[Viewpoint] Practical support for defectors

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[Viewpoint] Practical support for defectors

The North Korean Defectors Support Foundation was launched the other day to take exclusive charge of systematic settlement support for North Korean defectors in Korea. Because more than 20,000 North Koreans have fled to the South, the establishment of this foundation seems rather late, but it’s better late than never.

The support foundation is especially meaningful because the organization will have help from both the government and the private sector. The government will provide policy and public administration support for the refugees trying to settle down in the South, while professional and vocational services will be provided by the private sector.

The foundation will provide assistance for stable living, employment and scholarship. Moreover, it will be able to offer more specialized and concentrated assistance beyond what the Supporters Group for North Korean Defectors had provided as a civilian organization.

The government has been constantly promoting systematic improvement because North Korean refugees are increasingly streaming into South Korea and the trend of migration is ever-changing. This year, Hana Centers were established to provide social adaptation training for each region, and professional counsels help the defectors get used to the new environment. The Social Integration Committee, under the jurisdiction of the president, has set the successful settlement of defectors as one of its key projects.

In spite of the systematic implementation of policy at the government level, regional settlement assistance for North Korean defectors requires more substantial supplements. There are regional support groups for North Korean defectors in 26 districts around the nation, but efforts to promote attention and participation of local residents are rather insufficient.

According to various surveys and research, one of the biggest obstacles for North Korean defectors’ social adjustment is the negative prejudice they suffer by being from the North. What the defectors really need is not a one-time event or financial support but the knowledge that they are able to grow as “contributing neighbors” in their society. They themselves need to have confidence, and we should wait patiently until they get accustomed.

A South Korean Family Experience Program for the defectors can be a good alternative. Earlier this month, I had the chance to observe the two-day family experience program for the Hanawon trainees in Busan. It is a part of the three-month training program at the North Korean refugee settlement training agency. The first-time volunteers offered sincere hospitality to let the North Korean trainees open their hearts. They checked the names and ages of the trainees that were to stay with their families and made sure they were welcomed and had a comfortable experience.

The North Koreans at the Hanawon in Anseong, Gyeonggi, arrived in Busan the next day. After the long trip, they felt tired, but they responded with shy smiles as the volunteers welcomed them with applause. The welcome ceremony began with a hug. The trainees and volunteers called each other by their first names - a gesture of being part of a family.

The tension lifted immediately. The newly formed families headed to a local traditional market for the “buying experience.” After two days of training, the North Korean defectors had to start a new life in public housing, so they brought a list of necessities to buy.

After a final night together, the trainees and volunteers couldn’t let go of each other very easily. As the bus left, one volunteer shed tears and said, “I won’t participate in this kind of program again. Farewell is so hard.” At the evaluation meeting, the volunteers all agreed that the two days were valuable experience for both sides.

And they did not forget to show appreciation at such a wonderful opportunity. One volunteer said that his children were all grown up and he and his wife live alone, so he invited his married children and their families to have dinner with the defectors. A North Korean defector had brought a snack he had saved from Hanawon to the grandmother of the host family. He hugged the elderly lady as if she were her mother. There were countless stories from that night with the defectors, some heartwarming and some heartbreaking.

The foundation will begin full operation in January. For now, it is preparing more efficient organization and various projects for more effective support.

The government is to assign 24.8 billion won ($22 million) next year, and there is national support for the cause as well. The welcoming and supportive spirit that the South Korean host families showed during the visit will be reflected in the foundation’s project blueprints.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

By Lee Keum-soon
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