Despite a shared language, blood and culture, as decades of division continue to pass the two Koreas keep growing further and further apart. And while reunification remains an official goal in both North and South Korea, there has been little meaningful progress towards it since the year 2000, when the two countries agreed to seek peaceful unification at the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration.
But while progress towards reunification has been politically frozen for nearly fourteen years, it was in this period that the largest ever number of defectors arrived in South Korea. And today, with around 25,000 former North Koreans calling South Korea home, this community is playing an increasing role in shaping local opinions towards not just reunification, but the people and society of North Korea more generally.
However, despite increasing numbers of defectors it’s no secret that the general public’s appetite for unification has dwindled significantly in South Korea over the past decade. Why? A lot, it seems, has to do with misconceptions towards both North Korea as a whole, and on a local level towards those defectors already living in South Korea.
In part three of our NK News refugee insight interview series, we therefore asked our respondents about what they thought to be the biggest misconceptions towards the North and whether enough is being done to integrate defectors into South Korean society. In many cases the responses suggest that the South Korean appetite for unification could be negatively affected as a direct result of these issues.
Question 3. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions in South Korea about North Korea? Is enough being done to integrate defectors there?
South Koreans hold prejudices against North Korea, not because they are bad people, but because of the 60 years of painful division we have between us. During this time, we grew up under different ideologies in terms of culture, press, and education – that’s why people from the North and South are like water and oil and cannot easily get along.
In order to integrate North Koreans into South Korean society, an understanding of the defector community will be key. North Koreans, who grew up under a socialist system, cannot easily understand the capitalism of the South, which is why they need to be educated about the capitalist system. There need to be job placement services according to age, as well as education systems and jobs made available according to the defectors’ interests and skills.
In her description of reunification as a “jackpot”, President Park Geun-hye stressed the importance of understanding for defectors. Yet there has been no real progress. When the UN-COI commissioner Judge Michael Kirby said the South Korean people are apathetic to human rights issues in the North, I believe he was spot on.
They always say that we are one people, and that our dearest wish is unification. But South Koreans are, in fact, apathetic to North Korean human rights.
“South Korea…only looks at these issues from afar like they are someone else’s business”
The world takes interest and discusses North Korean human rights, but the people who should be leading these discussions themselves are merely observing from afar. While legislation on North Korean human rights have been passed in the U.S. and in Japan – and last year legislation on the adoption of orphaned North Korean children was passed in the U.S. – South Korea is still in the midst of debating North Korean human rights law, standing in a continuous gridlock.
People in the South who hold one-person protests for North Korean human rights are fined for obstruction and sent to jail for not paying. This really reflects the perception of North Korean human rights in South Korea.
All mankind is born with inalienable rights. But we defectors are not guaranteed our rights, neither in North Korea nor in South Korea, where we risked our lives to arrive in pursuit of freedom and a shared mother tongue. And so, we wander around like strangers.
South Korea, which should rightfully embrace them, only looks at these issues from afar like they are someone else’s business. There seems to be a long way to go for North Korean defectors to be integrated into South Korea.
The biggest misconception South Koreans have about North Korea is that they think unification will negatively affect South Koreans. I cannot understand why they’ve come to think so. But as President Park Geun-hye has pointed out, unification will be a jackpot for both South and North Korea.
People seem to think unification will negatively affect South Koreans, while a leftist government was in power in the South for 10 years. This is what pains my heart the most after I came to the South. Why have politicians used unification for political reasons and why should South and North Korean people suffer because of that?
It is important to help people realize why unification will be beneficial for both South and North Koreans. It is wrong for South Koreans to think they will be taxed heavily to feed North Koreans. If investments are made for roads, railroads, and electricity in the North, the North Korean economy will improve very quickly and the quality of life for most North Koreans will enhance dramatically. North Koreans are very diligent, old-fashioned and innocent people for sure. But they’ve changed a lot since the Arduous March (the famine of the 1990s). It’s understandable when you consider that they had to see their friends and family starve to death right in front of them.
