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Broad, civilian-driven effort vital to overcome barriers to defector integration

Kim Ga Young  |  2016-12-12 11:14

President Sohn Kwang Joo,
head of the Korea Hana Foundation.
Image: Korea Hana Foundation
Daily NK recently sat down with Sohn Kwang Joo, head of Korea Hana Foundation (formerly the North Korean Refugees Foundation), a state-run agency which offers support to defectors, to discuss the organization's progress over the past year and its plans to tackle the growing challenges faced by the now 30,000 defectors residing here in South Korea.

The following is a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity.  

Daily NK [DNK]: During your tenure as Chairman of the Korea Hana Foundation, weve reached the new milestone of 30,000 North Korean defectors now living in South Korea. How does this strike you?

Sohn Kwang Joo [SWJ]: Defectors really started coming to South Korea in large numbers back in the mid-90s, so the fact that it has taken 20 years to reach 30,000 is actually a bit surprising. It only represents a fraction of a percentage of the population of North Korea and is also extremely low compared to the number of defectors living in China, which stands at around 850,000. Nevertheless, this is a symbolic moment – one which highlights the growing number of valuable individuals who are helping us in our efforts towards reunification.  

Korea's cultural superstition for the lucky number 3 is apparently not enough to get people more involved. From this milestone, we should continue to actively promote a positive image and acceptance of North Korean defectors living in our country. It is not just a number, but represents the dreams and aspirations of 30,000 individuals. According to our foundation's 2015 survey of North Korean defectors living in the South, 64.8% are satisfied with their lives here. Among the younger defectors, 61.1% believed they have a good chance of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. While there are still many unaddressed problems for these defectors, it seems that they are settling in well to some extent and are hopeful and confident in their transition from an authoritarian, socialist economic system to the South's free market economic system. 

DNK: There are many defectors who are dissatisfied with South Korean society due to the difficulty of settling in and adapting to life here. So what kind of policies do we need to combat this issue?

SKJ: First of all, we need to improve our social receptiveness towards defectors. Even though at a governmental level we are constantly developing defector assistance programs such as the settlement aid system and a social safety net, at the societal level we still have a long way to go towards improving the average citizen's understanding and acceptance of those from the North. Of course it will always be extremely difficult for those formerly living under totalitarianism to transition to a free market democracy, but in order to help reverse this tendency for isolation and insecurity among defectors, we must increase our interest in their well-being and commit to greater empathy for their plights.

According to a study of public opinion on the matter that we ran in coordination with several news organizations, native South Koreans show much less goodwill towards North Korean defectors than defectors show towards South Koreans. 81.5% of the defectors surveyed answered that they felt fond of South Koreans while only 66.8% of those from the South felt that way towards their Northern counterparts. Among the younger unmarried participants, 90.2% of the defectors answered that they hold a favorable view of marriage with a South Korean, but strikingly only 44% of South Koreans would consider marrying a North Korean defector. These kinds of responses are clear indicators of the critical need for our society to become better educated about defectors and to reach out and help them integrate. 

DNK: Compared to the past where most defectors were simply looking for an improved livelihood, these days we are seeing an increasing number of people seeking more social and political rights. Some are thus calling for changes to the current settlement aid program. How does your foundation plan to address this issue?
SKJ: We are actually working towards a more 'custom-built' settlement aid system. For example, we are trying to help those who graduated from a medical school in the North to have access to the doctor's license exam here. We are also actively seeking to form ties with an appropriate career center for female defectors with little work experience. Those with farming experience in the North will also have access to a specialized farmer settlement aid package. Basically we are developing more specialized aid packages tailored to the work experience of each individual defector.  

