What Double-Defection Tells Us About The Prospects For Korean Unification

August 9th, 2012
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The last weeks have seen more than a few articles bringing up once again the delicate issue of defectors’ integration (or, some might say, the lack thereof) in South Korea. While we occasionally hear of some success stories, the majority of cases tell us of a complex, often harsh reality for the thousands of North Koreans who have moved south of the DMZ. Whatever one’s view may be on the recent figures of double defectors, it is clear that there exists a percentage of North Koreans who are unhappy with their living conditions in the ROK and do think about returning north, even more so given recent stories about the DPRK government trying to lure them back.

Aside from political speculation, it is important to understand what brings former defectors to reconsider their choice and what their struggle to integrate means, in terms of reunification prospects. One thing seems to be clear: despite the effort made by the South Korean government in terms of financial assistance and education programs, Seoul is still struggling to manage the integration of a relatively small number of North Koreans, and we can only imagine the type of obstacles that a mass flow of citizens from the North would present. This is partly explained because the current divide extends beyond the mere economic disparity; sociocultural differences are presently stronger than any national rhetoric about racial homogeneity and more pervasive than any political statement made North or South about the need for reunification.

These obstacles can be classified according to their pertinence to either side of the peninsula. In other words, there are issues which are characteristic of North Korean people and their social upbringing, issues related to the society and culture of South Korea and finally issues shared by both sides.

Problems related to culture and social upbringing in North Korea

Who are the North Korean settlers and why are they struggling to integrate in the South? According to data[1], the majority of them come from the north-eastern part of the country, which is the less fortunate in terms of political situation, environment and economic condition[2]. Their position in North Korea is already at a low-intermediate level on the social ladder and it drops further down once they resettle in South Korea. In the rare case of high-level defectors (such as high-rank military and politicians), they quickly find out that any social prestige they held within the North Korean society quickly wanes once they are set to live in the South (with Hwang Jang-yop being one of the few exceptions).

Hanawon Center

Current figures show that  between 2500 and 2800 North Koreans enter the South each year, with a consistent year-on-year increase[3]. To deal with this flow, the South Korean government established the Hanawon resettlement centre on the outskirts of Seoul. The centre and its branches throughout the peninsula aim at empowering new settlers with all the necessary skills to live in South Korea. Hanawon centres also provide social and medical assistance and importantly, childcare and psychological support. But the fact remains: North Koreans in the South are faced with enormous pressure to adapt to a society that is too fast, too competitive and far too individualistic for their liking. In comparison with their southern cousins, most of them lack any valuable skill in terms of education, working experience or participation in an open society. Furthermore, all North Koreans seem to carry the psychological burden of having survived a life of deprivation and struggle, both in North Korea and in other countries (mainly China) prior to arrival in Seoul[4]. Their view and outcome on life is negative in almost all cases and once they realize how far behind they lag in any aspect of life, they start losing the motivation to improve their condition.

In terms of social adaptation, defecting North Koreans appear to walk on a path of misguidance, as everything they initially learn about the South is negatively coloured by DPRK ideology. They become aware of their situation through a first phase, which we could describe as “discovery and illusion”, when they open to a whole new range of information which plants the seed for a decision to one day leave the DPRK for the first time. This is almost immediately followed by a second moment, in which disillusion takes place as they have to face a hostile environment (most of the times in China) and endure a long and dangerous journey to South Korea. Upon arrival, new arrivals are left in a blank state, having to unlearn everything they have been so-far exposed to while learning as much as possible about South Korea and the contemporary world. Finally, they are set out from the Hanawon center to face unprecedented challenges in their newly adopted society.

More often than not, this all seems to happen too rapidly for them to adapt successfully. The value system of North Koreans seems to play an important role in the way their new lives in the South are moulded: being used to a centrally regulated economy and a strict system of state-supervised distribution of goods and services, defectors feel inclined to rely on government assistance, rather then seek out for opportunities. For the same reason, North Koreans do not have a clear perception of monetary value and its importance within a market economy. They also retain the class distinctions that are so clearly marked in the North Korean society, despite their need for employment and integration, “North Korean defectors, who prefer white-collar jobs, shun the so-called 3D jobs (as in: dirty, dangerous and difficult) or quit them on impulse”[5]. Furthermore, new settlers seem to be at odds with what defines the very essence of being a contemporary South Korean: the language, the social etiquette and personal communication.

