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Bitter taste of paradise: North Korean refugees in South Korea.

This article deals with the problems of North Korean defectors currently living in South Korea. In the past, most such defectors came from privileged groups in the North Korean population, and their adjustment to the new environment did not pose a significant problem. However, from the mid-1990s, defectors began to come from the far less privileged groups. They experience serious problems related to jobs, education, crime, and social adjustment. Recent years have seen a dramatic but not always openly stated change in the official South Korean attitude toward defectors: from a policy explicitly aimed at encouraging defection, Seoul has moved to the policy of quietly discouraging it. There are fears that encouraging defection will undermine the policy of peaceful engagement with the North. There is also the perception that refugees are outsiders, not quite adjustable to the conditions of South Korean society and thus a social and budgetary burden.

KEYWORDS: North Korea, DPRK, migration, communism, refugees, defectors, border, postsocialism, "sunshine policy," North-South Korea relations, minorities


From around 1990, the probable scenarios and likely consequences of Korea's unification have been an object of intense research; "unification studies" are clearly experiencing a major boom. However, a closer look at the available literature indicates that most of it has dealt with either the conditions that would lead to a North Korean collapse or the international political processes through which unification or closer integration might occur.

The imminent collapse of North Korea was widely (nearly universally) expected in the early 1990s, but in recent years mainstream academic and nonacademic opinion has changed. We now see a growing expectation that the North Korean regime will probably continue to exist in some form for a long time. There has been also some speculation about reasons that prevented the widely anticipated collapse from taking place. (1) This seeming fiasco of the "collapsist school," combined with the direct and indirect impact of Seoul's "sunshine policy," has led to a growth of generic studies whose authors speculate on the desirable path to unification, generally agreeing that such a path is likely to be a long one. (2)

A second body of literature, much smaller, has tried to model the economic costs of unification. These predictions were especially popular in the mid- and late 1990s when the North Korean collapse and subsequent German-style unification looked like a distinct possibility and unification was seen as a question that would arise in the near future. (3) However, it is remarkable that only a fraction of the rather large literature on unification issues deals with the social consequences of this expected event and the likely impact it will have on both Korean societies. (4)

Unification, were it to occur, would involve not only political integration but integration at the societal level. Of course, the opening to the North would not necessarily be a rapid one. But ultimately, the very concept of unification would seem to imply greater movement of people throughout the peninsula and particularly from North to South. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: under any conceivable scenario, incomes in the South are likely to remain much higher than in the North. Political and cultural factors (like the pull of Seoul, by far the largest city of the peninsula) will also play an important role. This means that South Korean society will have to absorb some unknown number of North Korean migrants.

Actually, this process has begun already. A small but growing community of North Korean refugees currently lives in South Korea. Their numbers, though small, have been growing fast. The experiences of these refugees might give us some ways to presage the problems that will develop when--and if--the peoples of the two Koreas start interacting on a broader scale. Some of the social and political problems of such integration are already clearly visible, even if the South Korean government and society prefer to deal with these challenges in a way that will probably create even more difficulties in the future.

This article approaches the question of unification and integration by considering the history of the defector community, the interaction of the defector community with South Korean society, and the changing official and nonofficial responses to the defectors. I start by reviewing the changing pattern of defection over time. In the past, most defectors came from privileged groups in the North Korean population, and their adjustment to the new environment did not pose a significant problem. However, from the mid-1990s, defectors began to come from the far less privileged groups, and now this community resembles much more closely the actual composition of the North Korean populace. If anything, geographically or socially disadvantaged groups are overrepresented among the refugees.

Following a brief consideration of the support system, the article proceeds to catalogue some of the social problems created by the growing number of defectors and reviews the manifold difficulties they encounter in the new environment. These include problems related to jobs, education, crime, and social adjustment. Although not surprising, these challenges have not received the attention they deserve and point to the problems of integration at the ground level.

Finally, I discuss the changing legal framework and actual policies of dealing with defectors. This changing composition of the defector community has not escaped the attention of South Korean officials and analysts, and the political utility of defectors has fallen. Recent years have seen a dramatic but not always openly stated change in the official South Korean attitude toward defectors: from a policy explicitly aimed at encouraging defection, Seoul has moved to the policy of quietly discouraging it. As demonstrated below, there are two reasons for such a new approach. First are the fears that encouraging defection will undermine the policy of peaceful engagement with the North. But increasingly, the perception is growing that refugees are outsiders, not quite adjustable to the conditions of South Korean society and thus a burden. This change in perception has important implications not only for the refugees but for South Korean strategy toward the North more generally, and helps, in particular, to explain the broader support for engagement.

A History of Defection

According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, since the end of the Korean War and through the end of 2004, a total of 6,304 North Koreans have defected to the South (see Table 1). This means that as of December 31, 2004, there were about 6,000 defectors living in the South (as of December 2003, 245 defectors had died or moved to other countries, largely to the United States). (5) This figure is probably incomplete, since it is reasonable to assume that some defections have not been made public. This is especially likely in the case of former North Korean cadres, army officers, and intelligence and security operatives. But the difference between the real number and the official data is unlikely to be large. In any case, these 6,000 defectors constitute a tiny fraction of the 48 million South Korean population.

Outbound overseas migration has always been viewed with great suspicion by Leninist states. Despite this attitude, however, most of them did allow at least some citizens to move overseas legally, although manifold restrictions and conditions could be imposed on them. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), on the other hand, strictly adheres to the original Stalinist pattern--that of zero tolerance toward overseas migration. Even if the authorities chose to turn a blind eye to the citizens' exit (like the recent large-scale movement to China), the fugitives are nonetheless technically committing a crime.

However, the first years of Korea's division were marked by the intense cross-border movement, and North Koreans fled to the South in large numbers. The estimates for the prewar period are between 456,000 and 829,000, while estimates for 1950-1953 vary between 400,000 and 650,000. (6) Thus, even according to the most conservative estimate, about 900,000, or 10 percent of the entire population, fled the North during the period 1945-1953.

But after the end of the Korean War, the number of refugees decreased dramatically. The relative economic strength of North Korea might have been a contributing factor: until around 1970, the gap in living standards between the two Korean states was small. (7) But from the mid-1950s, the DPRK government also maintained an efficient system of border protection. This system was directed both externally (against the possible penetration of South Korea agents), and internally (against any nonauthorized attempts to leave North Korea). The demilitarized zone (DMZ) itself is protected by rows of electrified fences and minefields, and any visit to the areas lying within 40 kilometers of the DMZ requires a special permit issued by Pyongyang (different from the normal "travel permits" issued by the local police authorities). The beaches in North Korea are also off-limits to commoners, being dotted with land mines and protected by electrified fences. Combined with the presence of patrols and round-the-clock surveillance of the area, this makes an escape across the DMZ truly suicidal. This meant that, borrowing Albert Hirschman's well-known terms, the North Koreans were deprived of "exit" opportunities, while opportunities for "voice"--that is, even mild social critiques--were nearly nonexistent under North Korea's "national Stalinism." (8)

Until the early 1990s, the overall number of defectors was very small, typically five to ten per year. Most of them came from the North Korean elite, since at the time, only members of privileged groups occasionally had some "exit options," that is, the opportunity to leave the DPRK. Among the early defectors were pilots who flew their fighter jets to the South, diplomats who defected while stationed overseas, soldiers of elite units who knew how the DMZ was protected and could outsmart the guards, and fishermen who managed to deceive their supervisors and sailed their boats to the South.

These people were welcomed in Seoul, whose leaders waged a life-or-death struggle with their archrivals in Pyongyang and wanted to attract defectors because of valuable intelligence they brought in as well as their propaganda value. Generous benefits were available for those who reached the South, and incessant propaganda campaigns were waged to encourage even more defections. Still, the number of the actual defections remained small, due to the combination of factors described above.

