Strangers at Home: North Koreans in the South
Asia Report N°208
14 Jul 2011
As the number of defectors from North Korea arriving in the South has surged in the past decade, there is a growing understanding of how difficult it would be to absorb a massive flow of refugees. South Korea is prosperous and generous, with a committed government and civil society, and yet refugees from the North almost all fail to integrate or thrive. Part of this is the change in the people coming; it is no longer just senior officials and fighter pilots who were useful and privileged propaganda tools. Nowadays many are women who have endured terrible deprivation in the North and abuse on their way to the South. Reconfiguring programs for defectors to take account of this change is essential if new defectors are to find a place in their new home.
The heart of the issue is humanitarian: those who arrive in the South are often fleeing material deprivation and political persecution and under South Korean law must be accepted and helped. But as with all humanitarian issues, it is complicated by politics. Defectors have been used by both sides. The South once rewarded them with wealth and public regard but 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.
As the difficulties of absorbing North Koreans become clear, the South is also wrestling with the possibility that it one day might have to handle a vast outflow of refugees from a collapsing North. The two sides of the Demilitarised Zone have diverged so much in economics, politics, language and social organisation that the people are now strangers to each other. South Korean law and opinion from some quarters would likely demand a rapid unification, but economic and social realities suggest such a move could be catastrophic. 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.
The divergences between North and South mean that defectors are on average significantly smaller, more poorly educated, less healthy and less likely to have useful skills. They must adapt to a country where credentials and networks are essential for finding jobs. They also come from a country where an all-powerful bureaucracy makes almost all decisions about their lives; there is almost no choice in education, employment or even food. New arrivals describe a bewildering rush of modernity, consumption and choice that rapidly overwhelms them. They also complain of discrimination by Southerners, who have stereotyped them as heavy drinkers, prone to crime, shirking work and relying on state handouts.
Many arrive nowadays suffering from serious physical and mental health problems, resulting in part from poor diet and trauma in the North and sometimes from abuse during their escape. South Korea is not well equipped to handle this: it has the highest suicide rate of wealthy countries and one of the poorest systems for providing mental health care. As more vulnerable people have begun to arrive, not enough has been done to accommodate their needs.
The South Korean government has devoted significant resources to helping defectors, but its efforts have often lagged behind new developments. The lavish welcome defectors received in the past has ended, and there is a more practical approach to education and integration, but as the arrivals have soared, facilities have not kept up. Civil society, particularly religious groups, has stepped up to help, but relations with the government are often strained. Better coordination of such efforts, improved oversight to determine what works and a more sensitive approach to discrimination are all needed.
Critically, policy on defectors needs to be insulated both from the occasional burst of belligerence from the North and from policy shifts in the South towards Pyongyang. What is clear is that the problems Northerners face on arrival take many years to resolve. What is needed is a long-term approach that allows a greater role for civil society and is less subject to change with each new government.
This report aims to draw attention to the challenges defectors have faced in integrating into the South, in the hope that the many international actors engaged with both Korea and refugee issues will devote more attention to planning for the possible need to accommodate much larger numbers due to conflict or other sudden major change on the Korean peninsula.
Among the issues to be tackled are:
- the government, particularly the Ministry of Unification, should endeavour to be more responsive to the needs of defectors by listening to civil society groups and those who come from the North;
- there is a need for greater oversight to ensure that money is allocated to those programs that meet defectors’ needs most closely. This could be a role for the newly established North Korean Refugees Foundation;
- the government needs to improve public awareness among South Koreans to increase tolerance for Northerners, as well as tough anti-discrimination laws and practices; and
- 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.
Seoul/Brussels, 14 July 2011