Seven North Korean defectors sit shyly through a ceremony celebrating the end of their three-week life-skills course at a regional resettlement centre. Traditional songs from the northern provinces are sung, two small defector boys giggle their way through a north Korean lullaby and speeches are made on the challenges ahead. Of the seven defectors, only one is male – a statistic that is reflected throughout the defector population in South Korea, 70% of whom are women.
Upstairs, fifteen women are hard at work inserting computer chips into plastic moulds. My host, one of the centre’s vocational skills trainers, tells me that the defectors are a valuable source of factory labour to the city, known for its manufacturing industry.
This ‘Hana Centre’ is a local branch of the Hanawon resettlement centre – the ‘South Korea 101’ college for North Korean defectors. It functions as a second phase of resettlement after the 8-12 week residential training programme mandatory for all new North Korean arrivals to Seoul. Once they finish the first two phases of their South Korean boot camp, defectors are released into society to find jobs or enrol in education, set up shop and get to grips with life as the South Korean citizens they’ve now become.
While North Korean arrivals to South Korea began as a mere trickle, recent years have seen up to 3,000 coming annually, and the total number now stands at approximately 24,500. In response to the rapid rise in defector numbers and growing demand for the overstretched services of the existing Hanawon in Anseong, this month the government opened a second Hanawon resettlement centre in Hwachon, Kangwon Province.
One significant move has been to transfer all men to the new Hanawon, away from the women and children, who will remain at the old Hanawon. The focus at the new Hanawon will not only be on providing vocational training for men. It will also provide ‘re-training’ for men who have been in South Korea for some time, but who have experienced difficulty gaining or keeping employment, thus failing to ‘integrate’ themselves as expected.
This change is representative of growing emphasis in South Korea’s defector resettlement policy on getting defectors into long-term employment. A steady job is seen as essential to setting the other aspects of integration in motion: building social relationships and having a stable family life. It also relieves the welfare burden on the state – a topic of much debate ahead of the upcoming South Korean presidential election. But whilst there is no doubt that such moves are well-intentioned, defector groups and NGOs working with defectors continue to report widespread difficulties in adapting to life in South Korean society.
An August 2012 survey by New Focus Media found that 80% of defectors feel dissatisfied with the settlement system, particularly concerning the pressure to assimilate, housing, medical care and employment.
Only 4% of North Korean defectors own a home, and many resent the system for failing to adequately support their diverse needs, which can include post-traumatic stress syndrome and serious health issues.
Others dislike the feeling of being under constant surveillance: for most defectors, the first South Korean they will meet outside the Hanawon is the police officer, their point of liaison in the local community. It’s a confusing state to live in. Defectors say they arrive expecting to be welcomed as brothers and equals; but in reality they feel like second class citizens.
The South Korean Ministry of Unification continues to dedicate significant money and manpower to promoting its unification policy, with images of brotherhood and shared destiny disseminated through social media, celebrity concerts, and even a nation-wide ‘unification bike ride’. However, public sentiment towards defector resettlement and the unification project is mixed: the views of those who lived through the Korean War differ vastly with the views of their grandchildren.
But if public sentiment is so ambivalent, why does the government continue to invest so much in its unification and defector resettlement policy? Whilst it’s true that although the positive strides in inter-Korean relations made under Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy in the early 2000s have been vastly undone during Lee Myung-bak’s administration, an underlying desire for eventual unification remains:
‘It’s our obligation, our destiny and our hope,’ said one leading academic on unification research at Seoul’s Ehwa Women’s University.
But a schizophrenic approach to unification poses challenges for defectors attempting to settle. Many try to hide their North Korean origins, knowing that in culturally homogenous South Korea it’s better to deny, rather than highlight, difference. On the other hand, some defector groups demand that difference be celebrated. Government officials encourage a distinct public voice for North Korean defectors in principle, as long as it’s ‘not too loud’, that is.
The opening of the new Hanawon Centre is, in some respects, a perpetuation of many of the things that are wrong with the settlement system. As one defector based in the UK told me:
‘Hanawon sets defectors apart from the South Korean population from the very beginning by institutionalising them. It gives them a minority identity from day one.’
According to his account, many of these defectors have already survived the perils of escape and life on the edge in China, and are not without survival skills. Is institutionalising them in a secure facility and forcing them to pick from a limited menu of mainly blue collar vocations therefore an effective path towards integration? And are South Koreans being correctly briefed on how to deal with this distinctly different minority? Is defector settlement a humanitarian duty, a practice run for future unification, a solution to South Korea’s labour shortage or a brotherly responsibility?
The government is certainly trying to make things work at both ends, but mixed messages are not helping mutual understanding.
It’s still relatively early days and the integration experiment is only just beginning, but it seems that the South Korean government’s desire to control settlement on its own terms is not creating the unified national collective it envisions within its own borders. If South and North Koreans are to truly ‘get along’ in South Korean society, perhaps what is needed is a re-think of the goals and outcomes of giving citizenship to a people who were once one, but are no longer, the same.
After the Hana Centre graduation, barbequed pork belly is served for lunch to celebrate. Whether it’s intentional or not, the North Koreans sit at one table, and the South Koreans sit at the other. Toasts are made, jokes are shared, but I feel the embarrassment of a male defector as he is told he is cutting the pork the wrong way: he blushes and laughs it off. It’s just the bottom of a very steep learning curve.