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'Micro-reunification' efforts bring hope to fraught times

Kim Ga Young  |  2016-12-27 17:42
Although over 30,000 refugees from North Korea have now arrived in the South, it remains rare to see groups of people from the North and South come together in one place. Due to linguistic and cultural differences, it can also be difficult for defectors from the North to find employment in the South. Preparing for reunification will require intense cooperation, but efforts continue to be divided between those led by people from the North and those led by their South Korean counterparts. 

However, some progress is being made by bold individuals and groups who are challenging the status quo. First, we will meet a team that is trying to kickstart a 'micro reunification' in preparation for a future national reunification down the line.   

Were a defector resettlement assistance organization in name, but our real goal is to realize a mini reunification. 

The Hana Foundation (formerly known as the North Korean Refugees Foundation) helps support defector resettlement in the South. Because every defector has a different set of reasons for fleeing North Korea and experiences a different degree of difficulty in adjusting to South Korean life, customizing efforts to help these individuals is not an easy process. However, a team of pragmatic and reliable staff is on standby at all times to pitch in. Some of the employees are defectors themselves, with others in the organization saying that they have unbeatable expertise, as they understand the issues at hand better than anybody else.   

No matter how much the South Korean employees study and learn, they will never be able to understand defectors in the same way, said Operations Manager Han Sang Woo. Our North Korean employees play an instrumental role. In particular, the network of defectors that they are in touch with really helps the foundation flourish.  

We are the only public institution dedicated to helping defectors with the resettlement process over the  long term. And I think that helps drive our mission to make sure we have lots of defectors on our staff as well. Its what makes us special. We are helping to directly address the defector employment problem, Mr. Han continued.   

Education Development Chief Oh Tae Bong is himself a defector and has been working at the foundation for 8 years. We want to train and nurture a leadership team of defectors that can help spearhead our efforts by uniting people from the North and South when reunification occurs.  

We are always thinking about the policies that will be the most effective in helping refugees. We worry about using our resources to help as many people as we can in a meaningful way. The refugees get real benefit from our work here. It is very rewarding when I see them succeeding in their new lives, Mr Oh said. 

When two groups of people who have been brought up in totally different societies work together in the same space, some form of conflict inevitably occurs. In regards to this, Mr. Han said, When there is friction between our workers, we actually try to put it out into the open and search for a good solution to the problem. By having the employees work together to resolve the kind of problems that lead to North-South conflict and disagreements, we all learn something and worker harmony is improved.  

On the topic, Mr. Oh added, Conflict happens in any kind of organization. The important thing is how far each side is willing to go to try to understand their counterpart. We try not to dwell on North vs. South when a disagreement happens. We try to look at differences in work style, personality, and background, and then encourage each side to be understanding. In doing so, the solution usually presents itself. I learned that this is the best method when trying to become a good role model for the other defector employees.  

Mr. Oh also offered some advice for North Koreans who have had difficulty adjusting to South Koreas organizational culture. It is possible for newly-arrived defectors to be constantly asking themselves, Is this prejudice? or Am I being mistreated? The most important thing is to retain a positive attitude. Take the long view. Work hard and eventually more and more people will begin to believe in you.   

The boss keeps communication open with even the most junior employees."

Park Jun Hyong (pseudonym) is a junior employee at Doonam Engineering, an elevator installation company. He is also a North Korean defector, and the youngest in the company. He sits between the CEO and me, and asks, Can I see that photo, please? I show him a photo I took on my cellphone. The two look friendly and cheerful in the picture, lacking the stiffness and distance that would usually define the relationship between a CEO and a junior employee.  

When asked about this close relationship, the CEO Mr Kim replied, I came with the attitude that I should cast aside all preconceived notions of defectors and just try to communicate. There are differences in the things we have been taught and in our personal histories. But the work ethic of these young North Korean refugees is so inspiring. They leave young South Koreans in the dust. There are some times when they are set back because they have learned about the technology more recently than the other workers. But they also work very hard to make up for that, and they certainly deserve to be commended.  

The defector employees use their wages not only to help them settle down in South Korea, but also send some to their family and friends in the North, Mr. Kim said. If they spend it that way, not much is left, but many of them are living frugally and saving. The fact that they work so hard without high demands makes me want to give them even more. 

Park Jun Hyong, the defector employee, said, Of course, there are linguistic and cultural differences, but every time it raises to the level of a dispute, we work together with the boss to solve the problem through communication. And we are able to take care of these problems very quickly. Every time I help to install a new elevator, I feel proud and happy. I think that if I stick to it and really learn this technology, it could really pay off when reunification occurs. 

Right now, the company gets along like family, but in the beginning, there were problems related to misunderstandings between the defector workers and the South Korean staff. Regarding this, Mr. Kim said, There were some occasions where employees would stubbornly carry on habits that they brought from the North. In those types of instances, rather than instructing them to do things the South Korean way all the time, I thought it was better to emphasize the importance of approaching coworkers with a sense of fellowship and flexibility. 

Because of this approach, I think our defector employees came to understand South Korean organizational culture, and our South Korean employees learned how to respect some of the cultural traits that the defectors bring from the North.  

Young people serve as a bridge between North and South

We are inundated with daily reminders of the difficult tasks associated with reunification, including denuclearization, sanctions, and costs. However, a group of young people regularly gather so that they can be reminded about the spirit of reunification. The people in question are from both the North and South, and are united in their scholarly pursuit of understanding reunification issues on their path to attaining a Masters or PhD. The name of their group is Uni Star, short for Unification Star. 

Uni Star members felt the need to begin preparing for reunification in earnest, and started to organize campaigns, perform SNS outreach, and host cultural events in order to spread the word about North Korean human rights and other issues related to reunification. Viewed from afar, they may seem similar to other young peoples organizations, but this group is special because their first priority is to involve both defectors and South Koreans in all their activities. Without much support, they were able to attract dozens of defector volunteers, a testament to the trust that the defectors have in the Uni Star mission and its activities. 

If young people from North and South Korea are going to take a leading role in reunification, then it is important to begin the process of raising and supporting individuals with the requisite knowledge and skills, said Uni Star Chief Park Hyeon Woo. When Uni Star launches campaigns, we make sure that our defector participants are directly involved in the project from the planning phase to the implementation. Were still a bit inexperienced and inefficient, but with every task we get more opportunities to develop and practice our talents.   

As we gather and debate about various issues, it becomes immediately apparent what the needs of the reunification generation are. When we combine the ideas and experiences of participants from both North and South, the result is always better. By learning from one anothers experience and know-how, we hope to train each other to become the future leaders connecting the North and South," he added.

The impact of this young peoples organization is that it energizes and reminds the older generation about the urgency and necessity of reunification. The cooperation between the northern and southern countrymen also provides a sense of home to displaced persons and reminds them that they may someday return to their hometowns under better circumstances. 

Uni Star Executive Director Baek In Ju said, Older people feel a sense of support and strength when they see young people from the North and South united together and collaborating. The older generation sees how complicated the situation is getting in North Korea and they ask themselves if reunification is ever going to happen. By showing them that we young people are already working together to prepare for it, we inspire them and give them the hope that it may be possible.  

Director Baek continued, After reunification occurs, there will still be problems like regional prejudice to work on. If we want to be able to devise proper solutions to the problems that will emerge later on, it is essential that we get to work on the answers together right now. Uni Stars activities are based on the premise that it is important to first initiate a mini reunification in order to head in that direction. We feel a sense of accomplishment in that. 

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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