“Why have politicians used unification for political reasons and why should South and North Korean people suffer because of that?”
Not enough effort is being made to integrate defectors into South Korean society. Of course, it’s true that a lot of government, religious, and welfare efforts are being made for the integration of defectors into South Korean society. But I think it’s important to recruit talented and smart defectors to be at the forefront of the unification movement.
First, when people think of North Korea, they only think about the government. They know very little about the North Korean people. Almost everything reported about North Korea on South Korean TV news focuses on the North’s government. Therefore, South Koreans cannot think of the North’s government and people separately. When they hear defectors’ testimony, they are surprised.
Second, there’s a misconception that it’s possible to make North Korea relinquish its nuclear weapons through talks. But the truth is, North Korea will never give up its nuclear program. Their main purpose for having nuclear weapons is to allow them to accomplish their goals without attacking the U.S. or South Korea. It’s the last thing they’ll give up as their ultimate goal is to absorb South Korea into their communist state and make the entire world a communist state. However, it will be a different story when they face collapse before accomplishing that goal. In short, it’s almost impossible for them to relinquish their nuclear program through talks alone. Only physical changes in the international community can make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons.
“South Korean laws focus on the defectors as a group and are not tailored to the individuals”
It is hard to say that enough effort is being made to integrate defectors into South Korean society. First, defectors are still the minority and weak in South Korean society. It takes considerable time and effort for defectors to adapt themselves to the South’s society since they grew up in different social classes and in a background in the North. For example, while some defectors received college education in North Korea and had already heard about western democracy and the outside world, others barely graduated from high school and worked as farmers. There’s a gap between them. South Korean laws focus on the defectors as a group and are not tailored to the individuals. South Koreans needs to provide laws and policies tailored to individual defectors based on the background and education they received in the North.
One of the things that many South Koreans don’t understand is why there has yet been no coup d’etat or democratic movement within North Korea. I think it’s possible for South Koreans to have questions like this, as they’ve achieved democracy through fighting against dictatorial governments. But their questioning about this with North Korea relates to a fundamental lack of understanding of what’s really going on in the North.
Because the North Korean regime has succeeded in controlling people for the past sixty years – using methods more vicious than any other dictatorial government in history– it’s not appropriate to make such a simple comparison.
“Although these endeavors cannot meet 100 percent of all defectors’ expectations, I would like to acknowledge that the government has shown much effort”
The South Korean government has shown considerable effort in every field for helping defectors resettle in South Korean society. While there is no precedent for providing housing and resettlement funds anywhere in the world, the South Korean government has shown much effort by providing the defectors financial aid and, at the same time, providing them opportunities for social training and employment. Although these endeavors cannot meet 100 percent of all defectors’ expectations, I would like to acknowledge that the government has shown much effort.
The biggest problem is that South Koreans regard North Korea as a different country and they regard North Koreans as a different ethnic group. But according to Article 3 of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Constitution, it clearly states that the entire Korean peninsula and adjacent islands are ROK territory. This means that South’s government is the one and only legitimate government on the Korean peninsula. According to the ROK Constitution, the North is part of the ROK and North Korean people are also ROK citizens. But many South Koreans perceive defectors as foreigners and they make it obvious that they feel uncomfortable coming in contact with them.
Of course, there are reasons that such misconceptions and misunderstandings have emerged. The two Koreas have been divided for many decades and there’s a huge economic gap between them. I think all of these are stupid misconceptions regarding North Korea as a foreign, different and separate country. They’d have to perceive the North Korean regime as a legitimate government if they are to regard it as a different country.
“[South Koreans should] perceive the North Korean regime as a legitimate government if they are to regard it as a different country”
Although the ROK Constitution clearly states that North Korea is part of ROK territory, not all South Koreans perceive North Koreans as the same ethnic group. The South’s government needs to make continuous efforts to change people’s perspective of North Korea. ROK governments of the past have placed great emphasis on education about anti-communism. If they were to make the same amount of effort to assert the importance of unification, things will change positively. Defectors need to be at the forefront of changing people’s perspectives.
