Updated: Oct 23, 2019
By Angie Kwon (Grant Writing Intern)
For the past decade, Saejowi has provided medical assistance to over one-third of the total North Korean refugee population living in South Korea. To date, some 31,000 North Korean refugees have been resettled in South Korea, over two-thirds being women. There is a common misconception that the plight of North Koreans ceases upon entry into South Korea. Article 3 of the Constitution of South Korea provides citizenship to all North Korean nationals. However, the disadvantaged social, economic and health status compared to their Southern counterparts has presented a formidable barrier for North Koreans to integrate meaningfully into South Korean society. In particular, the lack of social networks has been consistently identified as a key problem.
Upon entry into South Korea, all North Korean defectors claiming to be refugees are screened by the government for any security threat and to verify their claims of being from North Korea are genuine. Previously, there have been instances of Chinese nationals of Korean ethnicity attempting to gain Korean citizenship by claiming to be North Korean. After the initial screening, the North Korean refugees must complete a mandatory twelve-week, government-sanctioned stay at Hanawon, a “resettlement support facility”. In Hanawon, the newly-arrived North Korean refugees are taught the basics of life in the South. These include: learning how to navigate the internet, use the transportation system, educational courses on vocational training, lectures about the history of Korea, and basic concepts of democracy and free market economy. Psychological counseling and medical check-ups are also provided to the refugees.
While the South Korean government provides resettlement support, there are insufficient provisions made regarding the ongoing social needs of the North Korean refugees. Poverty, low social status and general feelings of isolation are significant problems that a three-month stay in Hanawon cannot deal with. For example, many of the North Korean youth struggle in the highly competitive South Korean education system due to unsatisfactory academic achievements. As such, North Korean students drop out of school at a higher rate than South Korean students. There are also general feelings of prejudice and discrimination harbored towards North Koreans. Many refugees have cited cultural and lingual differences alongside society’s hostile reception as a reason for dissatisfaction with life in South Korea.
After the three-month stay, the government provides North Korean refugees with a one-time resettlement payment and housing assistance, and a ‘resettlement helper’ is made available to the refugees for up to two years. A wide-range of assistance programs are available but they are not designed to be sustained for longer than five years, as there is an underlying assumption that the refugees would have successfully adapted to South Korea by this point. As such, while presented as the ultimate destination for those fleeing North Korea, it is in South Korea that a new set of problems begins. There are structural conditions preventing North Korean refugees from succeeding in and integrating into South Korea in a meaningful way. As much of the government assistance is capped at five years, there is an unrealistic expectation that the North Korean refugees will integrate within this duration despite their extraordinary and traumatic experiences faced both in North Korea as well as during the course of their escape. Most refugees make harrowing journeys transiting through third countries, often for many years before reaching South Korea. Women are especially vulnerable as they make for an easy target to human traffickers.
For the North Koreans who have put everything on the line, having risked their lives and the safety of their family members in North Korea, their hopes of starting a new life in the South, as one Korean people, may be misplaced. The haphazard ways in which the government assistance programs are provided are seen as short-term economic solutions that are ill-equipped to deal with the long-term psychological trauma afflicting North Korean refugees.