But in order to achieve the kinds of things I have talked about thus far, we need to take more than just a systematic, policy-driven approach; we really need a broad, civilian-level movement to increase awareness of this issue. So we have been pushing for improved public awareness through the promotion of our 'citizen integration' campaign since 2015 and have been producing content for TV and online sources, showing the experiences of individual defectors and their lives in South Korea. There is a PSA ad campaign that we are running which promotes the idea of the North Koreans living here as 'our neighbors'. We are also working to improve understanding of their plight among those working in the media themselves. Young people, too, are signing up as Korea Hana Supporters to contribute their efforts both on and offline to promote this idea of citizen integration. 

And while there are many North Koreans 'migrating' here to find freedom, we at the foundation have chosen to refer to them simply as having 'moved' here. After all, North Korea is technically a part of our country according to our constitution. So those people living in the North of our territory have not 'migrated' or 'immigrated', but from the perspective of a future unified Korea, they have just 'moved house'. Just as a person may 'move' from Busan to Seoul, constitutionally speaking, a person can also 'move' from somewhere in the North of the country to here in the South.

DNK: President Park Geun Hye's open invitation for North Korean citizens to come to the south "to find freedom" garnered a great deal of attention. As this can be interpreted as straightforward encouragement to defect, there is the fear that the South at this time simply does not possess the necessary capacity to accommodate larger numbers and therefore that such statements are problematic. What do you think?

SKJ: Well I think that the settlement aid and social security systems that we currently offer defectors are relatively sufficient to handle their arrival. These systems are also being continuously updated and improved to match the growing number of defectors. I know that there is anxiety over whether or not they will all be able to properly utilize such programs, but I believe that our foundation, together with the Ministry of Unification, have a great deal of built-up know-how that is sufficient to carry out the settlement aid policy to its fullest potential.  

Above all, the successful settlement of those 30,000 defectors who already reside within our borders shall set an example and serve as a model for the next waves of defectors. Luckily North Koreans are now gaining more valuable free-market experience in the proliferating network of markets in North Korea. Of course there are many who have come here escaping extremely poor and difficult lives, but I do not think that this one type of situation should be disproportionately viewed against the diversity of experiences among the 30,000. Our foundation is absolutely committed to continuing to aid their settlement and improve social integration. 

DNK: The government has also recently proposed building a sort of 'refugee center' in preparation for any potential large-scale influx of North Koreans.

SKJ: People have been talking about such a place to accommodate '100,000 refugees' for quite some time now, perhaps since around the time that former secretary of the [North Korean] Workers' Party Hwang Jang Yop defected to the South in the late 90's. Not only us, but Russia, Mongolia, and others in the region have been discussing this for a while. But just as we have constantly worked to prepare for sudden collapse or a similarly disruptive event in the North, so have the North's leadership in having a proper contingency plan in place. I believe we must have a plan prepared to absorb the shock of a sudden influx of people. If the government takes the lead in this area, the Ministry of Unification and our foundation will be able to work gradually towards adapting a new and stable system.

DNK: Not too long ago it was revealed that a group of defector organization leaders plan to establish a government-in-exile in the US. Here as we reach this milestone moment of defectors in our country, how should we think about this idea of establishing such a government over in America?

SKJ: Hwang Jang Yop again had a similar idea when he first defected to the South, but it was concluded at the time that our constitution and various other realities prevented the establishment of any such government-in-exile in South Korea. So I don't think that this is the time to be discussing how to establish such a body, but rather we should be focusing on better strategies for advancing the concepts of free information and democratization in the North.

Meanwhile it took 20 years for our civil society organizations to finally succeed in getting the North Korean Human Rights Act passed in the National Assembly. We must now focus our efforts on making sure there will be an open, non-nuclear government in the North. Only then will there be any real chance at achieving meaningful exchange and cooperation between the North and South, leading to accelerated developments in political, economic, social, cultural, and other areas.

DNK: With the recent uptick in defections from high ranking officials and overseas workers, there is a feeling that this could be signaling a real crack in the North's system. How would you judge the stability of their system currently and how do these defections affect the possibility of the North's collapse?

