North Korean defectors the “small unification” of Koreas

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Over 18,000 defectors from North Korea now live in South Korea. Objectively, their living conditions are much improved over what they were in the North. They needn’t worry about finding food, adequate housing or transportation. They can go wherever they want and associate with whomever they wish.

Yet, they feel something is terribly wrong with life in their new society.  Especially in the first year, most defectors suffer from a combination of suspiciousness, anxiety, and depression—a reaction that is typical of new immigrants in any society. They badly miss the families they left behind, and feel guilty for having left them at the mercy of officials who will persecute them for having a family member who left the fatherland.

Defectors don’t feel they are fully accepted by their new society. Whenever the media report bad news from North Korea, defectors feel ashamed and guilty about their origins. On a personal level, they suffer from loneliness because it is difficult to make new friends and find romantic partners. Because they speak a different dialect of Korean in which traditional words are used instead of foreign-loan words, they are easily identified as North Koreans and usually looked down upon as country bumpkins. As one defector said, “I was a member of the elite cadre circle and now I’m a computer-illiterate senile old man.” And another, “I graduated from a good college but now I’m enrolled in a vocational computer school with youngsters.” And yet another, “I was a relatively wealthy foreign trader for the government but now I drive a pick-up truck and sell vegetables.”

Defectors bitterly joke that they left one class society in the North and now find that South Korea is equally class conscious, and the defectors are not members of a favored class.

Most South Koreans just don’t want to bother with defectors, although they favor their arrival in principle. They don’t understand the larger issues of cultural acclimation that prevent the defectors from becoming integrated into South Korean society.

Someday, perhaps years or decades in the future, the 23 million people in the North will join the 46 million citizens of the South under one government. However, unless the South Korean government and people learn how to deal with the several thousand defectors each year participating in what Assemblyman Park Jin has called “small unification,” national unification will be unimaginably difficult.

[The Brookings Institution]

This entry was posted in by Grant Montgomery.

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