[Viewpoint] Flexible policies for defectors, please

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[Viewpoint] Flexible policies for defectors, please

Not so long ago during a dinner with colleagues, we played a game in which everyone had to pay a penalty whenever we employed a word of foreign origin. As soon as the game began, someone said, “OK,” a commonly used English word. I was no better. It required attention and wit to replace words like elevator, cell phone and taxi with Korean equivalents. The conversation was less than lively, and soon the fines accumulated. If we had set a slightly higher rate, it would have covered the second round of drinks.

When North Korean defectors settle down in South Korea, one of their biggest obstacles is the language. They find it especially hard to pick up and understand words adopted from other languages. Korean people and media often use foreign words that people from the North have had no exposure to. They complain that normal communication is disrupted because of these words.

But the language difficulty might be a trivial challenge. Professor Lim Eul-chul, a North Korean studies specialist at Kyungnam University, interviewed over 200 North Korean defectors. He said that the biggest challenge is their identity crisis. North Korean defectors who just arrived in the South don’t have jobs or even occupations, and they do not have a sense of belonging. “There is nowhere to go when I wake up in the morning,” lamented a defector. Two to three years after defecting, they begin to have a perspective on South Korean society and gradually find emotional stability. Yet, 55 percent of the defectors remain jobless.

Loneliness and guilty feelings also put pressure on the defectors. Some escaped the North with their families, but those who came by themselves have to suffer from extreme solitude. They feel guilty because their family members remaining in the North are sure to suffer. As a result, many North Korean defectors scramble to make money. They think the best way to reduce their solitude and guilt is to pay brokers to rescue the families they left behind, or at least to send some cash to the North.

There are over 20,000 North Korean defectors in the South, and while many of them work hard to adapt to their new environment, a considerable number find it hard to adjust. As a result, various social problems arise. I am personally acquainted with Mr. P, a defector who laments the moral hazards of being in the defectors community. He expressed concerns that many defectors are involved in crime or shady businesses. Recent news on insurance frauds and prostitution are only the tip of the iceberg.

The primary responsibility for settling down in the South Korean community is, of course, on the defector who chose to come south. In addition, the Korean government and citizens are willing to offer help and support for their assimilation. The two efforts are not separate. The defectors’ will and the support of the government and society have to work together organically, but we could see much improvement in this collaborative effort.

“The existing policy to support the defectors is like spending money to make enemies,” said Mr. P. The government policy ignores individual characteristics and abilities and employs a uniform standard, and it produces unnecessary outsiders. He considers the incentive-based settlement support system with a five-year time limit as the biggest problem.

According to the current regulation, a defector needs to complete vocational training and a certificate program within five years of entry and maintain three years of employment to receive settlement assistance in full, as much as 30.4 million won. However, in reality, a very limited number of defectors actually get the money. Once they complete the initial training at Hanawon - the government’s settlement assistance agency - and spend five years in the South, they end up at the bottom of the society as extremely poor. Mr. P. argues that the system does not reflect the reality and leads to crime and corruption.

Professor Lim emphasizes the same issue. Understandably, the government needs to maintain a principle of equity, but inflexible operation of the support system will not do the job. “If you don’t understand the defectors from the heart, no system can succeed,” he says. “The solution can be found if we listen to the voices of defectors.” In other words, the policies drafted on the desks of unimaginative bureaucrats will have a limited impact on the real problems.

A more serious obstacle is the indifference and inhospitality of Korean society. The defectors come to scorn themselves as third-class citizens, even lower than foreign workers from Southeast Asia. Unless society embraces the defectors, they will remain strangers forever. We never know when they will tell be able to tell other North Koreans how they feel about South Korean society. But when the time comes, we hope they would say, “South of the border is a great place to live.” To provide them with opportunities for decent new lives in the South, we need a more flexible assistance system. We should provide various options and give a defector a choice, so he can take responsibility for his way of starting life anew.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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