After the collapse of the Communist bloc, the situation changed dramatically. On the one hand, communist ideology ceased to be seen as a serious challenge to Seoul, and the ailing North was less and less perceived as a direct threat. On the other hand, the stream of defectors began to grow--which coincidentally occurred just as the political need for them began to diminish. In 1994, the number of defectors, which for decades had been fairly stable at five to ten per year, suddenly jumped to fifty-two, a figure around which it was to fluctuate for the next five years, only to increase to more than 1,000 in the early 2000s.

A considerable if not decisive role in this stream of refugees was played by changes in China, which eventually became the major absorption/transit point for North Korean fugitives. From the early 1990s, those North Koreans who were able to cross the porous Sino-Korean border could easily find casual employment in the northeast of China, and the Chinese police could not (and probably did not want to) locate them with the efficiency common under Mao. When the great North Korean famine reached its height in 1998-1999, the number of North Korean refugees in China was estimated at close to 200,000 (there were larger, perhaps inflated, figures as well). Nowadays, the most oft-cited estimate of the number of North Koreans currently in China is "about 50,000." (9) Most of them are not political defectors in any sense, but rather farmers, workers, and minor clerks from the borderland areas of North Korea who were driven to China by hunger and destitution. (10) Nearly all new arrivals to the South came there after a stint in China.

The radical liberalization of China, combined with the collapse of border control, not only made possible large-scale defection, but also changed the social structure of defectors in the most radical way.

In the ten years between 1995 and 2004, the annual number of defectors increased from 41 to 1,894. The fiftyfold increase over ten years is impressive, as the South Korean press is eager to point out. However, to put these figures into perspective, the number of East Germans who defected to West Germany over the twenty-seven-year-long period of 1962-1988 was 562,261, or an average of some 21,000 annually. (11) Before the Berlin Wall was built, the number of defectors was even larger--an average 210,000 per year between 1949 and 1961. (12) Against such a perspective, Korean numbers do not look particularly impressive or even large.

The South Korean press often writes about the "wave of defectors" or their "exodus," attracting attention to their fast-growing numbers. However, the most significant change of the last decade was not so much an increase in the number of defectors, but the dramatic transformation of their social composition, which began around 1995 and was complete by 2000. In earlier decades, the defectors invariably came from the North Korean elite. Those elite defectors had education, social skills, and adaptability and could easily find a place for themselves in South Korean society. Their insider's knowledge of the North Korean bureaucracy and military was in great demand, and the rare defector who had no such knowledge could still earn a good income through writing and lecturing.

Nowadays, the situation is different. Out of 4,716 defectors of the period from January 2000 to August 2004, 41% were classified by the Ministry of Unification as "workers" (this figure also includes the employees of state-run "agricultural cooperatives"). A further 46.5% are described as "others," largely school students and unemployed housewives. Only 2.8% are described as "professionals," 2.6% as "managers" (including party cadres), and 1.5% as "sportsmen, artists, and entertainers." Of the remaining, 4.9% are made up of "service workers," and 0.7% are ex-soldiers. (13) Thus, even by the most generous estimate, well below 10% of all recent arrivals belong to the North Korean elite or even to educated middle classes. It's remarkable that the share of "others" (largely, ex-dependants) doubled in 2000-2004, increasing from 27.6% to 55%. This reflects the increasing frequency of "chain defection" of which more will be said later. It is also remarkable that the share of two elite or subelite groups--"professionals" and "managers"--decreased most dramatically, from 9.7% in 2000 to 3.4% in January-July 2004. (14)

In 2002, for the first time, the number of women among the defectors exceeded that of men (54.9%). In 2003, women composed 63.5% of all defectors, and in 2004, their share reached 66.9%. (15) This gender dynamic is reflected in the well-documented fact that women constitute a majority of North Korean refugees in China. (16)

The geographical origin of the recent defectors once again confirms this same trend. Two thirds (66%) of defectors in 1999-2003 are former residents of the North Hamgyeong province, located in the northeastern part of the country. (17) It is remarkable that this same province produced a mere 7% of all defectors in the pre-1990 period. North Hamgyeong province has little political clout and has been widely used as a place to settle politically "less reliable" social groups. In other words, the typical defector of the early 2000s is an impoverished and undereducated farmer (or, more likely, farmer's family member) from a remote country area, or an under- or unemployed worker.

The Rise of Sunshine

The changes in the social composition of defectors coincided with the dramatic transformation of Seoul's approach to the "North Korean issue" in general. This transformation led to a growing gap between the officially stated and actual goals of South Korean policy. In this section, I concentrate on the changing perceptions of the refugee issue in the South, as well as on the changing nature of the whole defection process--issues that are closely linked.

The 1990s was the time when the "unification policy" was radically reevaluated in South Korea. Until the early 1990s, the Seoul administrations and mainstream society in general universally assumed that the ideal eventual outcome would be complete absorption of the communist North by the capitalist South. Thus, the disintegration of the Communist bloc in the late 1980s was widely welcomed, as it seemingly made such a scenario even more likely. However, the anticipated collapse of North Korea did not eventuate. It was East Germany that collapsed instead, pretty much in a manner that for decades had been a dream of Seoul policymakers. This made lessons of Germany's "unification by absorption" extremely important (and extremely disappointing) for the Koreans.

It is widely believed that the current situation in Korea is much less conducive to a successful postunification development than was the case in Germany. The per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in East Germany was only one-third of that of the capitalist West, and some 80 percent of all Germans lived in the capitalist part of the country. In Korea, per capita GDP in the North is one-tenth--or even less--of what it is in the South, and South Korea accounts for only 65 percent of the entire population on the peninsula. Apart from economic issues, there are also social and political problems--so painful indeed that few people even dare to raise them. There are various estimates of how much the unification will cost, with Marcus Noland stating that "the amount of capital investment needed in the North might be in the order of $600 billion." This seems to be the smallest available estimate, however. Hwang Eui-gak, in early 2005, published a new edition of his seminal work on the North Korean economy and estimated the likely "unification cost" at a higher level: $1,200 billion. (18)

The German experiences did not remain unnoticed among South Korean specialists, and news from Germany has attracted much attention in Seoul over the last fifteen years. Two "unification studies" specialists, Kim Kyu-wan and (Berlin-based) Park Seong-jo, succinctly captured this new mood when they devised a name for their recent book on the possible significance of the German experience for Korea. The main message of the book, titled North and South: Dead if United, (19) did not cause any protest among its numerous reviewers: its authors said what is accepted as increasingly obvious.

The South Korean newspapers keep reminding their readers about the drastic decline of Germany's competitive power and per capita real income after unification (tellingly, the indicators of the united Germany are compared with that of West Germany, and this neglects considerable improvement in the conditions of the former East Germans). (20) President Rob Tae Woo himself, during his visit to Germany in April 2005, explicitly stated that Germany should be seen as a negative example, to be avoided by Korea. (21)

It was against such a new background that the Kim Dae-jung government began to promote the "sunshine policy" approach, whose stated aim is to create conditions for a peaceful coexistence of the two Korean states during a prolonged period of time. It is hoped that the economic growth of the North resulting from such prolonged contact would make the eventual (and, ideally, very distant) unification less painful both socially and economically. Kwak Tae-Hwan and Joo Seung-Ho are quite explicit on this point: "North Korea's soft landing, or gradual adoption of a market economy and liberal democracy, is desirable and feasible.... Economic reforms and an open-door policy, no matter how limited they may be, will set in motion the transformation of the Stalinist regime. As its economic structure begins to change under the impact of market-oriented economic policies and increased contacts with the outside world, its political and social structure is bound to change." (22)

And last, but not least, the changes in South Korean internal politics also played a major role. The changes far exceeded the simple abandonment of the earlier hysterical anticommunism and included a rather dramatic move to the left. The radical student activists of the 1980s, some of them open admirers of Juche and/or Leninist theory, might have modified their earlier views, but they have not necessarily shredded all youthful illusions and sympathies. In spite of the existence of the National Security Law, the shelves of mainstream Seoul bookshops host a number of unabashedly pro-Pyongyang publications whose authors extol the alleged simplicity of Kim Jong II's lifestyle and his willingness to suffer with his people, or muse about the moral dignity of North Korean socialism. For a young intellectual, it is not trendy to be too critical of the North Korean system; this is rather a sign of "outdated thinking."