Common cultural issues

After sixty years of division, in fact, the two sides of the country seem to have developed some differences in linguistic terms. The Korean language has always been rich in regional varieties and the lack of day-to-day communication between the two States has amplified some of the pre-existing differences. The main reason for this is that the language in South Korea has undergone significant changes during the last sixty years. With considerable borrowings from English it has also retained a basic number of Chinese characters, which are still used in newspapers and other official publications. None of these features are present in the Northern standard, with studies done among North Korean settlers showing that learning this new vocabulary and being able to contextualize it represents a real problem for many defectors[6].

In terms of communication between the two sides, therefore, this is rather a sociolinguistic issue: the way in which South Koreans shape their world view and express their emotions today is quite different from what it was fifty or sixty years ago. In a way, North Koreans today express themselves like their southern brethren did five or six decades ago. The language difference is also reflected in social habits: even daily occurrences like dating can become more complicated for North Koreans as they are not used to the rules of social interaction in the South. The fact that most North Korean defectors and refugees tend to marry among each other is thus a strong indicator of this pattern. It is also true that most defectors feel rejected by their Southern counterparts based on their ethnicity and appearance[7]. Difficulties in finding a partner and communication issues pertain to a deeper level of cultural biases that are inbred into South Korean society.

Problems related to South Korean society and culture

South Koreans are generally perceived by North Koreans as not being very welcoming and understanding because they tend to look down on their Northern cousins. Studies have shown this perception to rest on sufficient proof[8]. The reasons for this domestic bias are complex: first of all, both sides have shaped their civil society under a strong political bias. This, in turn, contributed to create a rather distorted image of the “other Koreans” within a polarized context where right and wrong were supposed to be all on one side or the other. When the Southern economy leaped forward in the mid 1970’s, South Koreans began taking pride in their way of life and the concept of an enemy on the other side of the border gradually substituted the romantic ideal of brothers divided by an unjust war. Forty years of consumerism and gradual western influence have moulded new values into the South Korean way of life. Secondly, South Koreans define social judgement of North Koreans based on their own democratic values, tainted with domestic nationalism: North Korean settlers are sometimes seen as “traitors” of their own land and families and this translates into a mark of unreliability in terms of work ethic.  How can a person who has betrayed his own family ever be trusted by a company? What constitutes one of the heaviest burdens for all new settlers (namely the guilt that stems from having to leave their families behind to possibly face harsh repression) brings in reason for mistrust, rather than empathy.

Defector TV Show

Furthermore, cultural biases, in combination with the old Confucian ideals preaching the dominance of an elite of well educated individuals over the poorly educated masses, fostered high levels of social competition (both inside South Korea and against the North), on which South Korea today is still  based. North Koreans, with their out-dated education, stunted physical growth and unfashionable ideology represent both a past that South Koreans do not want to revive and a living testimony to the power of material wealth over socialist rule. In the eyes of most South Koreans, their northern brethren have ‘lost the race’, therefore all the effort to adapt to their new life in the south should solely rest upon their shoulders. It is emblematic, in this regard, that one of the sporadic success stories of former defectors is that of boxer Choi Hyun-Mi, who literally fought her way up to integration and acceptance in the South, notwithstanding prejudices. About a month ago, BBC explored the topic of integration again: the idea of ‘re-branding’ North Koreans on TV shows, to ease their blending in Southern society is quite explicative of the stage of present difficulties.

Conclusions

It is fair to assume that no reunification could ever take place in the immediate future without having predisposed a wider and more efficient set of remedies for the adaptation of North Koreans to  Southern society. The current state of integration for the majority of defectors is not promising. Of the 23,000 and more settlers registered in South Korea as of January 2012, half are currently unemployed[9]. The current demographics of North Koreans in the South show that the majority of them are females (nearly 71%), with an average age range of 25 to 40 years old. Their average level of education, prior to their arrival in the South, is generally upper secondary (70% of all settlers have high school qualifications but only 8% hold a university degree)[10].

Despite efforts made by the South Korean government during the past two decades, there seems to be a pattern in which cultural differences, political biases and social prejudice overshadow political efforts and economic assistance. Resettlement centres for North Koreans may provide them with technical skills and new ideals but simply cannot bring a real change in the perception that many South Koreans hold of their northern brethren. Teaching new settlers how to deal with money, or how to find employment doesn’t necessarily imply social adjustment or overcoming the shock of living in a country that is not yet ready to accept them for what they are. If one could suggest anything from this analysis, it would be on the urgent need for an improvement of the perception among South Koreans for their Northern brethren.

