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Remittances from defector relatives shift negative perceptions

Choi Song Min  |  2016-10-20 09:28
In todays North Korea, general sentiment towards defectors has changed significantly. While in days passed, defectors were roundly labeled as 'national traitors' or 'betrayers' until the early 2000s, these days they are looked upon in a more positive light.

One resident in South Pyongan Province recently reported to Daily NK that residents in the southern regions have more positive opinions toward defectors and their families, admiring them as pioneers and bold.

During the period of mass starvation from 1990 until the early 2000s, some North Koreans took refuge in China and eventually fled to South Korea. Although many were faced with no other choice, caught in the unenviable position of capture by either Chinese public security officials or North Korean agents - both of whom would send them back to North Korea to be severely punished, they were nonetheless castigated by ordinary North Koreans.

In those days, North Koreans found it unacceptable to defect to South Korea, which was condemned by the authorities as a 'hostile force.' However, the situation has greatly changed, as external information via radios and USBs has begun to alter perspectives.

These days, most parents in North Korea hope to at least send their children to a "better environment" (ie. South Korea), while "longing for a better life" and "freedom," has become an acceptable reason for defection. 

The remittances sent from defectors have also had a significant impact on the situation. In the 1960s, North Korean residents used to refer to those with relatives in Japan who sent funds as 'Mount Fuji families,' and since the late 1990s, families with relatives in China were known as 'Mount Paektu families.' Now, as the amount of remittances sent from defectors in South Korea has become dominant, the term 'Mount Halla family' is prevalent.

A resident of Kangwon Province gave a slightly different perspective, telling Daily NK in a telephone conversation, "My daughter is not interested in defecting, and reproaches me for my interest in doing so, especially when I mention that there are people there to help me. I would personally defect to South Korea any time, if only my safety was guaranteed." 

North Koreas notorious guilt-by-association system of punishment is also coming under pressure, as the number of defectors who have settled in South Korea alone has reached almost 30,000 people. In order to punish every family member associated with these defectors, the authorities would have to imprison hundreds of thousands of people.

Furthermore, the punishment of associated family members remaining in North Korea is likely to induce other residents in similar situations to consider defection out of desperation. For this reason, the North Korean regime has in more recent years opted to increase surveillance over them instead. 

With perceptions toward the families of defectors having changed significantly, true 'loyalists' of the Kim Jong Un regime are becoming increasingly rare. Officials in charge of factory enterprises and administrative Party cadres have little concern for ideology when it comes to defection and prefer to maintain a cordial relationship with remaining family members, marked by the inevitable phrase, I have a favor to ask"

The attitudes of North Koreans toward South Korean society at large is also becoming more positive, as news of more welcoming responses to defectors trickles back home. Therefore, the role of defectors in changing the perceptions of the North Korean people will become increasingly important in the process of reunification.

*Translated by Yejie Kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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