Photo by Marc Smith
Asia-Pacific / South Korea

No Home for Defectors

Immigration, especially when it increases significantly in a short time span, tends to alter a host country’s social and political climate. A conservative backlash, both cultural and political, usually develops in response to the introduction of otherness. Take, for example, the Scandinavian countries: 44Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Previously the go-to examples of social responsibility and generosity, an influx of Middle Eastern immigrants into these previously homogenous societies has led to national shifts toward conservative policies and attitudes.

One of the most interesting ongoing examples of this dynamic is taking place in South Korea, which is experiencing a growing influx of North Korean refugees. In many ways, South Koreans do not see North Koreans as “others” in the same way Scandinavians do Middle Easterners. While the South Korean government does not explicitly encourage North Korean immigration for political reasons, the country’s constitution states that both countries should be seen as a unified nation. For this reason, the South Korean government historically welcomed Northerners.

However, as the number of defectors swelled in the late 90’s and 00’s, the government hardened its stance. When only a handful of North Koreans immigrated to South Korea each year, they were treated much better by the South Korean government, which saw them as political leverage rather than a socioeconomic challenge. It gave each defector $32,000 as an initial stipend, with additional stipends conditional on their completion of various levels of education. In 2005, the South Korean government reduced this initial sum to $9,000, and cut back on other economic incentive programs.

The steep increase in North Korean immigration—from nine immigrants in 1990 to 1,578 in 2006—has quickly created an underclass of “others” in South Korea. While in the earlier days of North Korean immigration those few who made it tended to be of a higher economic class, there has been a significant increase in poorer migrants. This shift, compounded with South Korea’s rollback of economic incentive programs, has increased the rate at which North Koreans are falling behind in South Korea, visible in their lower graduation and higher unemployment rates.

North Korean defectors face multiple, compounding problems. They often suffer depression, anger, and other effects of post-traumatic stress as a result of their time in North Korea and their escape. They rarely have the same level of education as their South Korean peers, and so they generally arrive in the South without any transferable skills or knowledge. As a result, they quickly fall behind in school or at work. In many South Korean universities, North Koreans drop out at rates of over 50 percent (the national rate is 4.5 precent).

To make matters worst, a vast cultural difference puts North Koreans at a major disadvantage in adapting to life in the South, distinguishing them as outsiders and separating them from the rest of society. The distinctive North Korean accent exemplifies this dynamic. While considered no “worse” than that spoken in South Korea, the dialect sets defectors apart. It allows South Koreans to quickly identify and enforce the divide between the two cultures.

Furthermore, South Koreans simply distrust the immigrants. They are often unable to separate feelings towards the North from feelings towards Northerners. Many also see struggling North Koreans as a destructive social and political burden in a fast-paced and competitive society recovering from years of civil strife. Feeling unappreciated and unwelcomed by South Korean society makes it even harder for North Koreans to rise above their other disadvantages.

Shockingly, there are reports of “double-defectors”—North Koreans who, after immigrating to South Korea, are so dismayed by the treatment they receive that they actually return to the North. The numbers do not lie: of the nearly 25,000 North Koreans who have fled to the South, about 800 are believed to have returned. Given that North Korea gives its citizens absolutely no rights or protections under the law, and retains the right to kill, detain, or torture in the name of national stability, the idea of returning seems absolutely insane.

It is difficult to identify the future of this dilemma; with disillusionment about living conditions for defectors in South Korea, perhaps immigration will taper. On the other hand, conditions in North Korea show no signs of becoming more tolerable. If the humanitarian situation continues to decline under Kim Jong-Un, his subjects will face increasing pressure to escape.