One wonders what might happen when or if Korean unification happens and North Koreans find themselves living in the same state as Southerners.
North Korean defectors are not financially successful in the South, by South Korean standards at least. The average monthly income of a North Korea refugee is roughly $1290 at the time of writing, 65% of the nationwide average. Low salaries and wages often reflect discrimination, but more frequently they are the unavoidable result of the low professional and social skills of refugees.
At the same time, the chances that an average refugee will become a victim of crime are 5.5 times higher than for ‘regular’ South Koreans: 24.3% of refugees report that they have been victims of crime. This is bad enough, but when it comes to a specific type of crime, namely fraud and scamming, the gap is truly huge, and one out of five refugees say that they have been cheated out of money. This is 40 times the nationwide average – an astonishing difference.
Another sign of problems is the astonishingly high level of suicides among refugees. When it comes to suicide, South Korea stands out: its annual suicide rate, 26.5 out of every 100,000 people, is the highest among OECD countries. But the suicide rate among North Korean refugees is three times this nationwide average.
Another indication that not all is well is the relatively new phenomenon of refugees who choose to go back to North Korea. In 2016, during a study of the refugee community, 20.8% said they would like to go back to North Korea. Going to the U.S. is significantly less dramatic than going back to North Korea, but the motivations are still the same: Many refugees want to leave South Korea, even though this is a country where they have little problems with language and are entitled to large aid packages.
All things indicate that refugees – some of them, at least – experience grave problems when they try to adjust to the South Korean society. This makes one wonder how the average North Korean will react to a new lifestyle which is likely to be imposed on them in the event of unification. Like it or not, the experience of the North Korean refugees confirms that if unification ever comes, it is not going to be easy or cheap, is bound to produce many social problems and, sometimes, genuine human tragedy.