But it’s true that 25,000 defectors in South Korea aren’t really doing anything. It’s still a small number and it’s difficult for them to settle down in a new land. But, I believe things will change for North Korean defectors in the near future. I believe so because young defector college students are trying to actively engage in South Korean society – even though there are still only a few of them at this time.
I don’t think South Korea has certain misunderstandings or prejudices about North Korea. As people here are well exposed to North Korean news, many know about North Korea almost like an expert. In America, they know even better.
I believe the South Korean government puts in a satisfactory amount of effort to help with the resettlement of North Korean defectors.
However, there are two more serious problems.
North Korean defectors can’t handle the competitive lifestyle of South Korea and I feel that they do not put in enough effort into integrating with this lifestyle. Also, they have such a big ego even though their capability is low – this negatively affects their resettlement at work.
“Another problem is defectors’ resentment toward South Korean society”
Another problem is defectors’ resentment toward South Korean society. South and North Korea both have quite a strong sense of exclusivism as Korea was a single nation for about 5000 years.
For too long in the South, North Korea has been regarded as an enemy and North Korean defectors are often categorized lowly and held in contempt. These two problems cannot be solved easily and will cause defectors to resist settling down in South Korea regardless of the great programs that the government has developed for them.
The biggest problem with the South Koreans is that they no longer take interest in North Korea. Past generations in South Korea were taught to think of North Koreans as the ‘main enemy’ or as ‘commies’. I have also seen many people who treated me with unaccountable hostility upon learning that I was a North Korean defector. They must have learned in their schoolbooks that North Koreans are horned, red-faced monsters – and I’m not just saying this as a joke. This kind of education was rampant at one time. On the other hand, the generations that came afterwards either received no education whatsoever on North Korea or were taught to be overly positive toward the regime.
In Korea, there are many educators who belong to the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union who are stalwarts of the North Korean system and Juche ideology. Their teachings put North Korea’s Juche ideology in a favorable light and defend the North Korean regime. In extreme cases, they show hostility toward North Korean defectors and deem our testimonies to be false. Of course, if someone asks them to go live in their beloved North Korea, they say they would never do so. Animosity or disinterest is the reality of South Korea today.
“Animosity or disinterest is the reality of South Korea today”
Most of the younger generations in South Korea do not wish for reunification and believe that the status quo is favorable for them. Their rationale is that reunification with the poor North would not benefit South Korea at all. The problem with South Korea is its lack of interest and false prejudices toward the North.
The same goes for the view toward defectors. Before coming to South Korea, the defectors had lived all their lives under North Korea’s socialist economy. They had little understanding of money, and did not really know how to earn or spend money. Life back in North Korea was a hand-to-mouth existence. But since coming to South Korea, they are learning how to live a new kind of life.
North Korean defectors have gone through much trial and error and, in this process, some of the defectors’ negative aspects or flaws have emerged. People have taken things like the employment rate or the work ethic of the defectors to be a reflection of all of North Koreans. But the defectors are still very much in the process of learning about capitalism. Habits learned through dozens of years of life in North Korea cannot change within one or two years in the South. Civic awareness is not something that can change overnight. Strangely, though, the South Korean culture has a low understanding of concepts like wait-and-see or tolerance. They doggedly expect certain outcomes. The problem is that you cannot always get positive outcomes.
“South Korean culture has a low understanding of concepts like wait-and-see or tolerance. They doggedly expect certain outcomes”
It has been about 10 years since the defectors have started coming to South Korea, and I think this excessive focus on results is what contributes to the negative perception of defectors. The most important thing is the attention and care of South Korean society. North Korea needs their attention. Unfortunately, something like the North Korea Human Rights Act cannot seem to get signed in South Korea. There may be several ideological problems behind this, but what is certain is that there’s a real lack of interest.
