[OUTLOOK]The outflow gathers forceThe inflow of large numbers of North Korean defectors into South Korea is providing a chance to test the capability of the government and the private sector to deal with the situation and make up for the holes we may have in the system.
The Ministry of Unification has been in charge of North Korean defectors since 1997 because of the view that systematic preparation and training is needed to prepare for unification. But the preparation for accommodations and a support system for defectors by the government suggests that they are dealing with immediate problems, not preparing for unification.
No long-term program can be set up because the number of defectors is so unpredictable. In the early 1990s, there were about 10 a year. In 1999, the number was over 100, and in 2002 the number exceeded 1,000.
That sudden increase in numbers has made it difficult to maintain research on how to prepare to receive defectors at an appropriate level. It is difficult to predict how large a training and reception facility is needed to help them adjust to South Korean society.
As a result, the government maintains facilities based on uncertain data on the number of defectors, and it relies on temporary, one-time countermeasures in the case of a large-scale influx of defectors such as we are seeing now.
Many North Korean defectors who are now in third countries are probably waiting to enter South Korea. If a basic survey had been held regularly on their numbers, sex, the degree of their desire to come South Korea and their age range, it would have been possible to avoid most of the controversy over the accommodation and support of North Korean defectors.
Ever since the mid-1990s, private organizations and researchers have presented the estimated capacity, sex and age range of defectors who were expected to enter South Korea based on field surveys, and the results have been similar to the results of government surveys of those incoming defectors.
In spite of this, the government did not trust the survey results of private organizations and researchers, and did not accept the opinion of private organizations that the government should conduct field surveys, for reasons of diplomatic conflict with the countries where the defectors are located.
But if objective research on defectors abroad is not carried out, we cannot prepare measures to handle them according to sex, age and degree of hope, and the possibility of short-term, large-scale influx will be hard to deal with, not to mention the number of defectors expected to enter the country in the future. Preparing national policies in preparation for unification with insufficient basic statistics will only result in an inefficient and high-cost structure.
Therefore, the government should concentrate not only on a temporary measure for the accommodation of a large number of defectors, but also on preparing a long-term measure. The first step in setting up a mid- and long-term measure should be carrying out surveys on the North Korean defectors in China, Russia, Mongolia and Southeast Asia.
If the surveys are divided among the government, private organizations and researchers according to their share of involvement in the defector issue, we should be able to minimize the diplomatic conflicts that the government worries about.
The violation of the rights of defectors abroad has become a global issue, and the North Korean Human Rights Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives includes the improvement of North Korean refugees’ treatment overseas as an important issue. There are voices of concern that North Korean defectors will obviously want to enter the United States, and that there will also be a sudden increase in the number of defectors wanting to enter South Korea once the bill is passed.
Some ruling party Assemblymen are, therefore, requesting that the bill be quashed, and the Korean government is staying quiet about the matter. The requests for withdrawal and silence on the matter can be seen as a way of prioritizing our relationship with North Korea, but there is probably a part of it that comes from a lack of understanding of how serious the situation of the violation of the defectors’ human rights is.
The situation of North Koreans who have no other choice but to escape to China, and the pressing reality that they have to risk their lives to move from China to Southeast Asia and get on a plane to South Korea, needs to be presented in the form of an objective survey and report on the part of the government.
The question of how much effect the North Korea Human Rights Act will have on the number of defectors entering South Korea, and of the direction the North Korean defector problem will take, is left not in the hands of the American, Chinese, North Korean or South Korean governments, but in the hands of the North Korean defectors and the judgment of North Koreans considering an escape attempt.
South Korea, North Korea and China have insufficient policy measures to control the number of North Korean defectors and the number of defectors who will enter South Korea. But neither do we have an alternative to accepting them, if they wish to risk their lives to leave the country and come here.
*The writer is the director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yoon Yeo-sang