[Viewpoint]Give the defectors a chance‘We couldn’t live in North Korea because we were starving there, and we couldn’t live in China because we had to worry about our safety. Now, we can’t live in South Korea because there are so many things we don’t know.”
That is the experience of the approximately 13,000 saeteomin, or new settlers, who have moved here after defecting from North Korea. They escaped a communist system which gave them no other choice but do whatever their government instructed.
Now, they live in a competitive free market system in which they have to take responsibility for what they do. They are wandering around like athletes who get driven to the playing field but aren’t told the rules of the game.
There are people who question why we should pay special attention to them when there are plenty of other socially weak people in Korean society. Still others talk about the survival of the fittest, claiming they should be left alone so they can find out the laws of survival on their own, without outside help.
However, the case of the saeteomin is a little different. They were not given the chance to learn the rules of the game at the beginning. Leaving them as they are goes against the rule of equal opportunity, one of the pillars of a free democratic society. Furthermore, understanding their hardships and helping them successfully adapt to their new society would also help us prepare for the big change that might come in the future.
It is true that the government has made efforts, in its own way, over the years. For example, in connection with the payment of the resettlement fund, the government changed its policy and began to encourage the saeteomin to support themselves.
The number of saeteomin has swelled rapidly in recent years, however, and the government has failed to keep up with the changing reality.
The saeteomin problem can be roughly divided into three categories: employment support, youth education and a psychological adaptation to South Korean society.
According to recent reports, the employment rate of the saeteomin who arrived in South Korea at the beginning of 2006 was only 24 percent. Even when they do finally get a job, they often fail to adapt and quit.
The problem is that they are not accustomed to a market economy and their expectations for their desired field of work are higher than their ability. On the other hand, employers tend to avoid employing saeteomin because of their low productivity.
To solve such problems, South Korea’s government must provide a systematic and practical job training system by carefully analyzing the problems that people who have lived in a socialist society face.
In doing so, the government must use the capabilities of private organizations. The hurried two-month training at Hanawon, the saeteomin settlement support office, is not sufficient. Hanawon facilities should not just be enlarged, but expanded on a much larger scale, with an eye on the future.
The education of the youth is also a serious problem. The elementary, middle and high school education in South Korea goes on for 12 years, but only for 10 years in North Korea. Moreover, the quality of education in North Korea must be at a low standard because of economic stresses and other factors the country faces.
On top of that, the defectors were hiding in foreign soil for three to four years in many cases after leaving North Korea, so they were deprived of the opportunity for education during that time. According to the “Policy Proposal for Saeteomin Youth Education,” presented to the presidential transition team by the Korea Peace Institute, 62 percent of school-age youths attended middle or high school, but only 10.4 percent of the ones who missed school even went back. The percentage of students who quit school before graduating is also 10 times higher than that of South Korean students.
The problem of poor public education has been a topic in our society for a long time. However, saeteomin youths are failing to be accommodated in our poor public education system, too.
The government needs to address these problems. Many unauthorized private schools take care of students who are not accommodated by public schools. Therefore, the government should lower the standards required for the establishment of alternative schools and make use of the private sector’s capabilities.
From a psychological aspect, it is important that the people embrace the saeteomin with a warm heart. I once counseled a middle-aged saeteomin woman who was trying to get a job after finishing the Hanawon training course. She said she fell into a deep depression because she couldn’t get a job. One day, however, she met a department store clerk who said, “Welcome to Korea. Work hard and live well.”
These kind words gave her the strength to get up again. I hope the government, educational institutions and the media launch a public campaign so the whole nation embraces these defectors warmly.
There is a golden rule, which applies equally to a person and a country: You reap what you sow. At times, however, people miss the time to sow and regret it later when they have a hard time.
Now is the time for us to upgrade the saeteomin policy and sow for the future.
*The writer is a professor of international politics at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yoon Young-kwan