But since North Koreans lived in a highly collectivist society for a long time, it will be a lot easier to control them than it is to control South Koreans.
They’ve been made and forced to unconditionally obey orders, commands, and the rule of law.
The South Korean government needs to take advantage of defectors to prepare for unification.
“North Koreans will trust defectors entirely about the South”
North Koreans will trust defectors entirely about the South.
The South Korean government needs to take more advantage of defectors but they only want them to stay quiet and to not cause trouble.
Second, in order to ultimately free the North, South Koreans should focus more on the life of North Korean people than Kim Jong Un’s speeches and actions.
Third, many South Koreans think North Koreans don’t know how to work hard, which is not true at all.
Once the two Koreas are unified, North Korean workers will not waste South Korea’s time and assets.
“Once the two Koreas are unified, North Korean workers will not waste South Korea’s time and assets”
I think that the South has done its best to support the life of North Korean defectors.
First, in terms of capabilities needed at a company – job performance ability, conversation skills, interpersonal relations, and so on – defectors are very lacking in these areas. Defectors take a while to forget so called ‘alien thought’ from the North, but a lot of time passes in the process. However, with nothing but a little bit of consideration from the South Koreans, they can fully realize their capacities. So, I think that there is a latent potential that is being overlooked.
In today’s North Korea I think there is a good labor force and technical workers can be educated to work to South Korean standards, but the South is ignoring the potential of this and is only thinking about the short-term costs.
In South Korea people think the whole country will have to work from sun-up to sundown to help North Korea and that they will have to bear that burden. This view won’t help for future reunification or for the present. South Koreans think of themselves first and don’t want unification because of the great burden they assume they will feel and. For their part, North Koreans hate to think that they are under the control of the South.
I think in South Korean society, there is an insufficient amount of trust towards the North Korean people. Defector’s on occasion provide information about the North Korean government, but generally, South Koreans have no trust in them.
Of course, it’s not as if every defector has to do work for the government or work related to North Korea. I think institutional work and work associated with North Korean is especially difficult for them. Therefore, defectors in the south can’t play many leadership roles and are left only as people who receive help and sympathy from others. The distrust of defectors in the South is so severe that there are even some who re-enter North Korea.
“The distrust of defectors in the South is so severe that there are even some who re-enter North Korea”
Even in North Korea, bit-by-bit, the influence of material culture and the attempt to imitate technology is visible. This change is necessary to convey awareness to South Koreans that, in the future, North Korea won’t just be a burdensome existence to them.
The problem of adjustment for defectors in South Korea is mainly due to government policies. Defectors are able to resolve issues when they join their individual efforts, but I think that in South Korea they are too dependent on the government to take care of them. If good use is made of NGOs, then more effective programs can be run, but if they rely too much on the government, then I think the effectiveness will drop.
“Defectors are able to resolve issues when they join their individual efforts, but I think that in South Korea they are too dependent on the government to take care of them”
For defectors, it’s necessary for them to have employment to learn job skills allowing them to absorb and adjust into society culturally without rejection. However, I think it will take a longer time to acclimate culturally. It’s difficult to adjust culturally with South Korean people and socialization is hard, so they can’t have a sense of belonging.
Some think it’s a place where people cannot live at all. Others think it’s a good socialist country.
Many people oppose each other because they possess such contradictory views and opinions on the country. Their opinions are formed based on the societies and sub-cultures in which they live.
There are so many government policies on aid for the resettlement of North Korean defectors. But they’re not really sufficient enough.
“Some think it’s a place where people cannot live at all. Others think it’s a good socialist country”
The biggest problem is the discrimination faced by North Korean defectors. This is caused by South Koreans’ unwillingness to accept their differences. Therefore, it will take much time before this discrimination can be reduced.
Main picture: E. Lafforgue
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