Why did he return to the North?
The author is head of the Center for Liberty & Reunification.
On January 1, a North Korean defector in his 30s returned to the North after crossing the heavily-armed border on the eastern front in Gangwon Province. As he returned just 14 months after his defection to South Korea, many people wonder why he went back home. He reportedly could not pay his rent and insurance premiums and lived in isolation nearly without contact with neighbors. In August 2019, a 42-year-old mother and her 6-year-old son were found dead from starvation after struggling pay rent and utility bills.
Since the late 1990s, when North Koreans started defecting to South Korea en masse, they have faced various difficulties in settling in Korean society. The situation got even worse after the Moon Jae-in administration put top priority on improving relations with North Korea. As the South Korean government’s low-profile policy toward the Kim Jong-un regime was consolidated, defectors got the cold shoulder from the government. As a result, many defectors complain about their tougher life in South Korea. Recent research shows their lonely deaths have increased more than four times, with the suicide rate being more than three times higher than for the average for South Koreans.
The most urgent thing for them is finding a job in South Korea. But their jobless rate reaches 20 percent, six times their South Korean counterparts. Most of them have trouble getting employed, and even if they land on a job, they quit more often than not. Due to so divergent political, economic and cultural systems — including language today — North Korean defectors face tremendous hardships in finding jobs and adapting to new systems with their short period of education and job training.
The defectors mostly have no connection to the South Korean society. Under such circumstances, professions can serve as an effective channel to expand their social networks. But due to their sense of relative deprivation and frustrations at a lack of jobs, even including daily labor, they are increasingly being pushed back to North Korea.
An image captured by a CCTV camera of a North Korean defector in his 30s, who crossed the tense border and returned to North Korea on January 1. [JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF]
A defector myself, I have been closely working with North Korean defectors at a small shop I opened years ago. My experience shows that they can build a stronger sense of presence and devotion if they work at places owned by defectors or employing North Korean defectors. If their predecessors can transfer know-how about adapting to the South Korean society, they can understand the differences faster.
To help them settle in South Korea as early — and stably — as possible, there should be communities and social networks for them. As seen in the case of the United States, a country of immigrants, a close connection between such networks and government systems helps them settle in America easily and facilitate integration into the society.
Approximately 35,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea now. It is the time for existing defectors to advise newcomers about how to adapt to a new society and solve their problems together. It will be even more efficient than the current system, which is based on the government’s monopoly on their settlement and aid.
The Korea Hana Foundation, a government-run organization established to provide settlement support for North Korean defectors, currently spends a third of its 30-billion-won ($25 million) budget in personnel management costs. A center set up by the Ministry of Unification to promote defector understanding of South Korean culture is being criticized by them for pursuing purposes other than the original goals.
The time has come for the government to shift to a new direction which allows local North Korean communities to resolve the problems they face here on their own. The unification ministry must help them stand on their feet rather than simply give them financial help. It needs to consider the idea of replacing at least 80 percent of all employees at the foundation with members of the defectors group. If the foundation can allow defectors with more than 10 years of successful settlement in South Korea to deliver their know-how to latecomers, it will certainly make a difference.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.