The South’s negative perception of North Korea partially stems from recent history and it has been amplified by a prejudice in which the actions of the North Korean government (such as military attacks and state-sponsored terrorism) and its people overlap: South Koreans have been told for decades that, at any time, their Northern cousins would sneak into the South to spy, kidnap and commit acts of terror. This kind of social warning was omnipresent even until recently, from subway stations to school textbooks[11]. This current prejudice against needs to be revised and substituted with a more realistic image if South Koreans are to understand that the majority of North Koreans are not involved in what their government does, nor do they have a voice in their own society. This is indeed a daunting task, as on a few occasions, some of the North Koreans fleeing to the South did turn out to be government agents and spies, trained to conduct military or intelligence actions south of the DMZ These actions exerted a major influence over the public opinion of South Koreans and somehow still influence the future of those who genuinely seek integration in a new society. Secondly, South Korea must put more emphasis on educational projects, with vocational training,  and  prolonged periods of apprenticeship for all new settlers.

The relatively young age of most settlers can still be considered as a positive factor in their race against time, distress and previous cultural baggage: in the next fifteen to twenty years, with adequate instruction and assistance, a new generation of North Korea-born professionals, managers and officials, trained in the South, could act as a bridge for newcomers and pave the way towards a better integration between the two sides.


[1]    Chang, Yoonok, Haggard, Stephan and Noland Marcus, Migration Experiences of North Korean Refugees: Survey Evidence from China, IIE Working Papers 0 8 – 4, March 2008, p. 4-5.
[2]    This area (namely the Ryanggang and Hamgyong provinces) is probably the less hospitable in the country. Members of the lower social class (those categorized as “hostile to the regime”) are often relocated in these provinces. Interestingly enough, their geographical concentration can be seen as a stepping stone towards defection, due to the combination of relative dissent, harsh living conditions and proximity to China.
[3]    Source: ROK Ministry of Unification (http://www.unikorea.go.kr/CmsWeb/viewPage.req?idx=PG0000000365)
[4]    For further details on this issue, see: Chung, Soondool and Seo, Ju-Yun (2007) ‘A Study on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Among North Korean Defectors and their Social Adjustment in South Korea’, Journal of Loss and Trauma, 12: 4, 365 — 382
[5]    Suh, Jae-Jean, North Korean defectors: their adaptation and resettlement – East Asian Review, vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn 2002, p. 76.
[6]    Suh, Jae-Jean (2002), cit, pp.75-81.
[7]    Chung, Soondool and Seo, Ju-Yun(2007), cit. p.375-377, and Suh, Jae-Jean (2002), cit, p.81.
[8]    For a more detailed account on the importance of social perception of North Koreans in the South, see: Choi, Sheena, Ethnic Brethren and the National “Other”: North Korean Youths in South Korea, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration Volume 1, Number 2, 51-57, 2 October 2011;  Suh, Jae-Jean, cit, pp.76-86, and ICG (International Crisis Group), cit, pp.19-22.
[9]    Source: ROK Ministry of Unification (http://www.unikorea.go.kr/CmsWeb/viewPage.req?idx=PG0000000365)
[10]  Source: ROK Ministry of Unification (http://www.unikorea.go.kr/CmsWeb/viewPage.req?idx=PG0000000365)
[11]  This was not always without justification: the North Korean government has been trying to destabilize politics in the South for decades. From the attempt to assassinate former South Korean president Park Chung Hee in 1968, to the Rangoon bombing, which failed to kill former president Chun Doo Hwan in 1983, and the bombing of the Korean Air flight 858 which took the lives of 115 passengers in 1987. Furthermore, the North has organized the kidnapping of several South Korean and Japanese citizens along the costs of both countries. All this, in combination with recent events such as the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeongpyong island, contributed to foster a negative image of North Korea among Southern citizens.

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About the Author

Gianluca Spezza

Gianluca is the research director of NK News. He focuses his research on North Korean society, the role of education in the DPRK, gender issues in North Korea and North Korean ideology. He holds a Master in Humanities from the University of Torino (Italy) and a M.Soc.Sc. in Asian Studies from the University of Turku, Finland. He worked in East Asia (including South Korea) as an education consultant for five years. Mail: [email protected] Follow: @KazakhPilot

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