SKJ: First we need to remember the Songbun class structure of their system. The loyal 'core class' comprises 27% of the population, the 'wavering class' a majority 45%, and the 'hostile class' stands at about 28%. Since the surge of defections started in the mid 90's, most of the people leaving the North belonged to the 'hostile' and 'wavering' classes. This caused a rift in their internal social structure as well. But it is true that defections from the 'core' class are increasing these days. This could indeed be a result of Kim Jong Un's reign of terror, and in any case it is striking due to the break from the previous generation of defectors.

Simply put, the most important question is whether or not North Korea really will collapse, which I think heavily depends on a few certain indicators. First, we should see a uniform, steady rise in the number of defecting military personnel. Next, we should see more defections from high-ranking members of the military industrial sector. Third, party member intellectuals should begin to comprise a greater number of defectors as well. A constant and steady flight of such elite intellectuals, who face an especially difficult decision given their position and the potential consequences, would be an indication of significant issues with the North's system. In other words, a continuous exit from the North of people from these three groups can be seen as sounding the alarm of an imminent collapse. 

DNK: There are more and more defectors in the South raising awareness and lending their efforts towards preparing for change in North Korea and eventual unification. What steps need to be taken on our side in order to properly capitalize on their experiences and determination to accelerate the process of change?  

SKJ: Our society's interest in and consideration for North Korean defectors needs to be improved – even more so than on the level of our country's laws – which will help move us in the direction of a more natural system of integration. The need for leadership on this point is absolutely necessary. As we move from 30,000 to 50 or 100,000, or even eventual reunification, it is extremely important for the defector community to have strong leadership making the necessary preparations. Thankfully, I only see relations between North and South Korean people improving as the number of North Koreans in our country increases. We merely have to shift the attitudes of South Koreans from the current state of caution or sensitivity to a more logical and rational view of their Northern neighbors.

What's clear is that the experience and participation of the defectors represents one of our most important assets in the push towards unification. They serve as messengers, delivering news of the outside world back to the North. They are the missionaries spreading the word of democracy. They are already active in a variety of sectors due to their diverse backgrounds and experiences, and are growing into a force of extremely talented individuals. Our foundation is of course actively strengthening communication with this community in order to ensure the proper reflection of their knowledge and opinions in our efforts.

DNK: These days, many defector organizations are seeking to combine their efforts and unify the defector community, but it seems that the sprouting up of so many of these organizations has actually further splintered the community.

SKJ: First, I think the increase in and diversification of defector organizations is a natural and desirable outcome, and one which will help to better express the range of opinions coming out of the community. They simply must abide by the law and our democratic process, starting from their initial formation through to their activities. They can do this if their goals coincide with our bigger desires for successful defector settlement and assimilation, but for defector organizations to involve themselves in political demands and to ask for special favors is truly undesirable from our standpoint. In other words, defector organizations must serve as a facilitator of improving awareness of the community and at the same time be careful not to create more obstacles towards their integration into our society.

DNK: Finally, I think that reaching this 30,000 defector milestone has inspired your organization, the Korea Hana Foundation, to take on even greater expectations and demands for the future. Going forward, what do you hope is the role your foundation will play in Korean society? 

SKJ: These days we are creating a defector settlement aid manual. This work will create an index to help us understand to what extent defector settlement has stabilized, and move towards a more evidence-based approach. The settlement index is divided into three main parts: opportunity, self-reliance, and assimilation into society. The first involves data that shows how easily defectors are finding opportunities that help them adapt to our democratic system, such as access to schools, insurance, and other services. The second assesses their preparedness and capacity to individually study and find work. The third confirms to what extent they genuinely identify themselves as South Korean and a part of this society. 

It looks like we will complete work on the manual sometime next year. It will further serve to aid the establishment of an effective settlement aid policy as we reach new milestones and greater numbers of fellow Koreans from the North entering our country. In the bigger picture, this and our other efforts are made in order to fortify our foundation's role as a central hub or resource of the defector settlement aid system. The Korea Hana Foundation will continue this process and work through the obstacles towards our ultimate goal of a reunified Korea.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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