Why North Koreans Won’t Be Fleeing South After Unification

During crises, most people survive by staying in their country of origin
February 19th, 2013

In the event of unification or collapse of the North Korean government, the common line among most scholars is that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans will flee southwards in an attempt to join South Korea’s modern society, find new jobs, and escape the last remaining signs of the Kims. But South Korean researcher Song Young Hoon thinks differently, suggesting that in the event of sudden change we can expect many North Koreans to stay put, pointing out that in the event of contemporary global crises, most people survive by staying in their country of origin, rather than fleeing.

Focusing much of his work on the attitudes of South Korean citizens towards North Korean immigrants, Song’s research provides rarely talked about context to the difficulties encountered by defectors attempting to build new lives in the ROK. Rather than suggesting more needs to be done to get South Koreans to adapt better to the presence of increasing numbers of defectors, Song suggests it is the North Korean immigrants who need to change and become “active citizens”.

This interview took place last year during the conference “Whither The Two Koreas”, where scholars and experts from European and Asian universities exchanged views on a number of Korea-related topics in Budapest last year.  A few schedule conflicts delayed the publication of this conversation with Prof. Song about North Korean settlers in the South, which we are now happy to present.

NK NEWS: Could you tell us about your background and your current position at Seoul National University?

I received my Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of South Carolina, and M.A. and B.A. in Education from Seoul National University. My research interests are broadly in international relations, including international conflict, forced migration, international human rights, and international humanitarianism. I joined the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University right after I finished my dissertation. As a Senior Researcher, I have conducted annual survey research on South Koreans attitudes towards Unification, North Korea, neighboring countries, North Korean settlers in South Korea, and so on. I have also surveyed North Koreans in South Korea to understand the changes in North Korea and initiated a research project on North Korea refugees around the world.

NK NEWS: How did you develop your research on the North Korean refugees and why did you choose this topic?

Well, at the time of writing my dissertation I was focusing on forced migration in sub-Saharan Africa. I investigated where displaced persons go and why they choose to migrate. In forced migration crises, some people cross international borders but others stay inside their country of origin. I found that international humanitarian responses affect forced migrants decisions and the international community has become reluctant to host refugees so that the number of refugees has decreased. When I came back to South Korea, I was puzzled with the debates among scholars, practitioners, pundits, and policymakers on the status of North Korean defectors abroad. Most of them approached to the issue in nationalistic or constitutional perspectives, but what I found is that understanding of contemporary international humanitarian practices were missing from the debates due to its focus on legal and normative perspectives. Thus, I started to compare logics and arguments between North Korean studies and international relations studies.

NK NEWS: Your research focuses mainly on the attitude of South Koreans towards northern settlers. However, most of the studies conducted so far have approached the question from the perspective of the problems northerners encounter while trying to settle in the ROK. These include problems like harsh competition in the job market, insufficient preparation (in terms of resettlement education) and a discriminatory (some say ‘racist’) attitude of South Koreans towards their northern cousins. What is your view on this and why is it important to study the attitude of south Koreans on this matter?

First of all, I should say that I am very reluctant to use the term of ‘racist’ in any context dealing with South Koreans attitude toward North Koreans in South Korea in general. As you point out, the majority of commentators have tried to explain the difficulties of North Koreans’ resettlement in South Korea. They ask the government to provide more and better assistance and protection for them. No one can disagree with their argument. However, this approach should be revised in that they consider North Koreans as those who should be assisted and protected as they are viewed as being passive individuals without any freedom of choice. My questions is “why should North Koreans be assumed to have no freedom of choice?”.

They should be considered an active political agent, residing in South Korea. They have the right to choose where they live and what to do for their life. So they should be able to exercise the rights and fulfill their responsibilities as a citizen of South Korea. This is an emerging perspective in South Korea on how the government and society should deal with North Koreans and what North Koreans can do. Thus, we need to understand how South Koreans approach North Korean settlers and vice versa.

NK NEWS: Do you think the current program at Hanawon (the resettlement facility for newly arrived North Koreans) is enough for a successfully integration in the South?

There are many efforts to reform the program, but there are many things that should be overcome. How long and to what extent the South Korean government should provide ‘special’ assistance and protection services for North Koreans are controversial issues. The argument that the issues of North Korean settlers should be dealt with under the general welfare service system is getting more and more support in the society. The program at Hanawon should be revised to have North Korean settlers become active citizens, contributive to the community, as soon as possible.

NK NEWS: If the South had a larger budget to destinate to integration issues, do you think it would be worth to spend it for education of North Koreans after they arrive in the south, or, perhaps, to finance educational programs in the North, so that northern people may (slowly) bridge the knowledge gap?