All these changes in perception meant a dramatic alteration in the attitude toward defectors. There are good reasons to believe that a mass exodus of refugees might be destabilizing for the North Korean regime, especially if it is accompanied by great publicity. This was clearly demonstrated by the events in East Germany in 1989. The East German state collapsed when its citizens began to defect to the West via Hungary in large numbers. Seoul does not want to do anything that might jeopardize the stability of its northern neighbor, and this is understandable: in a final count, it is the South Korean taxpayer who will bear the burden of North Korea's reconstruction and the manifold social consequences of such a cataclysm. Naturally enough, South Koreans do not want to sacrifice their hard-won prosperity for the sake of people who, whatever the Republic of Korea (ROK) constitution says, clearly belong to another and rather hostile state.

At the same time, the South Korean government is not willing to reject the old fiction of "one Korea" and officially admit that the North is just another foreign country whose people happen to speak Korean as well. The ROK constitution clearly defines the Seoul government as the sole legitimate authority across the entire Korean peninsula, with the Communist government in Pyongyang being merely a self-proclaimed regime. Technically, all inhabitants of North Korea are "South Korean citizens," and no political force would dare to question this assumption in public.

This contradiction between policy aims and long-standing legal fiction means that the new cautious and selective approach of the ROK government has been seldom--if ever--recognized officially. A remarkable incident took place in October 1999, when the new policy only began to take shape. At that time, an extradition of a few refugees, to be sent back to North Korea, attracted much public attention. Lim Dong-won, the then minister of unification, stated to the National Assembly that the "government is ready to accept all North Korean refugees, if they want to emigrate to the South." He also added: "It is the basic principle of the Seoul government to welcome all North Korean refugees ... and it is in line with the Constitution to accommodate N.K. refugees." This statement reiterated the traditional position of the ROK government, which has not changed since 1948. However, the Ministry of Unification immediately "clarified" this ministerial statement. A senior official at the Unification Ministry explained that the minister's remarks refer to a "group of North Koreans who had wrapped up all the necessary procedures for entry into South Korea with the nation's overseas embassies." Such a "clarification" effectively rendered the minister's statement meaningless, since it excluded virtually all of the refugees in China, none of whom have valid passports and are therefore incapable of "wrap[ping] up all the necessary procedures for entry into South Korea with the nation's overseas embassies." (23)

Now a refugee who manages to contact a South Korean embassy or consulate to enquire whether it is possible to come to the South is normally denied assistance. (24) This fact greatly influences the social composition of defectors discussed in the previous section. The relatively large North Korean urban middle class is clearly underrepresented among the recent defectors, because former teachers, engineers, and petty officials are not very numerous among the North Koreans hiding in China. Now one has to stay in China long enough to acquire local knowledge and connections that alone can make a successful escape a possibility. However, only people involved in smuggling or employed at casual jobs can survive in China long enough to do this. Of course, an educated middle-class North Korean from Pyongyang might deliberately risk such an ordeal--that is, go to China in order to defect to the South, survive there, and probably succeed eventually. However, such a decision comes far less naturally than for those driven to China for economic reasons, including food, who then stay long enough to establish connections with the Christian missionaries and/or local underworld and, finally, defect to the South.

Prior to 2000, it was largely South Korean missionaries and right-leaning nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who helped defectors reach Seoul. Now, however, most defectors travel to South Korea from China with the costly help of professional smugglers or "brokers" (usually paid for by relatives in the South or in some other prosperous country). The most common way to smuggle a person is to hide an aspiring defector in a Chinese boat going to the vicinity of Korea or provide the defector with forged passports and air tickets to Seoul. Once on South Korean soil, the defectors immediately surrender to the authorities, who are forced to accept them and provide them with all of the prescribed support. The typical total cost of an average "arranged defection" in 2002-2004 was approximately 3 million won (about US$3,000). (25)

Another possible option is to stage a high-profile intrusion into some foreign mission and, once inside, demand a safe passage to South Korea. Once South Korean diplomacy is faced with such a crisis, it has no choice but to arrange for the refugees' removal to Seoul--even if under less dramatic circumstances the South Korean staff would hardly deal with them. However, such an intrusion must be carefully prepared by knowledgeable persons (often the same brokers, actually), since, otherwise, the "gate-crashing" is likely to lead to an arrest and the extradition of its participants, after which the attempted refugees face very serious charges in the North.

Yet another option is to cross the border from China to a third country whose authorities would lobby Seoul for accepting the refugees. An open rejection would be again impossible, so many North Koreans reach Seoul in such a way. The best-known example of this kind was a defection of 468 North Koreans from a "South East Asian country," soon revealed to be Vietnam, in summer 2004. (26) The details of this incident are still secret at the time of writing, but it seems that Vietnamese authorities demanded that Seoul fly the large number of fugitives out to South Korea, and ROK diplomats could not do anything else, being afraid of losing face if they rejected their own citizens.

The few million won that one has to pay to an intermediary does not constitute a particularly large sum in South Korea (roughly, this equals two or three average monthly salaries). However, for a refugee hiding in China, this is an unbelievable amount of money, and nearly the only way the refugee can acquire such a fortune is through people who are in the South already and who are willing to help. This has led to a new and important phenomenon that may be termed a "chain defection," not very different from a "chain migration." A North Korean somehow manages to get to the South first, and after completing the standard procedures receives the first payment of his or her benefits. The money is then used to smuggle another family member from China. Upon arrival, the newly arrived family member again invests received benefits into bringing yet another member of the same family over, and so the cycle continues until all family members are safely in the South. In 2003, a Korean scholar who has a good knowledge of the refugee community described the situation in Hanawon, the major training center for newly arrived defectors: "Among its students there is a not insignificant number of people whose major goal is to get out of the study center as soon as possible, receive their 'settlement money' and use this to bring other family members to South Korea." The scholar even lists the preoccupation with such plans as one of the reasons behind the generally poor motivation of the Hanawon students. (27)

The Support System

Upon their arrival in the South, defectors find themselves in a completely new world, of whose operation rules they have only vague and often incorrect ideas. Needless to say, they bring with them virtually no capital and no material goods, so they have to start their lives from scratch. Their adjustment is made possible by the existence of the government-sponsored support network. This support network was created after the Korean War, and although it is still in existence, over the last decade this structure has undergone remarkable changes, the most important of which is a steady decline in generosity.

For the first few decades of intra-Korean rivalry, the South Korea government treated defectors with remarkable largesse. Being a defector from the North was virtually a guarantee of reasonable income and material security, since payments were lifelong and were accompanied by free housing and large lump sum payments. This generosity did not put the state coffers under much strain, since the number of eligible people remained very small.

In 1962, soon after Park Chung Hee's military coup, South Korea passed the "Special law on the protection of defectors from the North" (Law #1053). In late 1978, the South Korean parliament passed a slightly revised version--the "Law on the Protection of Defectors" (Law #3156)--which with some modification remained effective until 1993.

Under the 1962/1978 law, every defector was eligible for a generous aid package. Apart from this allowance, defectors who delivered especially valuable intelligence or equipment were given additional awards (borogeum). These awards could be very large. For example, Lee Ung-pyeong, a pilot who defected with his MIG-19 fighter jet in 1983, received an award of 1.2 billion won. (28) This was an astronomical sum, about 480 times the annual salary of an average South Korean at the time! Interestingly, prior to 1997, the payments were fixed in gold, not in Korean won--no doubt to reassure defectors who might have had doubts about the stability of paper currency.

