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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
North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks
North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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

North Korean soldiers look south on the north side as a U.S. soldier stands guard upon Belgium's Prince Philippe's visit in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, in May 2009. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak
Report 269 / Asia

North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks

Prospects are bleak that the Six-Party Talks can lead to a denuclearised Korean peninsula, notably since North Korea has made nuclear weapons an integral part of its identity. The international community must open new channels of communication and interaction, give greater roles to international organisations, the private sector and civil society.

Executive Summary

The Six-Party Talks were established in 2003 as a multilateral forum to achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. However, the parties (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.) have not met since December 2008, when the talks stalled over verification issues. There is a strong international consensus that North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) should come into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions and abandon its nuclear weapons program but widespread disagreement over the strategy and policies for achieving this. Nuclear arms are now an integral part of North Korea’s national identity, however, so it is increasingly apparent that absent a sea change in ideology or leadership in Pyongyang, the Six-Party Talks will not achieve their central aim. Though governments need to keep up pressure for disarmament and maintain the dynamics of the current containment and deterrence policy, they also should establish – and encourage other international actors to establish – new channels of engagement that may further incremental change in North Korean society.

Since the end of the Cold War, the DPRK has developed a state ideology ofsŏn’gun (“military first”). Furthermore, the third generation of Kim family rule has adopted the pyŏngjin line, calling for simultaneous economic and nuclear technology development for both peaceful and military purposes, as Kim Jong-un’s contribution to “scientific socialist thought” and essential to the continuing Korean revolution. Nuclear status has been enshrined in the constitution and statutes, and state propaganda emphasises the role of nuclear weapons, satellite launchers and nuclear technology in the nation’s modernisation and prosperity. DPRK officials often have repeated that Pyongyang will denuclearise when the rest of the world does. Denuclearisation would require a transformation of that identity, in effect revolutionary change. The North has offered to return to the Six-Party Talks “without preconditions” to discuss regional security, nuclear disarmament and other issues – but not denuclearisation.

South Korea (ROK) faces an existential threat from the North’s growing nuclear arsenal. It is divided, however, over policy toward Pyongyang. After activity was detected around the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri in spring 2014, it invested considerable effort in an attempt to restart the Six-Party Talks. By late February 2015, five parties had reached a consensus on the minimum criteria to present to Pyongyang. To test intentions and sincerity on denuclearisation, Seoul has pushed for “exploratory talks” in a track two setting as a first step toward resuming the formal six-party process. If Pyongyang does not meet the criteria for resumption, which have not been disclosed publicly, the U.S., South Korea and others appear poised to take increasingly punitive measures.

There is little likelihood the U.S. would enter upon resumed talks unless there is a much greater prospect than appears to exist that they would be pursued in good faith by the North and not simply for manipulation and propaganda. Experience under the Agreed Framework in the 1990s, in addition to widespread perception that the DPRK is unreliable, make the Obama administration, and almost certainly any future president, sensitive to likely domestic blowback from another failed diplomatic effort with Pyongyang. China does not face the same domestic risks if the talks were to restart and turn out badly. It could always take credit for hosting them, and in the case of failure, blame the DPRK and/or the U.S. Its consistent position has been to restart dialogue even with low likelihood for success.

Japan also has a high threat perception regarding the North’s nuclear and missile programs and generally will support South Korea and the U.S. over the talks. Bilateral discussion of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s raised hopes for improved relations, but that process also has stalled. Without a satisfactory resolution on abductions, Tokyo will be even more inclined to take a harder line on the nuclear issue. Russia wants the talks to resume as soon as possible. Though sensitive about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities, it believes Washington exaggerates the threat, and its focus is on economic cooperation, which the North welcomes as helping reduce economic dependence on Beijing.

Whether or not an intended exploratory meeting is held, the gap between positions is too broad to expect the Six-Party Talks to resume as a good-faith effort to denuclearise the peninsula. For that, either the DPRK must abandon its nuclear identity and ambitions, or the international community must accept transformation of the talks into a different type of institution that does not address denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Neither seems possible, so deterrence and containment will remain fundamental for dealing with a nuclear North.

Deterrence is imperfect and could fail, but it will remain a pillar of security in the Korean peninsula for the foreseeable future. At the same time, it needs to be complemented by a broader engagement with North Korea on a range of issues. The self-imposed isolation of Pyongyang perpetuates a dangerous regime, in the same way the U.S. isolation of Cuba may have delayed evolutions in the Caribbean island; every opportunity should be seized to encourage an opening of society in North Korea. Three sets of actors might do so: governments and inter-governmental organisations (IGOs); private sector firms; and civil society. The roles, risks, opportunities, and costs vary, and engagement must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Only governments can sign treaties, impose and lift economic sanctions or change a military posture. Businesses can trade and invest, creating opportunities for contacts and engagement, but unconstrained trade can lead to dangerous technology transfers.

A relevant segment of civil society activities includes educational, cultural, artistic, musical, scientific and sports exchanges. There is no true North Korean civil society activity, but outside non-governmental organisations (NGOs), while they cannot substitute for governments or economic actors, could be important for transmitting ideas and information into the North, which ultimately is necessary to change its thinking, identity and policies.