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Perception of defectors in S. Korea continues to improve, but much remains to be done

Kim Hye Jin, intern  |  2016-12-08 16:42
North Korean defectors? Ive never met one personally nor have I really thought much about them. Because were one people living in the same land, I do think that theyre Korean. However, theres a definite sense of dissimilarity because we live under different governments.

This was a response by a 20 year old to Daily NK representatives, who were asking pedestrians around Hapjeong Station the question: What are your feelings toward defectors?

There are now over 30,000 North Korean defectors residing in South Korea. Although the number is increasing, more than 70 years of separation has diminished the understanding and general interest amongst South Koreans towards their northern counterparts. 

According to the 2015 Reunification Awareness Study conducted by Seoul National Universitys Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, citizens who held a friendly (45.6%) view of defectors were outnumbered by those who felt distant from them (54.4%). However, the number of citizens who view defectors in a positive light is increasing.

Although the results do not show any major shift from 2007 (when the first survey was conducted), there has been a consistent increase in the number of respondents who feel friendly towards defectors. While initially only 36.1% of people responded favorably, the proportion increased to 40% in 2015.

Moon Dong Hui, head of the organization Young NK, a group that has held activities to promote North Korean human rights since 2003 stated that, Many people revealed a dislike of North Korea when we first began. Now after 10 years, there is plenty of interest whenever we host such campaigns, especially amongst younger people.

If you compare this situation to 10 years ago, I believe that South Korean society has experienced positive changes in regards to its treatment of defectors. 20 years has now passed since defectors began officially entering South Korea, and there are greater settlement benefits, and perceptions of this have slowly changed, said Shin Mi Nyo, president of the Organization for One Korea who has been involved in defector resettlement efforts for over 14 years.

According to the survey on reunification awareness, personal interactions or experiences with defectors, as well as their portrayal in mass media are said to influence opinions the most. Although the majority of respondents have not had a direct encounter with defectors, they still hear about them through a variety of media.

Recently there have been plenty of movies, drama series, and webcomics with a focus on defection and defectors. One variety talk show on Channel A called Now On My Way to Meet You features North Korean women who discuss a diverse range of topics such as North-South everyday life and cultural differences, as well as difficulties in settling into South Korean society.

In addition, the current popular weekend MBC drama Blow Breeze, which began airing in late August, has for the very first time a North Korean defector as its protagonist, portraying everyday occurrences in Korean society.

In relation to this, director Moon stated during the production presentation of the drama that There are many television programs about defectors. The publics discomfort with North Korean appearances seems to have lessened. However, the most difficult aspect still remains in breaking prejudices. I hope that this drama will play a role in lowering the prejudice in a nation that is one and the same (North and South).

Defector Choi Seong Guk is the author of the Naver webcomic Rodong Simmun [a wordplay on Rodong Sinmun, North Koreas state-run newspaper: simmun means investigation or inquisition] which seeks to portray the lives and experiences of defectors. Though this work is not yet an official webcomic, netizens have commended its ability to inspire sympathy and shed light on the daily lives of defectors and North Koreans.

These popular works may improve the perception of defectors by the general public.

One survey respondent said, Although I havent personally met any defectors, I see them often on TV. Im not sure how it would be like if I met one in person, but I feel that it wouldnt be so bad, unlike my negative opinions in the past. I dont think I would feel turned off if they were a defector.

However, social distance, referring to the relative degree of intimacy towards defectors on a person to person, person to organization and organization to organization level has remained unchanged. The respondents to the 2015 survey mostly expressed an unsure or reluctant stance when asked about accepting a defector into their own neighborhood.

Respondents answered negatively when asked about having defectors as their co-workers and even more negatively about having them as business or marriage partners.

Those who answered the survey increasingly sought to distance themselves from defectors as these individuals were placed hypothetically closer in relation to them: from neighbor to co-worker to business and marriage partner.

One 30 year old citizen said, From a humanitarian perspective, defectors should be helped at all costs. I have no qualms as long as there isnt a personal or indirect effect on me. Another 50 year old citizen said, Although I could accept them as neighbors, thinking about marriage would probably have me ruminating for a while. 

Kang Dong Wan, representative of the Busan Hana Center at Dong-A University added, It can be seen that the hostility directed towards the North Korean government is being projected onto defectors. South Korean society has a tendency to perceive North Koreans as second-class citizens. Hypothetically entering partnerships, in business or in marriage is still inconsistent with their thoughts. 

The problem isnt institutional; instead, the biggest problem is societys habit of projecting their attitudes concerning the North Korean regime onto defectors. For this reason, rather than having welfare policy and other institutional changes, what society needs is a policy that better explains that defectors are companions for reunification, Kang added.

*Translated by Sean An
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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