Joint efforts needed to achieve successful integration for defectors

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2017-01-06 15:41

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain the content of Unification Media Group [UMG] radio broadcasts into North Korea. UMG is a consortium created by Radio Free Chosun [RFC] and Open Radio for North Korea [ONK], shortwave radio stations targeting North Korea; The Daily NK, an internet periodical reporting on all aspects of North Korea; and OTV, an NGO-based internet television channel.

As the Korean Peninsula approaches another harsh winter, North Koreans continue to make the treacherous journey across their northern border in the hopes of eventually reaching the South. As we pass the milestone of 30,000 defectors having arrived in South Korea, we should take a closer look at the potential institutional shortcomings of our current defector aid policies and ask how we can improve cooperation between the different sectors involved. Today we speak with Nam Kwang Kyu of the Maebong Unification Research Center about these developments.

- We have recently reached the landmark number of 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. Could you tell us how we got to this number and what the trend has been over time?

Yes, we officially passed the 30,000 mark on November 11th - a symbolic yet important landmark. According to data from the Ministry of Unification, the number of defectors has been steadily decreasing from a record high of 2,914 in 2009 to 2,400 in 2010, 2,700 in 2011, 1,500 in 2012, and only 1,300 in 2015. The good news is that the number increased again this year in a 20% rise over last, finally helping to push us over 30,000. This works out on average to 3.8 people per day. Approximately 70% have been male, 58% have been in their 20s and 30s, and 85% hail from the two northeastern-most provinces of North Hamgyong and Ryanggang. As for their level of education, 80% of those old enough have achieved a high school diploma, while those with a college degree are significantly lower at only 6% in 2011, though the number has risen just a bit to 7.3% in 2015. 

- At 20% more than last, it appears there has been a sharp increase in defections in 2016. Even with the considerable dangers involved in defecting, why is it that many still decide to make the journey?

The Ministry of Unification has been surveying graduates of Hanawon, the state-run resettlement center for North Korean defectors. Before 2001, as many as 66% responded that their reason for defecting was due to hunger and a lack of access to adequate food, while the remaining 33% cited a yearning for freedom and South Korean society, a plan to meet their previously settled relatives here, or dissatisfaction with the North's system. The numbers have completely flipped over the past few years, with 88% now defecting in order to achieve more political or social freedoms. People may have made the decision based more on economic reasons in the past, but their motivations are clearly changing these days. With the rise in information proliferation in the North, motivations stemming from curiosity of South Korean society and disillusionment with North Korean society are becoming relatively more common. 

One remarkable change has been the rise in defections from elite and middle class citizens, more than doubling - from making up just 24% of defectors in 2001 to almost 70% in 2014. Compared to the past, the number of people that were living relatively privileged lives in the North and yet decided to defect anyway has become a relatively significant proportion of new defectors.

We have also seen an increase in young defectors. The proportion of those in their 20s and 30s has increased to approach the 60% mark in recent years. The main reason for this is their higher receptiveness to modern forms of media and information of the outside world, especially South Korean K-pop, K-dramas, and other forms of Hallyu (South Korean cultural wave). These young defectors are often referred to as belonging to the new "jangmadang generation," or those with experience in the official or unofficial markets of North Korea, giving them a sample of a capitalist economic system. Many of them may also have spent time in China before making their way to the South, providing additional opportunity for experience in capitalism. Though more common with upper-class defectors, some also have experience working in foreign embassies or in earning foreign currency. All of these experiences give the younger generation more motivation to defect to the South. 

- Can you tell us about the process by which most people defect to the South?

We usually point to the mid to late 1990s as the beginning of defections as a major phenomenon, coinciding with the widespread famine (referred to as the 'Arduous March' in the North) which forced many to seek means of survival beyond the reach of the official state distribution system. During this period, people would usually cross the northern border into China in search of food, jobs, and perhaps relatives who would give them work. Sometimes they would meet South Koreans who would provide information about the South and encourage them to defect. It was very dangerous however for North Koreans illegally staying in China, who at any moment could be reported or discovered by security agents, especially if venturing out in public. Due to these dangers, many began to find it necessary to first travel to Southeast Asia, Mongolia, or other 3rd countries on their way to South Korea.

- It is amazing just how many people take the risk of such a journey to get to the South. What kind of policies is North Korea focusing on at the moment to prevent its people escaping the country? 

