Written by Christina Chang ETA’08-09
One, his head down in the comer, is tucked away between folded arms. Two others are eagerly huddled together. One timidly sounds out the question, “May I try this on?” The other nods and responds stiffly, “Yes, you may.” The third stares in confusion.
To an outside observer this might look like the scene of a typical classroom of Korean students learning the English language. But a few things are different. The students vary a great deal in age, from a boy barely in the double digits to students almost as old as I am. And, when they inevitably become frustrated speaking in English and revert back to their native tongue, they speak with a peculiar accent you cannot quite place. Or they may not speak Korean at all, but Chinese. Though these students look Korean, they do not quite fit into South Korea’s homogenous society by an accident of birth — they were born north of the 38th parallel.
Their stories — of hardships suffered within North Korea, of harrowing escapes, of underground struggles to survive in China and, for the lucky few, of eventual entry into South Korea — have captured the interest of journalists and human rights activists, some of whom have pursued these stories even at the risk of their personal safety. (In April, North Korea announced its decision to indict two American journalists, detained in March for “illegally intruding” into its territory, on charges of committing “hostile acts.”) Less attention, however, is focused on the lives led by these refugees once settled in South Korea. Compared to Southeast Asian migrant workers and brides who immigrate to South Korea, North Korean refugees fare relatively well, By national law, South Korea is obliged to open its doors to every North Korean refugee. The South Korean government also provides financial assistance in the form of a monthly stipend and free or highly-subsidized housing, as well as a three-month compulsory cultural orientation program. Yet despite these efforts to integrate North Korean refugees, there are alarming signs that refugees are not adjusting well to their new lives. In a recent study by Professor Kim Taesuk of the North Korea Research Center, the North Korean refugee crime rate measured 9.1 percent, twice that of South Korean citizens.
The South Korean government’s policies fall distressingly short in addressing the multi-dimensional challenges that North Korean refugees face in integrating into South Korean society, According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), “Integration of refugees is a dynamic two-way process [that] places demands both on receiving societies and on the individuals and communities concerned.” South Korean society has failed to uphold their end of the deal in two major ways.
First, a climate of intolerance and disinterest pervades South Korean attitudes regarding their Northern brethren. In the summer of 2006, a contact at the Chosun Ilbo introduced me to North Korean college students in Seoul who expressed their frustrations with the general apathy and stinging prejudices of their South Korean classmates. One refugee even observed that Americans seemed to care more about their plight. A 2007 survey by Sogang University confirms their experiences: Though South Koreans responded positively to generic questions such as “How do you feel towards the refugees?” their responses were guarded and unsympathetic when specific questions were posed, such as “How would you feel about employing a North Korean refugee?” or “How would you feel about your children befriending a refugee youth?” Particularly amongst young refugees, the prevalence of these attitudes has engendered feelings of loneliness, alienation and insecurity.
Second, there is a lack of political will to meet the special needs of North Korean refugees. It should come as no surprise that many North Korean refugees cope with significant psychological trauma. In North Korea, they may have weathered severe famines, borne extreme poverty, or witnessed or suffered abuses at the hands of North Korean authorities. In China, North Korean refugees most likely lived in a constant state of fear and under terrible conditions — refugee women who do not marry, for example, often have no choice but to enter prostitution. These hardships manifest themselves physically; pre-school children raised in North Korea are up to 13 centimeters shorter and up to seven kilograms lighter than their South Korean counterparts. Psychologically, many North Korean refugees suffer symptoms akin to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some are prone to violence. A scant three-month program in cultural orientation cannot possibly begin to grapple with, much less resolve, the complex needs of North Korean refugees.
If North Korean refugees are to be successfully integrated into Korean society, it is paramount that the South Korean government work towards fostering a more open society and providing resources that address the special needs of North Korean refugees. Tackling the deep-seated prejudices of South Koreans will be no small feat. The best strategy to produce a shift in such attitudes is to work first through legal channels. Encouraging advances have already been made earlier this year; the Unification Ministry in Seoul announced that the numbering on identification cards will be changed so that employers can no longer infer the Northern origins of refugees. A legal framework that upholds the ideals of equality and non-discrimination will be essential in diffusing such ideals into Korean society.
At the same time, the South Korean government must overhaul and expand already existing programs that assist North Korean refugees in their transition into South Korean society. Though there already exist schools organized by non-profits and religious groups that greatly assist North Korean refugees to build a better future for themselves, these programs are neither well-funded nor extensive enough. Instead, schools like the Heavenly Dream School, where I volunteer as an English teacher, or the Evergreen School can serve as models for similar government-sponsored programs for North Korean refugees.
The South Korean government cannot afford to postpone implementing the changes outlined above. What started out as a trickle of refugees is today a steady flow of several thousand per year. In addition, the current status of North Korean refugees in South Korea serves as a litmus test for the far-off possibility of Korean reunification. The South Korean government must recognize the dynamic nature of the North Korean refugee situation: integrating into another culture is a long-term — perhaps even life-long — process that both sides must engage in. Only then can North Korean refugees enjoy their share of the proverbial pie and participate fully in South Korean society as citizens in the truest sense of the word. Instead of wasting resources perpetuating a failed status quo, the Korean government could actually attain positive results in the form of a more stable and prosperous populace that contributes to the nation’s well-being and success.