However, even without these special generous awards, the payments received by an ordinary defector were quite sufficient to ensure a comfortable life. The state also provided defectors with free-of-charge apartments, which became their personal property. Everyone who wished to study was granted the right to enter a university of choice (not a small privilege in South Korea). For a while after their arrival, the defectors were also provided with personal bodyguards. This was not probably necessary, since there is only one known case of a defector's assassination by North Korean agents, but the policemen for all practical reasons acted as personal advisers on the matters of daily life. (29)

However, the collapse of communism changed everything and defectors lost a large part of their earlier significance. Simultaneously, their numbers shot up. As a consequence, in 1993, the laws governing defectors were revised. The new Law #4568 (June 1993) and its revised variant--Law #5259 (July 1997)--as well as other newly introduced regulations, stipulated a radical reduction in benefits available to defectors.

Gone are the times when an ordinary defector could comfortably live off received benefits. As of early 2005, following their arrival in South Korea defectors are eligible for three kinds of payments. First, a defector receives Jeongchakkeum or "settlement money." The amount of money has been revised a number of times, and these "revisions" have always meant reduced benefits. The last reduction took place in early 2005. Before that, the total amount of "settlement money" available to the common defector was about $32,000, (30) but from January 2005, this sum was fixed at 10 million won (US$9,000) for a single defector (families are paid more, depending on the number of family members). A lump sum of 3 million won is first paid upon arrival, while the remaining amount is paid in quarterly installments over the first two years of the defector's new life in the South. An additional 10 million are available for use as a deposit for renting a flat (in the South Korean system, landlords require a rather substantial deposit payment).

Second, to encourage vocational training, refugees are eligible for some additional payments: a monthly scholarship (Jangnyeogeum) of 200,000 won if they train more than six but less than twelve months in an accredited institution of vocational learning, 2 million won payable upon completion of the course, and an additional 2 million won payable upon appointment. (31)

Third, especially valuable defectors are still eligible for a special prize (borogeum), which can be quite significant. For example, Lee Cheol-su, a North Korean Air Force captain who in 1996 flew his antiquated MIG-19 to Seoul, received an award of 478 million won (which at the time was equivalent to US$600,000). Out of this total, 442 million won represented his "special prize." (32) One must note that this amount, while not insignificant, was still well below the 1.2 billion won once granted for a similar feat to another defector, Lee Ung-pyeong, in 1983. This change no doubt reflects not only the diminishing military value of a MIG-19 fighter jet, but also the diminishing political value of defectors. Former Korean Workers' Party secretary Hwang Jangyop, after his famous escape from the North in 1997, was paid the smaller but still significant sum of 250 million won. (33) This amount, which is the largest sum theoretically payable as a special prize under the 1997 law, if managed well and used with reason and moderation, is enough to ensure that the beneficent would enjoy a lower-middle-class lifestyle (but hardly more). However, these figures are far from typical: even in the mid-1990s, 95 percent of defectors failed to receive any special prize at all, and high prizes were paid only to a handful of the most important refugees. (34) In most cases, defectors receive only small standard payments.

Financial support is only one part of the support system. Immediately after their arrival in the South, defectors are debriefed by South Korean agencies, normally by the National Intelligence Service (formerly the South Korean CIA) and the Ministry of Unification. (35) During this period, fugitives are isolated from the external world--they are actually placed in custody, albeit quite a comfortable one.

After the debriefing process is over, most defectors go to special classes, which are meant to prepare them for their future life in a capitalist society. Since August 1999, such classes have been operated by a special educational center located in Anseong, a town some 74 kilometers from Seoul. The center's official name is the Center for Supporting the Adaptation of North Korean Defectors, or Bukan Ital Jumin Jeongchak Jiwon so, but it is commonly known as Hanawon. Its task is to facilitate the defectors' adaptation to the challenges of everyday life in the South. By the end of 2003, some 3,216 defectors had been admitted to Hanawon. (36)

The Hanawon program lasts, depending on the situation, between sixty and seventy-five days. Approximately half of the teaching hours are dedicated to the study of South Korean culture, the remainder to more practical training: the basics of computer literacy, driving skills for men, cooking for women (the foodstuffs to be found in Seoul shops are largely unknown to the North Koreans). The defectors are also taught some basics of everyday life: how to ride the subway, use a mobile phone, or buy goods at the supermarket. They are also introduced to religious activities (Hanawon has a small Protestant church and a Buddhist shrine). The religious education is a huge success, and a large number of the defectors soon become members of some church, mostly Protestant. (37)

Graduates are quite positive about the computer and driving classes. (38) However, within the allocated time, it is impossible to equip the defectors with any vocational skills that would facilitate their employment--even for low--level jobs. As most graduates note, the efficiency of this institution therefore leaves much to be desired, and the South Korean press and even government agencies are highly critical of it. A former graduate of Hanawon remarked: "Famous professors delivered some lectures to us, but, frankly speaking, I understood nothing."

After graduation from Hanawon, defectors are given the lump sum portion of their "settlement money" and allocated a place of residence. From that time forward, they are almost completely on their own and begin to face difficult problems of adjustment to their new life.

Problems of Integration

Problems of defectors struggling to adjust to the South Korean society have recently become a focus of many research projects. As Cho Yonggwan points out, "The question is that the refuges cross the death lines [of the North Korean borders] to come to South Korea which they have seen as a promised land, but their expectations are not fulfilled here." (39) Combined with the anecdotal evidence, these studies present a rather grim picture of defectors' ability to adapt.

Many people still remember a high-profile incident that occurred in February 1996. At the center of the controversy was a young North Korean named Kim Hyeong-deok, who escaped from the North to China in October 1993. After a visit to the South Korean embassy, whose staff predictably refused to assist the refugee, Kim Hyeong-deok made an illegal trip to Vietnam and in September 1994 managed to reach Seoul. The new life fell short of his initial expectations: the monetary allowance bought him only a tiny flat in Seoul, a permanent job proved to be almost impossible to find, and dealing with the "locals" was difficult. In February 1996, a disappointed Kim Hyeong-deok, together with a friend, made another unsuccessful escape attempt, but this time they were trying to flee South Korea for the North! During the attempt they were apprehended and jailed, since an attempt to travel to North Korea without proper permission is still a crime under South Korean law.

In 2001, recollecting his unsuccessful attempt, Kim Hyeong-deok--by that time a university graduate and a clerical worker in the parliament--remarked, "My disappointment was great. First of all, it was difficult to accept an environment in which a person is judged only by his money." (40) In another interview, Kim Hyeong-deok remarked, "I shall not escape again. Utopia does not exist anywhere." (41) Alas, the realization of this fact is extremely painful to most defectors.

There are success stories, of course, but the heroes of almost all the "success stories" of North Korean defectors hail from the former elite, suggesting a close correlation between a person's position before defection and subsequent chances of success in the South. Former diplomats, professors, party cadres, and other members of the North Korean elite have fewer problems adjusting to life in South Korean society. The same is true of those with highly specific (and marketable) skills. Lee Jongguk, a former cook at Cheongryeogwan, the famous Pyongyang restaurant, has established his own restaurant chain in the South. (42) Sin Yonghui, a former dancer with the prestigious Mansudae troupe, became after her defection a moderately successful actress. (43) Her husband, Choi Seung, had for many years worked in the overseas offices of North Korean trade companies--the telltale mark of a very high social position (indeed, his father was the head of the Communist Party's financial department). After his defection, Choi founded a company that deals in currency exchange. (44) Even Yeo Man-cheol, a former captain in the Ministry of Public Safety (the North Korean police) opened a small restaurant in Seoul (the restaurant industry for some reason is an especially popular choice for defectors). (45) A number of successful defectors who once belonged to the DPRK ruling elite have managed to find employment in research centers dealing with North Korea.

