FREEDOM COMES at a price. A luxury so coveted, freedom in South Korea for North Korean defectors is not without strings attached. Faced with a new world so vastly different from the one that they have known, these social outcasts struggle to adjust and understand. After treading the grueling process to find a new life, North Korean defectors are washed over with a new wave of troubles in the South Korean society; they plow through the onslaught of hardships ranging from discrimination and economic toil.
Learning to be free
Reaching South Korea is already a gargantuan task. After making an arduous trip across China hiding from Chinese officials, North Korean refugees make their way into neighboring countries where they are accepted as humanitarian refugees and await salvation—namely, freedom in South Korea.
But the adversity does not end once they cross the border into this country. The real difficulty lies in coping upon arrival.Once setting foot on South Korean soil, the identities of North Korean refugees are thoroughly investigated. After completing the investigation, they then are subjected to a 12 week adaptation program at the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees (more commonly called Hanawon) where they are educated to adjust in South Korean society. Here, they learn about job-searching, ideals of a democratic society, the concepts behind market economies, and the fundamental principles of capitalism. The world they knew is turned upside down. After all this chaos, North Koreans are set free into South Korean society to fend for themselves, though perhaps freedom may not be so easy to embrace as one might have thought.
From communism to capitalism: a whole new world
Chun Ki-won (Reverend, Durihana Inc.) has been rescuing North Korean refugees since 1999. He first came across the issue during his visit to China in 1995, where he witnessed unspeakable human rights violations of North Korean defectors: human trafficking, sex slavery, and bodies abandoned on the banks of the Duman river. Ever since, he has directly brought over 1,000 refugees out of China and into South Korea through his humanitarian NGO, Durihana Inc. But the struggle does not end there, he says. Although settlement in South Korea guarantees freedom and security, a whole new storm awaits those who have defected. They go through thick and thin to adjust.
The most obvious hurdle that North Korean defectors have a hard time leaping over is the communist mindset that has been implanted within them since birth; capitalism is a world that they cannot come to understand. “Back in North Korea, they have lived under the notion that the Party takes responsibility for everything. Because they simply expect that everything will be given by whatever institution is in control, North Koreans have grown accustomed to simply receiving and not having to be responsible for themselves or provide for themselves. Freedom does not mean that one can do whatever he/she pleases. But for North Korean defectors who come here, that concept seems to be difficult to wrap their minds around,” says Chun. For North Koreans, the rigorous and advanced South Korean society provides a sharp contrast to the poverty-stricken and lagging North, which in itself is hard to get used to. Yeom, a North Korean refugee who wished not to disclose his full name, is currently living at a shelter Chun operates. “It was so overwhelming when I first got here,” he says. “Korea changes so fast, and it is so difficult to keep up. It has been nine years since I arrived in South Korea, and it is only now that I seem to understand how this society works.”
Discrimination, rejection, alienation
The mindset of expecting things to be handed to them that many North Korean refugees harbor, according to Chun, is one of many reasons that North Korean refugees are prejudiced against in South Korean society. “It becomes hard for South Koreans to accept them into society, especially when they see North Korean refugees to be lazy and ungrateful, even if they are not so in reality,” he says. “They are seen as people from a hostile and alien North that is foreign to most South Koreans, and this prejudice leads to society shutting out North Koreans even more.” Hahn Kwan-woo (Soph., UIC, Dept. of International Studies) says that “the anti-communist mentality is still strong in Korea and there still seems to be resentment towards North Korea’s actions during the Korean War. This makes South Koreans have a negative outlook towards defectors who come here.”
Their origins are an obstacle when seeking employment, says Yeom. “People tend to treat us with condescension, and opportunities are often denied to us simply because we are North Koreans, even though we are willing to work hard for our share. We are not even given a chance.” Many North Koreans hence try to conceal the fact that they are North Korean when looking for a job, according to Choi Mi-kyung (Treasurer, Durihana Inc.). “I think that for many South Koreans, especially the young generation, it is hard to wrap their minds around the thought that we and these North Koreans have the same origins and were one people. South Koreans often simply close off the chances for North Koreans to make their ways economically,” says Choi. Yeom agrees. “People see us as foreigners, who simply speak the same language. Korean people categorize us with the foreign laborers who come to Korea to work. And that supposedly makes me socially inferior,” he says.
But it is not only employment matters where North Korean refugees are discriminated against. It is an everyday onslaught of the feeling that they are an eyesore in this society. Song, another refugee staying at the Durihana shelter who also wished to conceal her full name, says that she is treated differently as soon as South Korean people perceive that she is North Korean. “I often feel like a social leper,” says Song. “I can see the change in facial expression as they realize that I am not from here; it is like they realize, ‘she is not one of us.’” Chun says that many North Koreans also become a target for swindlers who seek to cheat the refugees out of the money they receive from the government. “North Koreans are perceived to be, and actually are, unsuspecting. South Koreans victimize them by exploiting their naiveté,” says Chun. Society provides a hard challenge for these defectors. “The hard part was the fact that I felt unaccepted, that I always felt lesser in some way,” says Yeom. “What was even harder was that I did not know what to do about it.”
Chun says that in order to solve this social problem, awareness about the situation must be raised. “Education needs to happen on both sides,” he says. “The way for us to address this issue is to concentrate on learning more about each other.” North Koreans need to be better educated about this society, he says, and the government has the obligation to provide both educational and economic support through more substantial means. Existing institutions for this purpose need to be more professionally equipped to deal with the emotional distress of North Korean refugees. “Furthermore, people need to be cautious with the attitude they have when they try to help. It is important for our society to be educated about the defectors’ situation in order to help. Many of these people harbor much pain and suffering, and it is essential for us to approach them with compassion and true understanding, to give them the support they truly need,” says Chun.
Hahn says that the younger generation has an obligation to actively address the situation. “We need to remember that North Korean defectors have suffered immense human rights violations and are here because they want to escape the oppression,” he says. “It is wrong to have a negative bias against them. One way to solve this, in my opinion, is to help more North Koreans attend university. I believe that this will play a huge role in educating college students about their situation.” Hahn says that the resulting increase of events, festivals, and lectures regarding North Koreans in our society will ultimately contribute to the eradication of prejudice against them. Moon So-yea (Fresh., UIC, Underwood Div.) shares the same idea. “Because the living conditions they have known and ours are so vastly different, it is hard for South Koreans to empathize with their hardships,” she says. “But this is all the more reason that we need to try to understand and educate ourselves about the reality of North Korean refugees, because it is only then we can actually do something.”
* * *
The pain and hurt that has marked the last 60 years on the peninsula will not dissolve easily. The border drawn between the two Koreas is similarly reflected in the remoteness between South and North Koreans. So what are Yeom’s hopes for the future? “I know that the distance between us and this society cannot be bridged overnight,” he says. “But I still cannot help hoping that it will slowly be less colder, little by little.”