The decreasing number of defectors coming into the South each year since 2009 is closely related to the succession of Kim Jong Un and his policy of cracking down on defections. As you can see from the numbers above, there was a stark drop from 2012 when he officially rose to the nation's top position. Some measures that Kim Jong Un has taken include upgrading barbed-wire fencing and installing more CCTV cameras along the Chinese border. He even had ground traps installed to capture would-be defectors. One of the most effective measures has been simply to increase the number of border guards and decrease the distance between guard posts, moving them as close as 8 meters apart in some areas. Before his rise to power, those caught in the act would generally receive a relatively light punishment like a stint in a reeducation facility, but now an individual can be sent to a political prison camp just for attempting to leave the country. Punishments were also strengthened for border guards caught aiding defectors. These are some of the ways Kim Jong Un has improved border security and made it more difficult for citizens to escape.

- Knowing that South Korea must be steadfast in its preparation for welcoming defectors, can you tell us about what our government is doing to help them in their transition? 

When a former North Korean citizen first arrives in the South, they must go through a series of interviews both for security reasons and to determine their motives for leaving the North, including whether or not they truly intend to settle down here. Once they have passed this stage, they must move to Hanawon, where they stay for 3 months and learn about various aspects of South Korean society in preparation for living on their own. After graduating from Hanawon, they typically receive around 20 million KRW in settlement aid to go towards housing costs and living expenses while they settle in. There are other forms of aid provided by the government as well, such as career assistance and childcare support. Local governments also provide various incentives to defectors.   

I believe that our government's current settlement aid system is quite well maintained, though naturally those coming over now may receive less personal aid and attention when compared to the first generation of defectors. Some have accused the government of unfairly focusing on helping defectors at the expense of the many South Koreans still living in poverty, but despite this, the settlement aid program stands on its own as an effective program. To make a familiar comparison, the South's efforts to assist defectors are actually much stronger than the one that West Germany had established towards incoming East Germans. But because of questions over potential structural issues with the current system, others are asking whether it goes far enough in its present iteration. For example, defectors too may face sudden problems in their lives, and as such have requested that the government expand their aid to include emergency medical expenses, expanded childcare assistance, and even help with funeral costs. 

- Could you let us know a bit more about the government's settlement aid policies? 

The government first enacted an aid policy in 1997 that addressed settlement assistance and protection of defectors. It established a system for providing funds to individuals to help with living expenses and even in personalized career assistance - usually around 20 million KRW. In order to encourage their recruitment, the government even promised to provide half of the salary of these workers to companies that hired them. There is also a special grant to those who settle outside of major cities. As we can see, they have over the years enacted many different specialized aid policies outside of the standard settlement aid package. Unfortunately, defectors still face an array of difficulties in the process of resettlement. We can often see that the money provided to them is insufficient given the true expenses involved.

- Isn't it quite common for people to promise to pay the brokers who help them escape with the settlement aid money upon their graduation from Hanawon? How then do you think we should judge these brokers?

I know that the image of these brokers is not good, but the truth is that their help is vital to the process of defecting, and thus the cost is unavoidable. Brokers also serve as the necessary go-between for sending remittances to remaining family members in the North. Scams may have been more common in the past, but as time has gone by a more regular and trustworthy system has been developed. Given the rise in defectors over the years though, many are asking whether these costs need to be acknowledged and institutionalized as part of the official settlement aid system, and that the government should be directly managing the network of brokers. However, the difficulties involved in this would be immense. 

- What do you think are some areas where the government can improve, or some policies which should be enacted?

Considering the influx of women and young people these days, especially teenagers, I think the government needs to think about how to better shape their policies towards such groups. We need to change our thinking from just an aid policy to one that provides people with the necessary tools to gain independence and self-reliance in our society.

We also need to significantly improve their ability to integrate and become true South Korean citizens. Many see 2016's passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act as a step in this direction. Obstacles remain though, as North Korean defectors often feel a deep sense of alienation with South Korean culture, and South Koreans find it difficult to relate, likewise feeling a distance between themselves and North Koreans. Though these kinds of things are to be expected, we still need everyone, including the defectors themselves, to put forth greater effort into realizing a more robust integration. We will surely find more difficulties along the way, having now passed the 30,000 mark and growing still. But I believe that the real solution lies not just in depending upon the government's settlement aid policies, but in a complete effort by society to make integration a higher priority. 

- Finally, what do you think is the significance of the 'era of 30,000' towards our greater dreams of unification?

I like to think of all defectors living here as a sort of 'reunification in advance'. The ability of defectors to adapt to our society now serves as a useful barometer for just how well our two societies will get along in a future era of reunification. As such, the degree to which we are prepared to assist defector integration indicates how well we will be able to handle unification. But we need to inspire more interest and participation among South Koreans. We should also encourage the involvement of more defectors and help them convey the benefits of our society to remaining family and friends in the North. I believe that better coordination of the efforts of our government, NGOs, defector groups, and our society at large is essential to both lowering the cost of and improving our preparation for eventual reunification. 

*Translated by Colin Zwirko
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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