The typical defector of the early 2000s, however, is a former manual worker or farmer, who in South Korea is seldom successful, either socially or financially. Indeed, most of these people live in poverty. According to a 2003 survey of 780 defectors, a mere 19.1 percent had regular full-time jobs, while 41.5 percent described themselves as "unemployed." In a 2004 survey, the number of "unemployed" defectors was 37.6 percent. These are very high figures for a country where the normal unemployment level fluctuates around 2-4 percent (in 2003 it was 3.6 percent). (46) Those who were employed tended to find work in part-time and casual jobs. (47)

Income differences are large. In 2003, the average monthly income of a defector family of three was a mere 920 thousand won ($770 at the then current rate), (48) while, according to the National Statistics Office, the average monthly income of a South Korean urban family was 2,631 thousand won ($2,200), nearly three times as much. The national average monthly wages in 2003 were 1,651 thousand won ($1,375). (49) According to a 2003 poll, merely 4.2 percent of all participants said that they were earning 1,500 thousand won or more--in other words, only 4.2 percent of defectors earned wages close to or above the national average. (50)

Getting and keeping a good job is difficult even for those who, strictly speaking, are qualified. The ever-present system of informal connections (alumni connections, known as hakyeon, and regional connections, known as jiyeon) normally excludes outsiders, and the defectors are outsiders by definition: with few exceptions, they did not graduate from "good" South Korean universities. As an older defector remarked, "I am not sure whether my son will ever be able to break through the wall of hakyeon andjiyeon and achieve success in Korea." (51)

However, it would be an oversimplification to say that the only problem of the refugees is discrimination. It seems that in many cases the reasons are more fundamental: training they have received in the North is in fact obsolete and useless in the South, both because of the technological backwardness of the North Korean economy and because of the sometimes dramatically different "technological cultures." In 2004, the Korean Institute of Labour conducted a survey that indicated the most common problems experienced by defectors at work. The five most common complaints are: "the job does not suit my aptitude" (46.3% of respondents); "my future [at this work] is uncertain" (40.3%); "I have no ability to do this work" (37.3%); "defectors are discriminated against" (26.9%); and "income is not sufficient" (20.9%). (52)

The former North Koreans also experience language problems. Generally speaking, the difference between Seoul and Pyongyang dialects is not very large, and they are generally believed to be mutually comprehensible. Nevertheless, in a 2001 poll, a startling 44.8% of defectors stated that initially they were "largely" or "completely" unable to understand South Korean speech, while only 24. 1% said that they had understood the locals perfectly well. (53) Apart from differences in word meaning and pronunciation, two important peculiarities of the South Korean linguistic situation tend to become obstacles for most North Koreans: the wide use of English loanwords and the occasional use of Chinese characters. (54) Both problems become additional obstacles to those defectors who attempt to get white-collar jobs of any kind.

Children of defectors experience problems at school. Volunteers who work with them say: "Initially [they] understand no more than 50% of a lesson, and the structure of tests and the content of textbooks are unusual to them. Thus the first lessons cause great disappointment. Their difficulties are aggravated by the fact that during their trip [to the South] they have missed one to three years of study and can not study together with their peers but had to attend classes with younger children instead." (55) Keum Myeong-ja, who runs the largest counseling project for the children of defectors, admitted in an interview that the problems, especially for boys, are quite pronounced. She says that there is a clear correlation between family status in North Korea and academic success of children when they move to the South. Children of better educated families, largely from Pyongyang and other large cities, tend to adjust better (she explains this by the academic encouragement these children receive from their families). (56)

The remarks about the greater academic potential of Korean middle-class children are important. As already noted, the current official policy makes a successful defection of people from this social group particularly difficult, thus preventing people whose children are most likely to be academically successful from entering the country. This approach means that the defectors are doomed to be seen as underclass, as people without many chances to succeed academically in a society that puts an unusual premium on good schooling. In South Korea, receiving low grades in high school virtually ensures that a person will be permanently confined to a badly paid manual job.

A dangerous trend over recent years is the increasing involvement of refugees in criminal activity. In 1996, the Korean press widely reported the defection of Chung Sun-yeong, a distant relative of Chung Ju-young, the founding father of the Hyundai Group. Her arrival in the South with her two children made headlines, partially because escapes by a family were still rare in the mid-1990s and partially because the country's most powerful tycoon was actively and personally involved in the event. Chung Ju-young bought his relatives a good house and helped Chung Sun-yeong secure a stable job. Nevertheless, in 2000, this story had an unexpected epilogue: both Chung and her eider son found themselves in jail. The son was convicted of theft and pimping, while the mother was jailed for fraud. (57)

In 2002 alone, defectors committed 89 crimes, or 28.4 crimes per 1,000 defectors. Since the average crime level in Korea was 16.7 per 1,000, this indicates that the crime rate among the defectors was 1.7 times higher than the South Korean average. (58)

This picture might appear quite grim, and has indeed created great unease among many South Koreans. Some articles and interviews of defectors are so critical that they are reprinted in North Korea for use as propaganda material. (59) However, one must not exaggerate the financial and material difficulties defectors experience. Their poverty is real, but it is of a relative, rather than an absolute, nature. Defectors perceive themselves as "poor" when they compare their position with that of their South Korean neighbors, but there is no doubt that an overwhelming majority still enjoy higher standards of living than they would ever have reached in the North. This is often true even with regard to former members of privileged North Korean groups. One such top-level defector, Cho Seung-gun, told a South Korea journalist, "Had I been a son of Kim II Sung, I do not know whether I would defect to South Korea. However, among those below this level, even a North Korean minister or deputy minister, lives worse than ordinary South Koreans." (60) This same sentiment was expressed by another defector: "Many people say that the material life here is ten times better than in the North. Well, maybe it is a hundred times better!" (61)

These comments suggest that the well-being of defectors is strongly affected not by income per se but by inequality and alienation between the refugees and the "host community." Former North Koreans quickly discover that the attitudes and values of South Korean society differ in many respects from what they used to consider "normal." A South Korean leftist journalist writes: "North Koreans, not used to capitalism, are surprised with the individualistic style of relations between people in the South." (62) One of most prosperous defectors, the owner of a restaurant chain, Jeong Cheol-u, noted: "North Korea is poor. But its people are close to each other. It has nothing like the local (South Korean) heartlessness.... This is a society where everything is decided by money." (63) The remarks about alienation felt by defectors can be found in all publications on this topic. (64)

It is important to note that there are signs of dissatisfaction and alienation on the other side as well. The South Koreans who regularly interact with the defectors are few in number and seldom vent their frustrations openly, but the anecdotal evidence seems to confirm that they often look at defectors with increasing unease and disappointment. Cho Yong-gwan, in his recent (2004) academic article, catalogs such perceptions (with which he obviously agrees himself): the defectors are "impolite," "selfish," and "prone to lies and exaggerations about their past." Citing his own experience and the experience of other people, he claims, for example the widespread North Korean tendency to invent a great pedigree for themselves or to make up stories. Cho concludes: "The South Koreans initially used to believe that North Koreans, unlike people in a capitalist society, are honest and pure. But when they learned that the Northerners frequently lie, they felt disappointed and began to avoid interaction with the Northerners." (65) He also mentions that there are many cases when somebody "helps the North Koreans a lot, but has his/her own requests completely ignored." (66)

In October 2004, the daily Dong-A Ilbo even considered it necessary to publish a special rebuttal to a list of alleged misperceptions about the defectors. The list includes such statements as: "The financial assistance to the defectors is too large"; "My tax money is spent on the defectors"; "Defectors do not pay taxes themselves"; "Defectors are largely involved in criminal activities"; "There are spies among the defectors"; "Only useless people defect from the North"; "What do we get by accepting defectors?" Even though the article's author, Chu Seongha, tries to refute all these ideas one by one as groundless or exaggerated, the very list is telling enough.(67)

Closing the Door Quietly: Changing Seoul's Policy Toward the Defectors

In the current situation, the South Korean government faces a difficult choice. It has to continue to maintain the long-established fiction of "one Korea," which cannot be discarded for manifold political reasons. At the same time, the bitter experience of Germany and the estimates of economists, as well as the problems outlined here, have made the government less than enthusiastic about prospects of speedy unification. On top of that, the new South Korean governments, generally somewhat left of center, do not share the instinctive anticommunism of earlier South Korean elites and do not see the extermination of the "red menace" as a supreme, all-encompassing and self-important goal. Instead, a prolonged coexistence is now seen as the only rational choice, since South Koreans want to avoid the huge costs of North Korea's reconstruction and the associated risks.

