[VIEWPOINT]Overcoming the culture gapDespite highly publicized efforts to engage North Korea through economic diplomacy, such as the Kaesong Industrial Park, and sports diplomacy, including the upcoming 2006 Asian Games, most South Koreans have been less forthcoming in engaging North Koreans living in the South. What happened to the days when North Korean defectors were deemed heroes to demonstrate capitalism and democracy’s victory over communism and the North’s juche or self-reliance ideology?
Today, many South Koreans view North Korean defectors as spies or unwanted guests who pocket money that belongs to South Korean taxpayers. Though some North Korean defectors describe South Korea as heaven in comparison to North Korea, life in South Korea is far from this ideal. These defectors constantly live with the stigma of being North Korean.
From near-daily reports of North Koreans entering embassies and consulates in Southeast Asia, China and Russia, one may conclude that North Koreans are entering South Korea at alarming rates. The truth is that the road to South Korea via an intermediate country is extremely risky. Certainly the number of North Koreans entering South Korea is increasing, but approximately 7,000 ― a mere 0.00014 percent of South Korea’s population ― have reached South Korea. This means that the majority of South Koreans have never encountered a North Korean, save those who seek to assist them, including the Red Cross, social welfare centers and church groups. Many older generation North Koreans residing in South Korea limit their contact with South Koreans, and younger North Koreans try to erase their North Korean identity by ridding themselves of their accents and dissimilar style, because too often they are harassed and humiliated by fellow students. With this lack of interaction, misunderstandings abound and the hardening of stereotypes and indifference sets in.
Moreover, there is a tremendous gap in cultures that the two disparate countries must overcome before reunification can become a reality. Since the Korean War, South Korea has transformed itself into a democracy and an economic powerhouse, while North Korea remains in the throes of an oppressive regime. The Korean language infused with American English is challenging for North Koreans, but comprehending democratic values regarding individual rights has proven to be more difficult. One North Korean man I spoke to revealed that he was imprisoned on charges of attempted rape in South Korea because his understanding of women’s rights was limited. Those North Korean defectors who exhibit poor behavior must learn that their misguided actions will not be tolerated. Still, to truly prevent these offenses, South Korean society must be willing to not only understand each individual North Korean’s history, but also recognize its own role in contributing to the North Korean’s predicament. Instead of giving up on one another, a deeper understanding by both sides is necessary to have effective integration.
On the flip side, North Koreans must exhibit caution before quickly attributing the cause of their challenges and hardships to their North Korean identities. Many North Koreans quit their jobs after a few months because they feel that they are treated worse than second class citizens. At times this is true, but in others, this is not the case. In one particular instance, a female North Korean student to whom I taught English during my Fulbright grant period in Seoul complained that her low wages were due to her being North Korean. However, because of an economic slump, South Koreans as well have had a hard time making ends meet, and they, too, receive minimal wages. Once I pointed this out, she saw that her judgment was unfair and inaccurate. It is natural that people tend to view themselves as victims and, therefore, are quick to criticize external actors and circumstances.
Thoughtful, balanced information and communication can diminish misunderstandings, which will, in turn, limit the growing pains faced by both South and North Koreans as they learn to live and work together. Though integration efforts such as the reunification of families at Mount Kumgang and the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing are admirable goals, it is vital that these projects work in conjunction with more localized reconciliation efforts between South Koreans and their currently “hidden” North Korean brothers living in the South.
* The writer is a 2004-5 Fulbright researcher.
by Janet J. Kang