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Strangers at Home: North Koreans in the South
Strangers at Home: North Koreans in the South
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula
Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula
Report 208 / Asia

Strangers at Home: North Koreans in the South

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.

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Executive Summary

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

Op-Ed / Asia

Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula

Originally published in The Interpreter

The report that Korean People's Army General Hyon Yong-ch'ol, Minister of the People's Armed Forces, has been shot for insubordination – by an anti-aircraft gun and before a crowd of officials, no less – raises troubling questions about both halves of the divided Korean Peninsula.

While there still is no confirmation regarding the purge from Pyongyang, South Korean National Assemblyman Sin Kyong-min, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that Seoul's National Intelligence Service (NIS) has multiple sources for its claims.

The scepticism of many analysts is less about the reported execution than the timing and motivation behind its sudden revelation. Though Hyon is supposed to have been executed on 30 April, the news emerged only on 13 May, a fortnight in which NIS appears to have suffered two intelligence embarrassments. 

On 29 April, the NIS told National Assembly members the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, 'was highly likely to visit Moscow' for the 9 May World War II Victory Day celebrations, only to be proved wrong the following day. Then Pyongyang appeared to take Seoul by surprise by testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on 8 May. Although North Korean state media suggested the SLBM is operational, it appears to have been an ejection test from a submerged barge and the missile only flew a short distance.

South Korean President Park called the test a 'serious security challenge' at the National Security Council meeting she convened on 12 May, and she probably then approved the NIS leak to the National Assembly about Hyon's execution as part of an effort to alleviate public concerns.

For sceptics, releasing the news about a spectacular purge in the North looks like an NIS attempt to rehabilitate its reputation. It could also be intended to shock the international community in order to garner support at the UN and elsewhere in case Seoul decides to impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang.

But if Hyon has indeed been executed, what are the implications?

Some analysts say the recent increase in purges is a sign of instability in the North. Others argue that Kim remains in firm control because the problems of planning collective action against him are insurmountable. Another group suggest improvements in the economy indicate the regime is becoming stronger.

I see no signs of any rebellion against Kim and I'm sceptical about internal instability at this time. I believe the leader has several advantages in managing the dictatorship in order to remain in power: his vast, established institutions of repression; the difficulties of organising collective action against him; and the array of dilemmas someone in the elite faces in trying to persuade anyone to join a rebel faction.

Hyon was probably more vulnerable than many realised. A career soldier, he enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the military, which he joined in 1966. He was elected to the Supreme People's Assembly in 2009, and the next year was promoted to four-star general and elected to the party's Central Committee. He was advanced to vice marshal and Chief of the General Staff in July 2012, the same day his predecessor, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, was stripped of his positions and disappeared. About a week and a half later, Hyon became a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, only to lose one of his general's stars after three months. In March 2013, he was back on track as a candidate member of the Politburo, but two months later he again lost a star and was reassigned to Kangwon Province, far from the seat of power. 

Hyon appeared to have redeemed himself when he regained the star and was appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces in June 2014. Rehabilitation seemed complete in September with his election to the National Defence Commission. As recently as April, he was in Moscow for an international security conference.

Kim needs professionals to run his military, and Hyon was a survivor with proven ability to 'reform' and play the North's brutal political game of redemption and rehabilitation. That his career may have ended with him paying the ultimate price demonstrates that even a senior leader can miscalculate. 

It is also worth considering the implications of the way Hyon's reported execution was made public by an NIS leak. The information was provided to the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee during a 'closed hearing' with the expectation it would soon reach the media. This common South Korean practice is indicative of the dysfunctional relationship between the NIS and the legislature.

South Korean lawmakers repeatedly compromise sensitive intelligence to impress constituents, though it damages national security and intelligence cooperation with allies, as International Crisis Group has reported. While many citizens and lawmakers complain about the NIS being politicised, the National Assembly's predictable leaking gives the intelligence organisation a means to enter the political realm without democratic accountability. Indirect disclosure in this way undermines the trust needed for a 'healthy democracy' (one of President's Park's favourite terms).

For the international community, and South Korea in particular, the recent shadow boxing could have grave consequences. Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula are now based solely on deterrence, yet in the South, intelligence has sometimes proved flawed, and in the North, a key player may have made the ultimate miscalculation.