This position is shared by the South Korean elite and general public. In late 2004, a public opinion poll indicated that 50.2 percent of Koreans would prefer "gradual unification" as an ideal scenario, while an astonishing 39.3 percent said that their ideal would be "prolonged friendly co-existence" of two Korean states (in other words, no unification at all). Only 6.1 percent expressed their preference for speedy unification. (68) President Roh also made it clear that the South Korean government should avoid anything that might lead to a regime collapse in the North. He said while in Berlin: "There is a very slim chance that North Korea will suddenly crumble and the South Korean government is not willing to cause such a situation.... Germany paid a high price to realize national unification and is still suffering from it. I hope Korea will not undergo the same." (69)

This means that mass defection should no longer be encouraged, since such an exodus might provoke a serious crisis within the North and probably hasten its uncontrolled collapse. This position became clear in late 2004 when Chung Dong-young, the unification minister, stated that the government is opposing "planned defections" and explicitly emphasized that it has no intention to use the defections to destabilize the North. He also expressed his willingness to crack down on brokers--and such a campaign indeed ensued. (70)

To appreciate the actual meaning of the minister's remarks about "planned defections," one has to take into account the process of defection outlined above. Since individual defectors are denied assistance by South Korean officials overseas, one needs the help of a professional broker to arrange a crossing to South Korea. Without such help, an aspiring refugee would be unable to contact a Chinese skipper who would provide transportation to South Korean waters, or would be unable to acquire a forged passport, which is necessary for an air trip. In all probability, the attempts to arrange an independent crossing by somebody without proper contacts and knowledge of the local situation would attract the attention of the Chinese police and lead to arrest and extradition to the North, where would-be defectors might be punished more severely than usual if their intentions became known to the North Korean authorities.

Thus, attempts to limit the activity of the brokers would mean that defection would become considerably more risky, or just impossible-and this is what the South Korean government wants to achieve by introducing the regulations.

At the same time, as noted earlier, the ROK government cannot openly refuse to accept the refugees, since such action would undermine the old claims about the ROK's alleged standing as the sole legitimate government of the peninsula. Hence, its current policy of dealing with the refugees is necessarily hypocritical: Seoul accepts those who somehow manage to get into South Korea while quietly working to make such passage as difficult as possible and also steadily reducing the amount of the benefits available for the defectors. In other words, although the South Korean government is closing the door to aspiring defectors, it is trying to do so quietly, since an explicit rejection of the supposed "brothers and sisters" from the desperate North remains a political impossibility.

Of course, all these concerns are not (and cannot be) openly stated, so the official media present the measures aimed at reducing the number of defectors in purely humanitarian terms, as if these measures were motivated solely by concern for the refugees' well-being. A campaign against "brokers" in 2004-2005 was a good example of such PR policy: While the most likely real reason was the desire to limit the number of refugees, it was explained away by lofty considerations about the fate of the unfortunate North Korean refugees who are allegedly exploited and misled by the predatory "brokers" arranging for the much vilified "planned defections" (as if staying in a famine-stricken Stalinist country was better for their well-being). (71) Needless to say, the leftist media supported these efforts by publishing articles that described organizers of the defections as "human traffickers" and by running interviews with North Korean refugees who tell how wonderful--or, at least, tolerable--their life in China is (the monthly Mal, a mouthpiece of the more extreme version of the South Korean left, was hyperactive in this campaign). (72)

Within this simplistic and often propaganda-driven logic, the resettlement package is often presented as the major reason that makes defectors come. (73) Indeed, the aid packages paid in the pre-2005 period were large enough to make "chain defections" easy, since the amount of money received by a defector as a lump sum (typically, about $12,000) was sufficient to pay for smuggling another family member and still left some money to survive the first few months in the South. The dramatic cut in the amount of the lump sum in 2005 made this far more difficult and indeed resulted in fewer defections. In all probability, this was exactly its purpose. Chung Dong-young, the unification minister, said it almost openly when talking to journalists in late December 2004: "In regard to dealing with the arrivals of the defectors, we also must think how to stop the transfer of their 'settlement money' to the so-called 'defection brokers'." (74)

Obviously, the recent measures were successful if judged against the government's unstated but clear objectives of reducing the number of defectors. In the first six months of 2005, the number of new arrivals was 566, against 760 arrivals for the same period in 2004. This indicates a 25 percent decrease, the first decrease since 1998. (75) This is not surprising, since in recent years "chain defections" have constituted well over half of the cases, and the dramatic reduction of the initial payment made such defections far more difficult to arrange.

However, there are good reasons to doubt whether the aid package is indeed the major economic attraction for the refugees. We might surmise that sooner or later money grants and handouts to ordinary defectors will go down to a purely token level, or disappear completely. However, this will not stop many North Koreans from moving south, since such migration is driven by a dramatic difference in living standards between the two Koreas. The gap in living standards between the North and the South is huge: per capita GNP in the South exceeds $10,000, while in the North it has been estimated at between $500 and $1,100. This difference alone, even without the influence of political and cultural factors (also important), will make South Korea a very appealing place for the Northerners for a long time. Apart from the yawning gap in income levels between the two Koreas, the ongoing changes in North Korea also make defection a lot easier. The Pyongyang authorities' grip over the population is weakening, and information about the prosperity and freedoms of South Korea is gradually filtering into the DPRK. Thus, the recent reduction in the number of defectors will probably not last for too long.


The last decade has been a time of dramatic change in South Korea's policy toward defectors, as well as in the composition of the defector community. Prior to 1992-1994, defectors were few in number, came from the Pyongyang elite, brought valuable intelligence, and could be easily used for the internal propaganda campaigns then being waged by the South Korean authorities. The government actively encouraged defection and showered successful defectors with monetary and nonmonetary rewards.

Indeed, the recent decade witnessed a change in the nature of the refugees and a quiet reversal of previous policy. The numbers of defectors are growing, but the overwhelming majority of the defectors consists of people who moved to China and spent a long time there; they are largely former farmers and workers who lived in the northern provinces of North Korea. The government increasingly perceives these newcomers as a source of trouble and unnecessary expenditure. Actually, defections came to be discouraged--to uphold the political stability of the North, to save South Korea's budget money, and to avoid confrontations with Pyongyang, whose leaders might be touchy on the issue of defectors. At the same time, the ingrained fiction of "one Korea," enshrined in the South Korean constitution as well as in discourses of both left and right, means that all North Koreans are technically considered to be ROK citizens, and this fact greatly limits the freedom of political maneuver for Seoul.

The fate of refugees reflects a larger issue in Korean politics: the increasing awareness of problems that will arise in the event of unification. The South Korean government to a large extent remains a prisoner of earlier nationalist rhetoric and political ambitions of bygone regimes. It has to maintain the fiction of "one Korea," since any open challenge to this assumption is bound to produce an outcry from all quarters, including even the North Korean government and its Seoul sympathizers. At the same time, the actual interests of the South Koreans, the sole constituency of the democratically elected Seoul administration, seem to be in collision with the unification rhetoric. The public and elite opinion in Korea perceives unification as a potential disaster that should be prevented or at least postponed to some uncertain future when some painless solution might become miraculously available.

The South is not now trying to absorb the North. On the contrary, it does everything possible to avoid scenarios that might lead to such absorption. Of course, this cannot be stated clearly in the situation when both right and left consider nationalism the sacral foundation of state policy and when territorial integrity plays such a role within this nationalist discourse. Hence, the left and right have chosen a convenient fiction of "long-term" preparations for eventual unification, with tacit assumption that if the North exists indefinitely, this will be probably good for the South.

