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For young defectors, life in the South is a real drag

May 17,2018
Despite growing interest in North Korean society after the inter-Korean summit last month, young defectors are still battling prejudice and struggling to find jobs in the South.

It wasn’t easy for one young defector surnamed Han to land a part-time job after she arrived in the South.

When Han settled in Seoul six years ago, she was rejected by an employer after she confessed that she was from the North. “We don’t accept North Koreans here,” she was told.

When Han finally landed a job at a pizza place, she was fired after calling pickles “salted cucumbers” due to the linguistic differences between the two Koreas.

“I was yelled at for using North Korean speech before I was fired,” she said.

With dim prospects for employment, some defectors are studying in graduate school while others are working at civic organizations, as those jobs are easier to find than those at companies.

“We don’t say we came to graduate school because we couldn’t find a job,” said a 28-year-old student surnamed Lee. “But many of us decide to enroll in graduate school to find refuge here, even if we find studying meaningless.”

Defector Kim Pil-ju, a member of the human rights organization Now Action Unity Human Rights (NAUH), said that because civic organizations aren’t results-oriented and have workers with similar backgrounds, they are easier for defectors to adjust to.

“Just hearing interviewers ask, ‘So you’re from North Korea,’ makes young defectors anxious,” said Kim. “Their identity as a defector itself is a huge burden.”

Kim added that many defectors need support to find jobs or start their own businesses in the South.

According to a study by the Korea Hana Foundation, a state-backed organization supporting North Korean defectors, 26 percent of the 2,715 defectors residing in Seoul in 2017 said more support for employment opportunities was what they needed most for a better life in the South.

In 2017, the employment rate for defectors was 56.9 percent, while South Koreans had an employment rate of 61.1 percent, according to the same study. Though defectors’ economic activity rate increased to 61.2 percent in 2017, up 3.3 percent from the year before, this still fell behind South Koreans, whose economic activity rate was 63.3 percent.

The study also showed that defectors’ unemployment rate at 7 percent is also almost twice as high as South Koreans, whose unemployment rate is 3.6 percent.

Every year, about 1,000 to 2,000 North Koreans cross the border to live in the South. They totaled 31,267 in 2017, according to the South’s Ministry of Unification.

“Because of different educational systems, it’s obvious young defectors won’t be as competitive for employment,” said Kim Hyeong-deok, the head of the Corea Peace and Prosperity Center, who fled North Korea in 1993.

Another defector surnamed Lee opened up his own ramen shop in Yeongdeungpo District, western Seoul. He said his fellow defectors need to “specialize in an area” in order to make a life for themselves in the South.

“Whether it’s through a vocational skill or through academics, defectors must know that they need to be even more patient after defecting,” said Lee.

BY KIM JI-A, LAURA SONG [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]


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