Let’s give defectors reasons to stay here

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Let’s give defectors reasons to stay here


A few years ago, I was waiting for my flight back home at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport when two men who claimed to be “Koreans who crossed the Aprok River” approached me. They showed me a North Korean bill with Kim Il Sung’s portrait and suggested exchanging it for South Korean money as a souvenir, insisting that it was equivalent to 10,000 won ($9.30) in South Korean currency. Later, I learned that it was an old bill that was no longer circulated. I was quite upset for being tricked, and a co-worker said, “How would you even know if they are actually defectors?” He was right. In fact, it is hard to distinguish North Korean defectors from the ethnic Koreans in China.

Recently, a similar situation happened again at a sauna in Seoul. The therapist who scrubbed me used a North Korean dialect. When I asked him if he was a defector, he said, “I am from Yanbian.” But I overheard him talking to his co-worker and mentioning “the Republic.” He seemed to be pretending to be a Korean Chinese, but I didn’t pursue it.

I did not imagine experiencing this once again, especially in Europe. Last month, I was in Korea Town in New Malden, London, and met many men and women who spoke with a North Korean accent. They could be found at Korean supermarkets, restaurants and even after-school academies. Most of them had entered South Korea, but when they could not assimilate to South Korean society, they went to the United Kingdom. They ripped the South Korean pages out of their passports and sought asylum as defectors. Of course, they hid the fact that they had obtained South Korean citizenship because it would disqualify them from getting refugee status. A Korean immigrant who has lived in the U.K. for more than 20 years said the number of North Koreans working in Korea Town is increasing. A student said he recently hired a plumber who was from the North. It has become just as common to run into a North Korean in the U.K. as it has in Seoul.

The problem is that many of them refuse to communicate with Koreans. Some pretend to be ethnic Koreans from China. While they remain in the Korean community so far away from home, they are living an awkward life without identifying themselves as a South Korean, North Korean or a Chinese with Korean heritage.

Some defectors even go back to the North. On Tuesday, two defectors who returned to the North appeared in the media. According to the Ministry of Unification, 12 defectors have gone back to the North so far, and two of them defected again, while 10 remain there. Their motivation to return is unknown. But if they could settle down in Korean society, they would not have returned. We need to help them live here proudly. How can we deal with reunification if we can’t embrace those who come here? It’s time to review the policy on defectors.

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


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