In the short run, the current policy aimed at reducing the number of defectors might appear to be a reasonable strategy indeed, but in the long run, this policy might have serious side effects that would probably outweigh its perceived benefits.

We have seen that typical defectors are not very good at adjusting to South Korean society, since the skills that helped them survive in the cutthroat world of cross-border smuggling operations and the Chinese illegal labor market are useless in South Korea. Hence, defectors, suffering from low income, alienation, and real or perceived discrimination, form a sort of permanent underclass that might even become semihereditary. Such a situation adversely influences the image of defectors in South Korean society and pushes the ROK government toward introducing even more restrictions on defectors trying to make their way to the South.

The South Korean government's efforts to reduce the chances of North Korea's state collapse might be indeed a reasonable and rational, if somewhat cynical, policy. However, it seems that the ROK governments of the post-1998 era not only did their best to prevent North Korean collapse, but also seemed to act on the assumption that such collapse would not actually take place. However, the probability of collapse remains high, whatever Seoul does, and if things take such a turn, defectors will have an enormous social and political significance. For quite a while they will be the only people who will combine the firsthand knowledge and understanding of both North and South Korea. This makes them the major source of personnel for postunification institutions of all kinds. North Korean defectors could become important "interpreters" of and "guides" to the outside world, and would likely be more acceptable to the Northerners than the complete outsiders from the South.

However, in the current situation, most defectors have neither the education nor the skills that would be useful for fulfilling such a role, and the Seoul government does not put enough emphasis on creating a cadre of educated and skilled defectors. The defectors are seen as a social burden and a potential irritant in relations with Pyongyang, while in reality they might serve as a protective buffer during the transition period. However, in order to be able to play such a role, defectors should have a proper education. Indeed, this might be difficult because of the current composition of the defector community; the lives of defectors have not made them particularly suitable for or oriented toward academic achievement. However, this composition itself reflects the recent policy of quietly rejecting those defectors who are not able to arrange their passage to the North via China.

In this situation, an international community might have a role to play as well. Scholarships for academically suitable defectors, especially those in their twenties and early thirties, might be a good idea, especially if they choose to specialize in economics and the social sciences. In the current political climate, the South Korean government cannot be relied on as a major source of support and aspiration for those defectors who want to pursue more "normal" careers, so they must be helped by "outsiders." It is, after all, pretty much in everybody's interest to ensure that the unavoidable post-Kim transition in North Korea would go smoothly.

Seoul's worries that its willingness to accept defectors will undermine relations with the North might not be well founded either. After all, East German leaders once learned how to tolerate the defection on a grand scale, clearly unimaginable in Korea now, and that ongoing exodus did not undermine relations between the two German states.

It is clear that a large and growing number of South Koreans will be happy to avoid unification altogether, leaving their supposed "North Korean brethren" to their fate. However, one can doubt whether such a strategy would be really workable: after all, in Germany, even the mutual recognition of full statehood and sovereignty did not prevent the eventual merger of the two states (or rather absorption of the East by the West).

The defectors' experience testifies to the persistent and deep distinctions between the peoples of the two Koreas. This experience confirms that the unification of the two Korean states will be not only costly, but also socially difficult. It seems that the persistent problems with the adjustment of defectors to the new environment, combined with news about Germany's misfortunes, further diminished Seoul's willingness to pursue a speedy unification. The difficulty of integration is now broadly understood, and this understanding has led Seoul leaders to quietly reconsider their earlier notions of unification.


(1.) For arguments of those who expect(ed) collapse to happen, see, for example, Nicholas Eberstadt, "Hastening Korean Unification," Foreign Affairs 76, no. 2 (1997); Aidan Foster-Carter, "North Korea: All Roads Lead to Collapse: All the More Reason to Engage Pyongyang." In Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 1998); Andrei Lankov, "Soft Landing: Opportunity or Illusion?" In The North Korean Crisis and Beyond (Wellington: Asian Studies Institute, 2004). For those who expect that North Korea will survive and "muddle through," see Marcus Noland, "Why North Korea Will Muddle Through," Foreign Affairs 76, no.4 (1997); Marcus Noland, Korea After Kim Jong-il (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2004). Actually, the number of publications dealing with the (im)probability of North Korea's collapse is quite large. For a summary of the current opinions on the issue, see American Enterprise Institute, A New International Engagement Framework for North Korea ? Contending Perspectives (Washington, DC: AEI, 2005).

(2.) Tae-Hwan Kwak and Seung-Ho Joo, "The Korean Peace Process: Problems and Prospects After the Summit," World Affairs 162 (Fall 2002); Youngho Kim, "The Great Powers in Peaceful Korean Reunification," International Journal on World Peace 20, no. 3 (2003).

(3.) Of many publications on this topic, one should mention numerous works by Marcus Noland, such as Marcus Noland, Sherman Robinson, and Li-Gang Liu, The Costs and Benefits of Korean Unification, Institute for International Economics Working Paper 98-1 (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 1998).

(4.) Notable works in English dealing with the social consequences of the unification are Roland Bleiker, "Psychological Difficulties of German Unification: Implications for Korea," Korea Observer 34, no. 2 (2003) (a long interview with a former East German psychologist); David Kelleher, Hak-Min Kim, "Post-Unification Privatization of North Korean Enterprises: Lessons from Transition Economies," Korea Observer 36, no. 1 (2005).

(5.) Cho Yong-gwan, "Bukhan jeongchi gyo-yug-ui naemyeonhwaga talbukja namhan sahoe jeok-eung-e michin yeong-hyang" [An influence of the internalization of North Korean political education on the adaptation of the North Korean defectors to South Korean society], Hanguk jeongchi oe-gyo-sa noncheong 25, no. 2 (2004): 156.

(6.) The most comprehensive summary of the available estimates, together with a short analysis of how they were arrived at, can be found in James A. Foley, "'Ten Millior Families': Statistic or Metaphor?" Korean Studies 25, no. 1 (2001).

(7.) In 1960, the estimated per capita GNP was $172 in the North, compared to $85 in the South. Hamm Taik-young believes that only in 1974 did the per capita GNP of the South finally exceed that of the North. Harem Taik-young, Arming the Two Koreas: State, Capital and Military Power (London and New York: Routledge, 1999) p. 131.

(8.) Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970). For the application of Hirschman's ideas to specifics of a communist authoritarian state, see Carol Mueller, "Escape from the GDR, 1961-1989: Hybrid Exit Repertoires in a Disintegrating Leninist Regime," American Journal of Sociology 105, no. 3 (1999): 697-735. Another similar attempt was undertaken by Hirschman himself: Albert O. Hirschman, "Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic: An Essay in Conceptual History," World Politics 45, no. 2 (1993): 179.

(9.) In November 2004, a professional broker involved in arranging defections to the South estimated the number of refugees in China at 50,000. See Dong-A Ilbo, November 20, 2004, p. 8. Around the same time, in October 2004, the Beijing correspondent of a mainstream Korean daily estimated the number at 100,000: Kyeonghyang Sinmun, October 28, 2004, p. 2. In August 2004, another newspaper put the highest and lowest estimations of refugee numbers at 30,000 and 100,000, respectively. See Kukmin Ilbo, August 18, 2004, p. 4.

(10.) For an overview of the history and current situation of North Korean defectors in China, see Andrei Lankov, "North Korean Refugees in Northeast China," Asian Survey 44, no. 6 (2004): 856-873.

(11.) Hirschman, "Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic," p. 179.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Data provided by the Ministry of Unification, Settlement Support Division at the author's personal request on April 1, 2005 (interview with Kim Sung-guk, the ministry official).