I absolutely agree with this idea, which I have been arguing for. Many empirical studies show that North Koreans who got education have less difficulties in being integrated in South Korea than those who have no educational experience. In order to bridge the gap in terms of knowledges between North and South Koreans, the South Korean government should develop programs to educate North Koreans, provide textbooks and other educational materials including computers, and sponsor organizations which will be able to improve educational system in North Korea. It is a viable option because the North Korean regime emphasized the importance of education and recently extended the duration of public education of one more year. In addition, the international society should provide more nutrition assistance for North Korean children. Some studies report that the intellectual quotient of North Korean children is much below than the average. Providing better nutrition for them is a way of investment to the future of the unified Korea.

NK NEWS: Is animosity/mistrust between North Korean laborers in South Korea and South Korean laborers restricted to a certain social group (for instance, mostly between middle-aged North and South Korean women competing for the same low-paying, part-time/seasonal jobs)?

Hard to say. According to the IPUS survey, 24.7% of South Koreans say that their job market has went bad because of the influx of North Korean settlers. But I don’t see middle-aged North and South Korean women are mostly competing for the seasonal jobs.

NK NEWS: You have said that North Koreans would never flee in mass to the South, even in the event of a sudden collapse of the current regime (you have mentioned that you were actually one of the first to predict this soon after the death of Kim Jong Il), because they have ‘learned how to survive’ in the harsh environment of North Korea. For most western observers it is unthinkable that anyone would voluntarily choose to remain in a country where life is so hard. Could you explain this concept more in detail?

To begin with, I should mention that I am not ‘the first one’ but ‘one of few people’ who disagree with the idea that an exodus of North Koreans to South Korea would happen in the near future because of political instability or as the result of a collapse of the North. Please let me address three points here.

First, even after the death of a long-time dictator, the leader of the government may be changed but the way of governing the country does not change suddenly. North Korean military and political elites may have no alternative other than having a young Kim Jung-un as their leader because they have remained ruling elites without any experience of exercising political power at the national level. They have benefited for a long time from the current system so that they do not have to change the way the country is ruled. So they tightened the border control and enhanced the relationship with the Chinese government, which was worrying about the potential massive influx of North Koreans. In addition, the DMZ has remained heavily militarized so it is difficult for North Koreans to cross the zone to South Korea unless the North Korean army allows them to leave their country.

Second, I raised a question of why should we assume that North Koreans would move to South Korea when their life is so hard. To me, it is logical to assume that human beings are more likely to stay at home or in their country of origin rather than migrate to a new place. When we look at contemporary forced migration crises, some people choose to relocate themselves outside their country of origin while much more people survive the crises staying in their country of origin. North Korean settlers often say that they want to go back to their home in the North as soon as they are allowed (that is, as soon as Unification takes place and Korea becomes one country). Their roots are in their birthplace.

Third, North Koreans survived a tremendous food crisis in the 1990s and the situation has somewhat improved since then. Many North Korean settlers testified that food shortage is a critical issue, but the situation has improved and they have learned how to survive the hardship of their life. The international community including EU has reported that food crisis has not been fully solved but kept being ameliorated. Last, more North Koreans are allowed to travel to China to work and make money and remit money to their family. Just look at statistics on immigration of National Tourism Administration of the People’s Republic of China.

The number of North Koreans who simply visit or work in China has steadily  increased, which implies that a number of North Koreans have more opportunity to make their life better while staying in North Korea. I do not completely rule out the possibility of a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime and mass flight of North Koreans. But I suggest that we need to understand situations by considering North Koreans an agent rather than humanitarian subjects. How can we explain why much more North Koreans stay in China or go back to North Korea after a short visit? It is obvious that life in North Korea is hard, but we have to answer first to this question before talking about a mass flight.

NK NEWS: You have mentioned that in the South, North Korean settlers enjoy (according to South Korean public opinion) a better degree of welfare and State help than most South Koreans. This is in stark contrast with the view of most western NGOs and associations who make a public cause of North Korean settlers rights in the South and think that Seoul is not doing enough for them. What is your view on this topic?

In the past, when the number of North Korean settlers was very small, this wouldn’t be a social issue. However, when the number reached about 25,000 and South Korean economy went worse, redistribution policies of the wealth of the nation became a hot issue. In the 2012 IPUS survey, 50.1% of South Koreans says that the government should provide more support for North Korean settlers and 49.1% does not agree to providing more assistance by the government. 69.0% says that North Koreans should take part in the fair competition (for jobs). This reflects the criticism of the (perceived) lack of North Koreans’ willingness to be self-reliant in their economic life and their continuous demands for special assistance beyond the general welfare service system in South Korea. It has been widely accepted that North Korean settlers would simply get more services than ordinary poor people in South Korea. That’s why the government should develop programs to help North Koreans become economically self-reliant and contribute to the community as responsible citizens as soon as possible.

Interview conducted by Gianluca Spezza in Budapest, Winter 2012

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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