Rush to Freedom Creates Stereotypes of NK Defectors
Working-class families who were born and raised in South Korea share their neighborhood with a public housing complex in western Seoul where approximately 600 North Korean defectors have settled.
The number of “new settlers” has continued to grow sharply since 2000, as an increasing number of North Koreans have taken the dangerous journey in search of freedom and the chance to lead decent lives.
This rush for freedom from North to South Korea has not only created a financial burden that the latter has to shoulder, but negative stereotypes of these new citizens have also formed.
A policy suggestion paper released by the Korean Association for Public Administration (KAPA) last year found that the households surrounding the new citizens have a negative North Korean stereotype.
The South Korean natives felt that they had to work hard to make ends meet but that those escapees from the North don’t have to work hard because of the money they receive from the government.
The KAPA report also mentioned that these neighbors believed that the new settlers have a double standard about money.
North Korean defectors are critical about how South Korean capitalism works but ironically they are much more attached to money than South Koreans.
North Korean defectors also harbor hard feelings toward their South Korean neighbors as well.
There is a lot of animosity once it is discovered from their different accents that they are from the North. Locals will give them the cold shoulder and be unfriendly.
Furthermore, employers hold negative stereotypes regarding North Koreans, the report found.
“New settlers tend to show up at their workplace on time but they do not work as hard as their South Korean counterparts. This problem appears to stem from the social background that they are accustomed to. In the communist state, all citizens receive their portion regardless of the quality of their labor,” it said.
Employers also found that the new settlers are obedient only when they used scare tactics and that workers from the North tend not to regard agreements or consensus as important.
Kim Hyun-kyung, a labor protection official of the Ministry of Labor, said the new settlers usually have bad relations with managers who are in the middle hierarchy at the workplace.
They disregard the chain of command.
“They tend to go directly to the head of the division, bypassing their supervisor. This gets them into trouble as their supervisors consider them unable to work in a team,” she said.
Fluent Chinese Speakers
A woman in her 40s, who asked to use only her last name Choi, joked with her male colleague in fluent Chinese at a community center in Gayang-dong, Seoul, last Wednesday.
Choi and her male colleague are called new settlers here as they were originally from North Korea and recently came to Seoul.
Before moving to the district, they completed a three-month adjustment program offered by Hanawon, a government-run resettlement center for North Korean defectors, in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province.
Choi and her colleague, who asked The Korea Times to call him by his alias, Kim Young-soo, were attending the ninth session of a 12-day local community adjustment program organized by the government.
During the 75-hour program, they learn a variety of tips such as how to see a doctor if they get sick, how to write a resume with a cover letter and how to get over depression or alcoholism.
The two North Korean defectors spoke in Chinese while they, along with three social workers at the community center, were waiting for three other new settlers who were scheduled to arrive.
Before coming to Korea, Choi and Kim had lived in China for several years.
Kim said that he had lived in several Chinese cities in the border area with North Korea for eight years in total.
Asked if he learned Chinese when he lived in the North, Kim shook his head.
“I learned Chinese after I fled there. I hid out there due to my illegal immigration status. I looked closely at the Chinese when they spoke and tried to make sense of it through their gestures and facial expressions,” he said.
Choi, who came to the South with her five-year-old boy, declined to give her personal information and background in detail.
“I don’t want my family living in the North to be put in peril. If my personal information is disclosed, they will be endangered,” she explained bluntly.
Before arriving in the South, Choi crossed the border to enter Chinese territory and stayed there for many years as an illegal immigrant.
After wrapping up her life in China, Choi went to Myanmar and then Thailand to come to the South.
The route that she followed is one of the three widely used paths that most North Koreans take during their dangerous journey to freedom.
Some choose the other path – China-Vietnam-Cambodia – and some go to Mongolia for a ticket to South Korea.
A North Korean defector, who asked not to be named, told The Korea Times that an average 1.8 million won (approximately $1,620) per person is needed to get a broker to help them escape the reclusive nation.
North Koreans pay back their debt after receiving the settlement fee from the government on completion of the adjustment program at Hanawon.
North Korean Ghetto
Choi and Kim now live in an apartment building within walking distance of the community center.
A social worker at the center said approximately 600 people, who were born and raised in the North and escaped, now live in the public housing district.
Once finishing Hanawon, these new settlers are given public housing with a settlement fee of 3 million won per head. One million won per family member is added.
For the first six months, they get 420,000 won for living expenses. If they fail to get a job during that period, they can extend the payments until they find employment.
New settlers are encouraged to take job training programs.
If they attend the training sessions, they are entitled to get an extra 150,000 won per week as a stipend. Unemployed people who were born and raised in the South receive just 110,000.
The new settlers are also entitled to a variety of incentives and financial benefits.
For example, if they acquire licenses or professional certificates issued by government-accredited institutions, they are awarded money for their hard work.
Employers hiring new settlers get financial support of which the amount is worth half of the monthly salary.
Asked what the goal of the variety of incentives is, labor protection official Kim told The Korea Times that those measures were introduced to encourage the new settlers to get a job in the formal sector.
“Many of them are employed in the informal sector as part-time workers. If they are employed in those jobs, they are still eligible to receive living allowances from the government because their income is not reported,” she said.
A government report on the socio-economic status of North Korea defectors here released last year showed that the unemployment rate of the new settlers is four times higher than that of people originally from the South.
More than half of the settlers from the North are heavily dependent on the economic assistance and stipends.
According to the Ministry of Unification, about 15,000 North Korean defectors have settled in the South as of December 2000.
Considering that about 3,000 North Koreans have fled to the South per year since 2005, the number of new settlers here has reached approximately 20,000.
The sharp growth of new settlers means that the financial burden that the South must shoulder is becoming substantial.
The growing financial strain is a new policy challenge facing the unification ministry as the number of defectors is expected to continue to rise.
In the wake of the failed currency revaluation last November the food situation in the North has gone from bad to worse, prompting more people to flee.