The Plight of North Korean Defectors in the ROK

North Korean defectors attending a class at the Hangyeore school in Anseong, South Korea. North Koreans commonly arrive feeling unprepared for life in the fast-paced South.

For many North Korean defectors, life away from the DPRK is still filled with obstacles. While many North Korean citizens continue to flee the country in search of better opportunities, large numbers of defectors living in the South report battles with discrimination, isolation, and under-education. According to a New York Times article published yesterday, many North Koreans living in the ROK find themselves unprepared for integration in the technologically advanced South — posing a unique challenge to the South Korean government.

Despite tight border controls along the 38th parallel, the number of North Korean refugees living in the South is on the rise. (Almost all North Korean defectors attempt to leave via the northern China-DPRK border, and arrive in South Korea through various northeast Asian channels.) Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, more than 23,000 North Korean citizens have sought refuge in South Korea. And with massive food shortages and living conditions continuing to deteriorate in the North, these numbers show little signs of slowing down. In fact, the past decade has seen some of the largest inflows, with 2,737 people – one of the highest recorded totals – fleeing to the ROK in 2011. The large majority of these people report coming to South Korea in search of food (50 percent) and freedom (31 percent).

The South Korean government has attempted various integration efforts to aid the refugees’ transition, but to mixed success. One of the major governmental efforts was an offer for “approximately 500 defectors enrolled in South Korean universities” to have access to “free tuition, government-paid housing, and living stipends.” However, a large number of these North Korean students struggle with their coursework, as many arrive with only elementary education, which focused more on “political indoctrination than reading and math.” And it shows: Education experts say that more than half of North Korean university students drop-out of school (compared to 4.5 percent of South Koreans).

Typically, North Koreans in the South face discrimination, lower-salaries, and higher rates of unemployment. Often stereotyped as “backward country cousins,” 12 percent of North Korean defectors in the South are unemployed (compared to 3.4 percent of South Koreans). While a lack of education certainly contributes to this statistic, discrimination and emotional problems hamper defectors’ economic prospects as well. According to the New York Times article, North Koreans “often suffer depression, anger and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.” One North Korean defector, Kim Kyeong-il, described his experience well:

“I felt like someone from the 1970s who was put on a time machine and dropped in the 21st century,” said Mr. Kim, 24, a senior majoring in Chinese language. He said many of his classmates shun him for his northern accent, and for his small stature likely caused by inadequate nutrition.

This is not to say that many North Koreans don’t have significantly better lives in the South. (For instance, 70 percent of North Korean defectors living the South Korea report that they are “satisfied” with their lives, compared to only 5 percent who said they were dissatisfied.) The South Korean government, however, should continue to make headway in its integration efforts. Because if the shaky DPRK were to collapse (and the region flooded with refugees), the bulk of the responsibility would fall to the ROK.

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