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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
It’s not hard to find North Korea watchers who are critical about the level of effort being made in South Korea to prepare for major change in the DPRK. Although South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has in one form or another been tasked with preparing for reunification since 1969, progress towards the once laudable goal has been at best, glacial. And while government initiatives often get tangled in politics, observers say an additional problem now relates to the general public’s increasingly apathetic attitudes towards unification.
But although it is understandable that South Korean interest in the DPRK is decreasing with time, the fall of the USSR and Berlin Wall both underscore how seemingly unimaginable changes can quickly change realities on the ground. And if similar changes occur on the Korean peninsula, will South Korea be ready?
To find out, we asked eleven defectors to share their thoughts about the current state of preparedness in South Korea and, specifically, about what steps the Seoul government and NGO community should take to better prepare the public for change.
From efforts to improve public perceptions of ordinary North Koreans to the need to avoid revenge killings in a post-collapse scenario, many of the responses underscore one important issue: the urgent need to educate South Koreans about the benefits of unification.
Because of this, I believe it is important for the South Korean government and NGOs to make efforts to change South Korean perspectives. South Koreans need to be open-minded about living with North Koreans and in particular – to understand that unification is coming and has to come, no matter what they want.
I believe the current discourse about unification focuses too much on economic issues and does not focus enough on pointing out that above all unification is about living together.
The constant discussion of economic worries will not help relax tensions between North and South Koreans, especially if defectors are discriminated against in South Korea, as they are now. The role of civil society should therefore be to focus on this fact in an effort to change perceptions of living together.
South Korea needs to educate North Koreans as to how unethical and anti-democratic their current dictatorship is through the defectors. There’s nothing more urgent than the unification of the Korean Peninsula.
If more money is spent on national defense while the two Koreas are separated, it affects the economy. Some politicians are waiting for the North Korean regime to collapse on its own. They also try to bring a change through economic cooperation. But these are the wrong methods, I think.
The North Korea’s regime won’t collapse on its own. Economic aid and cooperation will only help the North Korean regime survive and retain its power.
The South Korean government therefore needs to help NGOs and organizations more actively engage.
Many South Koreans, especially younger ones, are against the unification of Korea. If this continues, unification will never come and the conflict between the two Koreas will never end. NGOs need to raise awareness by putting defectors at the forefront of the debate.
North Korea is a closed country. Even the most basic freedoms are limited and government control is strong. People are brainwashed and they cannot receive appropriate information. As such, they don’t actually know that they are lacking the most basic human rights – which means they can’t even get angry about this. It is therefore critical that more effort is made at informing North Koreans in North Korea about their actual situation.
In recent years defectors have confirmed that North Koreans are becoming more and more informed about the outside world through media and information as the border becomes more porous. If NGOS could distribute increased amounts of outside information within North Korea then it would provide impetus for the collapse of North Korean government.
In North Korea, you are either the oppressor or the oppressed – there’s no such thing as middle ground. But this might all swing in the opposite direction if there are radical changes in the North. Indeed, there will be countless people who hold grudges against the government for its ruthless and oppressive rule.
So, without adequate measures after a regime collapse North Korea could become a stage for bloody retaliation. Revenge will beget even more revenge. If we don’t prepare beforehand, the country will turn into a bloodbath within just a few months of any major transition.
I have heard that people in North Korea’s security forces say that they may one day need to escape into China. I think this shows just how high people’s hostile sentiment could be — and the level of fear in the North Korean government. Therefore, North Korea will need international aid, especially in dealing with security problems and food shortages.
Also, people who have suffered in the political prison camps will need quite a bit of help – including possibly therapy. Medical facilities in North Korea have undergone extreme deterioration. Medication and medical equipment are all very lacking and many people are dying from various diseases. Therefore, medical aid is another area where there is dire need of assistance.
One of the major things South Korea needs to do today is to help defectors living in South Korea adapt to the capitalist system. Once North Korea collapses, the defectors will be the ones leading the North Korean people. However, even they find difficulty in gaining a footing in South Korean society, and so they are forced to wander foreign countries. NGO groups should advocate so that the defectors are able to achieve refugee status.
The world wants to see changes and the collapse of North Korea, but seems to be looking too high. A country is more than just its political power, but also a body of people that inhabit it. While it’s true that the political power holds the fate of the people, I believe that the world is not paying enough attention to the individual North Korean citizens themselves. And importantly, we should not forget that defectors living all around the world are among these individuals. People are forgetting that these people can come together and be the drivers of change in North Korea.
The most important thing South Korea could do would be preparing a reunification fund and improving the education of North Korean defectors arriving in the south in order to actively make use of them when reunified.
It is also critical to improve understanding of reunification among the people of South Korea. Reunification is the biggest assignment for our generation to solve in order to achieve a reunified and prosperous Korea in the future. Implanting a proper understanding in the South Korean people is the first step to reunification.
In this sense, President Park Geun-hye’s recent “reunification is a jackpot (daebak)” theory is an encouraging first step.
NGOs and organizations need to raise awareness of the importance of unification for South Koreans, especially the younger generation, as well as inform North Koreans about the outside world.
The government has a limited role and limited abilities. But the things NGOs and other organizations can do are not so limited.
Don’t we have almost 26,000 defectors here in South Korea?
Still, South Koreans cannot judge all North Koreans by looking at these 26,000 people.
Most defectors who have made it to South Korea are the ones who almost starved to death or who were subject to political oppression back in North Korea. In other words, they’re mostly either top elites or from the lowest classes – there aren’t many from the middle class.
First and foremost, the South Korean government needs to solve the dispute among its people regarding their contradictory views of North Korea.
This dispute is likely to cause further disagreement even within North Korea when change finally comes there.
North Korea-related non-governmental organizations need to call for consistent international attention to the human rights crisis in North Korea.
They can come up with not only theories but also realistic approaches and measures which can be applied in the real world. They also need to gain more experience with helping North Korean defectors settle in.
They should also make an effort to secure more channels to communicate with North Koreans (through TV, newspapers, radio, etc.).
Finally, they should secure a direct channel through which both the North and South can solve future misunderstandings and thus progress towards bilateral cooperation.