20,000 refugees over a few decades should be a warning to those who wish to encourage the collapse of the North rather than a more gentle integration”.

During the Cold War, the small number of defections was manageable. The end of the Cold War and the rapid increase in the number of defectors, many of them traumatised and destitute, created a number of problems. Defectors in the South have become an issue that affects inter-Korean relations, as they have been used by both sides for propaganda purposes. The South once rewarded them with wealth and prestige. That changed when rapprochement with the North began in the late 1990s. Defectors became something of an embarrassment, and policies to help them did not keep up with the numbers and types of people arriving. Since the famine in the mid-1990s, the mostly poorly educated defectors are on average significantly smaller and less healthy than Southerners, as well as less likely to have useful skills.

The South Korean government has devoted significant resources to helping defectors, but its efforts have often lagged behind new developments. Better coordination of such efforts, improved oversight to determine what works and a more sensitive approach to discrimination are all needed. Policy on defectors requires long-term approaches that allow a greater role for civil society and are less subject to change with each new government.

The government needs to improve public awareness among South Koreans to increase tolerance for Northerners, as well as to introduce tough anti-discrimination laws and practices. The international community should accept more refugees from the North and engage the South Korean government to provide help in such areas as English-language education.

“The South Korean government recognises that a precipitate change in the North would present it with immense problems”, says Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director, Robert Templer. “But it should not allow concerns about this or the occasional threats from Pyongyang on the resettlement of defectors to cloud the need to integrate them in the most effective way possible”.

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