[VIEWPOINT]Helping ex-comrades adjust here

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[VIEWPOINT]Helping ex-comrades adjust here

The 25 North Koreans who rushed the Spanish Embassy in Beijing seeking asylum arrived here Monday. They brought with them heightened interest in the issue of defectors from the North who want to settle here. The Spanish Embassy case was a new development; a planned effort coordinated by international nongovernment organizations. Coordinated efforts to bring in North Korean defectors are growing, and there is concern about a possible surge in the number of arrivals here. In 1998, 72 North Koreans were received in the South; the number doubled each of the next two years and rose to 583 in 2001. Perhaps 1,200 defectors are expected this year.

The fresh wave of North Koreans may create new problems, but it is important to concentrate first on resolving the issues related to the North Koreans who are already attempting to settle here. One study concluded that the new arrivals experienced relatively little trouble in terms of political ideology as they adjusted to life in the South. But adjustment to the new economic conditions differed from person to person. Most refugees are said to have some psychological problems.

If political ideology is not a problem, then the psychological conflict experienced by the defectors must be caused by the vast difference in the two societies created by years of separation with no exchange.

The seriousness of the psychological turmoil is reflected in the job performance of the defectors. Psychological conflict often pushed them out of the jobs that the government had arranged for them. That often is only the start of a string of problems in adjusting to a new life. Those leaving their jobs then often open small businesses with the relocation funds provided by the government, but that money is not enough to capitalize a business. And North Koreans are of course not immune to the high rate of failure of new small businesses. So failure and alienation become a path for many North Korean defectors. Here are a few proposals to improve their chances of making a smoother transition.

The most important thing for North Koreans settling in the South is a stable job and a steady source of income. A regular income is crucial for psychological stability. We must expand the range of job opportunities for defectors. It is undesirable to make them compete directly with native South Koreans. Rather than pushing those who know only a socialist system out into the competitive private sector, government offices or public corporations should make jobs available for them according to their skills and experience ?and maybe even do that with quotas. Each office or public company could take on one or two people.

My second proposal would be to change the lump-sum settlement assistance payment to a system that will provide more stable employment and job education to defectors. This would make the Northerners better able to become independent sooner. The lump-sum payment of assistance program was originally considered partly a reward for the information the defectors brought with them about the North. That remnant of the Cold War should be rethought.

A third measure would be to train social workers to provide comprehensive assistance to the new settlers. The defectors cannot be comfortable under the "protection" now provided for two years by the police; that police presence can give the defectors a negative image of life here beginning at the earliest days of their stay. Retired civil servants or persons who studied North Korean affairs could be trained as social workers and provide help.

The fourth point is to stop our prejudicial and exclusivist attitude toward the defectors. By genuinely embracing them, we would be recognizing their human desire to live in freedom; they have risked their lives crossing the line of fire and running from hunger. Their misfortune is having been born under the wrong leader.

Last is a piece of advice for the defectors themselves. They should not rush to become used to life here. What is most effective in making a smooth transition to democracy and capitalism is actually going through the experience, not being taught about it. This could take four or five years. Personal efforts and patience are just as important as effective government assistance.


The writer directs a research program at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

by Suh Jae-jean

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