A high profile North Korean diplomat last week joined 30,000 defectors who already call South Korea home, but for most of them adjustment and acceptance isn’t easy, Sarah Son writes.
Last week the news broke of the rare defection of a high profile North Korean diplomat from the country’s consulate in London. Thae Yong Ho, his wife and two sons are now in South Korea, where a Ministry of Unification spokesman attributed Thae’s defection to him being “sick and tired of the Kim Jong-un regime,” and “concerned about the future of his children”.
Thae’s family joins 30,000 other North Koreans who have already fled to South Korea, yet the family is among a privileged few who are able to do so from relatively safe third countries. Thae’s experience and status is likely to ensure he and his family establish themselves in the South in a different manner to what awaits the average North Korean defector, many of whom have to recover from serious personal trauma while struggling in the face of prejudice and social norms that are unfamiliar and unsettling.
Unlike Thae, the vast majority of those who have ended up in South Korea have done so following a long, dangerous and secret journey overland, often spending an extended period hidden in China or parts of Southeast Asia.
The tightly patrolled Demilitarized Zone, which has divided North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, makes direct passage across the border virtually impossible. Instead, those choosing to flee their situation in the North most often cross the shallow Tumen or Yalu Rivers that mark the northern border with China.
Many spend time in illegal employment in China, with women sometimes falling prey to agents of the sex trade or finding themselves married off to Korean-Chinese or ethnic Chinese men. Their situation in China, without any legal status and out of the reach of international aid agencies, is precarious and uncertain. With the risk of capture and repatriation by Chinese authorities always present, many look further afield for a more secure existence.
Until the early to mid-1990s, defector numbers remained low: a mere handful sought refuge in South Korea and they were often received with great public fanfare and given substantial financial rewards.
That all changed as the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s began to bite, pushing the number of defectors arriving in South Korea to several thousand each year. The increased movement led to a modest but significant chain migration effect, where it became possible for defectors in the South to use their resettlement money to pay brokers to also bring family members out. The South Korean government was forced to adapt in haste to this new environment, cutting the monetary payouts and deepening settlement services.
Under the 1997 Settlement Support Act the South Korean government considers North Koreans citizens of the South. From arrival they are subjected to procedures and programs that highlight their symbolic importance as originating from the “other” Korea: both as harbingers of the day of inter-Korean unification, but also as a potential security threat to the state and society.
Initially, they are held for a period lasting up to several months and screened to ensure they are not spies or imposters. They then spend twelve weeks at the Hanawon resettlement centre, where they receive education and training to help them adjust to life in the South. The settlement system, including job and housing support, is aimed at weaning defectors off state welfare and transforming them into responsible, contributing members of South Korean society.
While some have managed to complete education, gain and stay in employment, many struggle to adapt and can suffer a period of identity crisis as they deal with a sense that their accent, relative lack of skills and personal habits are somehow inferior to their South Korean counterparts.
Public sentiment in the South which views North Korea as both “brother” and “enemy” has unfortunate consequences for defectors. These conflicting perceptions can make it difficult for South Koreans to identify positively with them: they are brothers in theory, but strangers in practice.
Some observers argue that the settlement system’s tendency to define defectors as a special minority group hinders their ability to blend in and get on with life. Others argue that the government does not do enough to educate South Koreans on the need to be compassionate and accepting of the differences defectors inevitably exhibit. Whatever the underlying cause of their struggle, the situation does not bode well for any future unification process that may eventuate.
After several years of decline beginning in 2011, the number of defectors heading South has rebounded in the first half of 2016 according to government data. Whether further defections at Thae’s level will occur remains to be seen. The primary challenge for the South Korean authorities and civil society at present is to continue refining the settlement system to help ensure the non-elite defectors from humbler backgrounds, who make up the overwhelming majority of arrivals from the North, find acceptance and a genuine sense of security in their new home.