Defector policy under criticism as inflow rises

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Defector policy under criticism as inflow rises


Unification Minister Hyun In-taek talks to young defectors at Hanawon center in Anseong, Gyeonggi, Thursday as the facility celebrates its 11th birthday. As of this month, 17,712 defectors have been processed through Hanawon. [YONHAP]

Seven boys and seven girls dressed in white short-sleeve shirts and black short pants appeared too innocent to be embarrassed by the responses of the audience, who burst out in laughter when they sang a song out of tune and then sighed at the children’s adorable gestures. Some even cried, moved by the lyrics of the song.

“We have come this far in search of freedom, we dreamt a starlit dream in the darkness,” the children sang.

The kids’ choir made up of North Korean refugees were singing the school song of the Hanadul School, which is located at the Hanawon resettlement center for North Korean defectors located in Anseong, Gyeonggi.

The performance last week, marking the 11th anniversary of the Hanawon center, attracted around 400 people, including the center’s residents, dignitaries and journalists. The children ended their song to the sound of loud applause.

“They remind me of the difficult times I went through to get here,” said a female defector, 37, who wished to remain anonymous. “Some of my young relatives were left in North Korea. If they had come with me, they might have been there on stage,” she said in voice hoarse from weeping.

Seoul has sought to welcome North Korean defectors in preparation for the possible reunification of the two Koreas. The South believes efforts to resettle the defectors shows the superiority of its system as opposed to the North as well as its humanitarian attitude as more North Koreans seek to escape their repressive society.

The Hanawon center, which was opened on July 8, 1999, has served as the gateway for a new life in the South.

North Korean defectors are first processed by the South’s intelligence service to determine whether they are spies. If they are cleared, they are then sent to Hanawon.

The center, built on 67,138 square meters (16.6 acres) of land, provides them with a basic education of how South Korean society functions, along with medical treatment and vocational training.

Another Hanawon facility is located in Yangju, Gyeonggi.

After three months, Hanawon discharges the defectors and provides them with subsidies for housing and assists them in finding a job.

The government says that 17,712 North Koreans have been processed through Hanawon as of July 1. This represents 92 percent of the 19,300 North Korean who have defected to the South since the Korean War.

The government built Hanawon in response to the sharp increase in the number of defectors since the mid-1990s.

Spending by the Ministry of Unification on Hanawon has been increased to 70.1 billion won ($58.6 million) this year, accounting for 46 percent of the ministry’s total budget, up 22.8 percent from last year.

“It is based on the belief that if we fail to assimilate North Koreans coming to the South, the unification [of the two Koreas] will be improbable when we need to absorb 23 million North Koreans,” said a ministry official.

Based on current trends, the total number of North Korean defectors is set to exceed 20,000 this year. Last year, 2,952 North Koreans came to the South.

At last week’s ceremony, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said that a new Hanawon facility will be set up next year in Gangwon as the number of North Korean defectors climbs above 20,000.

“We promised to give systematic support to North Korean defectors and we want to make sure today that we are doing our best to follow through on that promise,” said Hyun. The minister also said there are plans to expand to 30 the number of regional Hana centers, which help the defectors once they leave the Hanawon facility.

It has hired 100 professional counselors to man the regional offices.

But critics say the increase of regional offices will do little to correct what they see as fundamental problems with the Hanawon program.

According to the Unification Ministry, the unemployment rate of North Korean defectors stood at 13.7 percent as of the end of 2009, more than four times the jobless rate of 3.2 percent for South Koreans. In addition, most North Korean defectors end up with low-income manual jobs.

Critics blame the poor results on Hanawon’s emphasis on vocational training classes rather than on-the-job training.

Park Ho-yeong (an alias), who used to be a teacher in North Korea, said in a Hanawon-arranged meeting with the press last week that she heard that many Hanawon graduates had trouble finding jobs. “I think more on-the-job training programs will be needed,” she said.

The ministry officials said the vocational training programs will be improved, but they add that the defectors must share some of the responsibility for their problems.

Defectors who live below the poverty line can receive state subsidies for six months under the law. But some defectors have been accused of using false documentation to trick the authorities to give them longer periods of state payments so they can avoid finding a job.

More than 250 defectors in Seoul and Incheon were recently arrested by the police on welfare fraud charges.

“Some North Korean defectors seem to become so dependent on the government subsidies that they are unable to function normally,” said Kim Hyang-sun (an alias), a 34-year-old defector from Yanggang Province in the North.

Kim, who graduated from Hanawon in January 2005, is working as the branch head of a delivery storage business in Seoul. The Working NK Refugees, a nongovernmental organization established for helping defectors get a job, opened the branch earlier this month.

However, Ha Tae-kyung, head of Open Radio for North Korea, a North Korean human rights group, said structural problems, including the government’s role in processing defectors, are to blame.

Ha said the government should cooperate more with private organizations to provide more tailored and sustainable help for North Koreans instead of relying solely on Hanawon.

Shim Seong-jie, a professor at Kyungil University, agreed.

“Germany sought to introduce policies that would make the assimilation process comfortable for refugees and it relied on civil society organizations to take the lead by initiating adaptation programs while the government only provided financial support,” she said at a recent symposium in Seoul.

“In Korea’s case, the government is involved in nearly every aspect of the process, making it susceptible for the integration policy to become authoritarian and bureaucratic, which reduces its effectiveness.”

Sarah Kohls, a senior researcher at the Hanns-Seidel Foundation in Korea, part of a German NGO that promotes democracy and civil society development, said that the South Korean public needs to play a role.

She blamed the “closed minds” of South Koreans toward North Koreans for creating problems for the defectors.

“I think ordinary South Koreans have a lot of resentment and prejudice [against the North Korean refugees],” Kohls said. “They don’t really know about refugees.”

By Moon Gwang-lip []
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