[Viewpoint] Learning to comfort defectors

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[Viewpoint] Learning to comfort defectors

Documentary filmmaker Oh Won-hwan’s 2009 film “The Rootless” tells the story of children who risked their lives to escape North Korea. They attempted to start new lives in South Korea, but after a series of failures, they left the South and sought refuge in the U.K. As the director made the documentary about the struggles and pains of their lives, he found it hard to use their real names. In the end, the filmmaker decided to call the defectors “nam-yeong” collectively, after the first letters for South Korea and England in Korean.

Since 2003, it is estimated that more than 1,000 North Korean defectors applied for refugee status in the U.K. Under British law, refuge applicants are protected by the immigration agency of the British Ministry of Interior Affairs while their applications are processed. Should they pass muster, defectors are given refugee visas and are allowed to settle down in the U.K.

However, if it is found that they have lived in South Korea, they are not given refugee status and are repatriated to the South immediately. So why do some defectors still decide to take the risk and travel all the way to the U.K.?

It is true that a number of defectors changed their minds and returned to the South. After all, Britain is a foreign land and may not be the most comfortable place to start a new life. But why did the young North Koreans who crossed the line of death and came to the other half of the homeland decide to leave? What did South Korea mean to them? These are questions for the defectors as well as for South Korea, which has an important responsibility to embrace them.

We should also ask ourselves if we are thoroughly ready for a unified Korea, which could come upon us unexpectedly. There are already over 23,000 North Korean defectors who have come to the South, and their struggles to adjust present an interesting miniature model of what a unified Korean society could look like in the future.

The Ministry of Unification has expanded protection for defectors who have stayed abroad for an extended period of time under the Law on the Protection and Settlement of North Korean Defectors and has also expanded local assimilation training and youth education.

Defectors receive a set amount of money for initial settlement, apartment lease and housing subsidy. They are also provided with employment opportunities, health care and pension benefits, together with special college admission and tuition assistance. Overall, the government offers a foundation to help North Korean defectors adjust to the South’s society, and the program has been a moderate success.

However, it is about time that we also provide an “emotional foundation” to comfort defectors’ wounded souls. Our focus should shift from ensuring a minimum living standard to determining the most appropriate formula for happiness. Humans can only exist when we are comfortable mentally as well as physically.

The young North Koreans did not go to England because the South could not provide them with food. They were seeking empathy and meaningful communication. It is a matter of emotional foundation. We, Koreans, need to practice communicating with North Koreans not with the brain but with the heart. We need to look at them from their eye level.

We must also determine what exactly makes defectors uncomfortable in the South. Discrepancies in culture, values and daily lives should be highlighted. Once we understand defectors’ sentiment, we can acknowledge how different we are mentally and culturally. Only then will we able to discuss how to provide them with emotional support for life.

We need to calculate the emotional cost of integration in addition to the financial expenses of unification. We may call it an “emotional policy” for the unification era. We must not try to force our own values on North Korean defectors because such actions would not be effective and would only push more defectors to head abroad. What we need to do now is train ourselves to listen to their stories and be considerate. By gradually narrowing this emotional gap, we can draft a plausible policy based on empathy.

The Chinese government recently confirmed that it would deport some two dozen defectors back to the North against their will. This is a truly regrettable decision. The government must make every effort to protect these and other defectors who escape through China.

And if we aggressively seek to change the direction of unification policy to focus on empathy, we should be able to effectively welcome these refugees. Defectors wandering from one place to another should not be a part of modern Korean history.

*The writer is a professor of mass communication at Korea University.

By Ma Dong-hoon
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