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) According to a study undertaken in the late 1990s, women constituted 75.5 percent of all North Korean refugees hiding in China at that time. See Dumangang-eul geonneon saramdeul [People who have crossed the Duman River] (Seoul: Jeongdo Chulpan, 1999) p. 21. This high figure has been confirmed by other research as well. According to Kwak Hae-ryong, women may constitute as much as 80 percent of all refugees. Kwak Hae-ryong, "Bukhan ital ju-min in-gwon siltae-e gwanhan yeongu" [A study of the human rights situation of the refugees who fled North Korea], Pyeong-hwa Munje Yeongu 12, no. 1 (2000): 261.

(17.) Kim Yong-su, "Bukhan i-tal ju-min hyeonhwang-gwa jae-sahoe-hwa munje" [The present situation of defectors from North Korea and problems of their resocialization], Sahoe gwahak yeongu 12, no. 1 (2004): 122.

(18.) Marcus Noland, "Political Economy of North Korea: Historical Background and Present Situation." In American Enterprise Institute, A New International Engagement Framework for North Korea? Interview with Professor Hwang in Chosun Ilbo, July 28, 2005.

(19.) Kim Kyu-wan and Park Sung-jo, Nam-gwa Buk: Mung-chi-myeon jung-neun-da [North and South: Dead if united] (Seoul: JoongAng M & B, 2005). The title itself hints at how Koreans translate the famous dictum "United we stand," normally rendered as "Mung-chi-myeon sanda" (literally, "Alive if united").

(20.) The newspaper articles that cite such data are very common; see, for example, Seoul Shinmun, November 19, 2002; Naeil Shinmoon, July 15, 2005.

(21.) See Korea Times, April 14, 2005.

(22.) Tae-Hwan Kwak and Seung-Ho Joo, "The Korean Peace Process," p. 80.

(23.) Both Lim Dong-won's statement and the "clarification" attracted much attention and were reported by all Korean media. Here we use the English wording of the Korea Times, which reported both the ministerial statement and its effective withdrawal in the same issue, albeit in different articles (Korea Times, October 18, 1999).

(24.) Stories about would-be defectors who went to South Korean embassies or consulates but were unconditionally denied assistance are numerous. I cite only magazine articles that contain some generalizations about this approach: Kim Hwa-song, "Hanguk daesagwan Seoul-haeng an-dowa-jwo-yo" [South Korean embassy does not help with move to Seoul], Weekly Dong-A, January 7, 1999; Ko Chae-yol, "Haeng-bok-han chil-in, bul-haeng-han samsip-man" [Seven are happy, 300 thousands are not happy], Sisa Journal, July 11, 2001; Yu Hae-jong, "Jeongbuga beo-rin talbukja simin-i do-ub-sida" [Let's help the North Korean refugees who are deserted by the government], Hangyeoreh 21, March 2, 2000. In the South Korean press, one can find virtually hundreds of testimonies about this semiofficial stance toward defectors. Indeed, I have never seen a single report about a defector whose escape was seriously assisted by the China-based South Korean diplomatic staff (unless such a person was a very high-ranking individual).

(25.) For a good description of current rates and "business models" used by people smugglers, see Kim Tang-gi, "Talbukjadeul, moksum-geon ga-jok bbae-nae-gi" [Defectors: even if it's dangerous, (we'll) take families out (of North Korea)], Weekly Dong-A, July 5, 2002, #292. An interview with a professional broker appears in Daily NK, March 31, 2005.

(26.) The mass defection, the largest in Korean history, was widely discussed in the media. See, for example, Chosun Ilbo, August 4, 2004.

(27.) Che Song-ho, "Talbukja jeongchak jiwon jedo-ui siltae-wa gaeseon bang-an" [The current situation with support of the North Korean defectors upon their arrival and proposals for its improvement], Jung-ang Beobhak 3, no. 1 (2001).

(28.) Chosun Ilbo, May 24, 1996. According to the Stat-Korea database supported by the National Statistical Office (, an average monthly wage in 1982 was 209,553 won.

(29.) For an overview of earlier legal regulations regarding defectors, see Tong-ik, "Talbuk gwisun dongpo eo-tteo-ke cheori hayeoya hana?" [How are the defectors from the North treated?], Bukhan, no. 293 (1996): 50-57.

(30.) The author expresses his gratitude to the staff of the North Korean Democracy Movement (an association of North Korean defectors) who provided him with recent regulations and helped to make sense of this material in a series of interviews in October-November 2004.

(31.) Data provided by the Ministry of Unification, Settlement Support Division, at the author's personal request on April 1, 2005 (interview with Kim Sung-guk, the ministry official).

(32.) Munhwa Ilbo, January 27, 1997.

(33.) Munhwa Ilbo, October 1, 1997.

(34.) Kim Tong-bae, "Talbukjadeul-ui jeok-eung-eul wihan min-gan chawon-ui daechaek" [Measures for nongovernment support for the adaptation of defectors]. In Talbukjadeul-ui sarm [Defectors' life] (Seoul: Orum, 1996), p. 71.

(35.) JoongAng Daily, March 19, 2002; JoongAng Daily, December 22, 2001.

(36.) 2004 Tong-il Baekseo [The 2004 Unification White Book] (Seoul: Ministry of Unification, 2004), available online at (chapter IV-32). Defectors over the age of sixty are exempted from training in Hanawon.

(37.) Remarks to this effect were made in an interview with Kim Yun-tae (March 2, 2005, Seoul); and in an interview with Sohn Kwang-ju, managing editor of the Daily NK newspaper (March 8, 2005, Seoul).

(38.) The South Korean press is almost unanimously critical about Hanawon (the only difference is that some blame its administration while others argue that with such a limited budget the center cannot possibly fare much better). The opinion is shared across the political spectrum from the leftist Hangyeoreh Sinmun to the conservative Weekly Chosun. For press reports of Hanawon and its problems, see Kim Yong-nam, "Talbukja jeongchak gyo-yug" [The education of the defectors upon arrival], Weelky Chosun, March 1, 2001; Kim Chon-ho, "Deo-i-sang i-deung gukmin-eul mandeulji mala" [Let's not produce second-rate citizens any more], Shindong-A, no. 6, 2001; Hangyeoreh, May 14, 2001. The same critical remarks were confirmed by Pak Sang-hak, office manager of the North Korean Democracy Movement, who himself studied in Hanawon in 2000 (interview with Pak Sang-hak, October 25, 2004, Seoul) and by Kim Yun-t'ae, who deals with many defectors (interview with Kim Yun-t'ae March 2, 2005, Seoul).

(39.) Cho Yong-gwan, "Bukhan jeogchi gyo-yug-ui naemyeonhwaga talbukja namhan sahoe jeok-eung-e michin yeong-hyang," p. 156.

(40.) Pak Pyong-su, "Talbuk dae-hak-saeng gukhoe-ro gatta" [A Defector-turn-university student goes to the parliament], Hangyeoreh 21, April 3, 2001.

(41.) Kyeonghyang Sinmun, April 9, 2001.

(42.) The Segye Times, May 12, 2000.

(43.) The Segye Times, March 31, 2000.

(44.) Hankook Ilbo, February 3, 2001.

(45.) The Segye Times, February 18, 2000.

(46.) KOSIS database of the National Statistics Office, available online at

(47.) Son Han-seong, Bukhan i-tal ju-min-ui chui-eop siltae-wa jeongchak gwaje yeongu [A study of North Korean defectors' employment situation and (related) policy goals] (Seoul: Korea Labor Institute, 2005), p. 34.

(48.) Yun In-jin, "Gyeong-je-jeok jeok-eung mullon, namhan saramdeul-ui pyeon-gyeon-gwa cha-byeol himdeulda" [Not only economic adaptation, but also biases and discrimination by the South Koreans are difficult (for the defectors)], Bukhan, no. 393 (2004): 82.

(49.) KOSIS database of the National Statistics Office, available online at

(50.) Son Han-seong, Bukhan i-tal ju-min-ui chui-eop siltae-wa jeongchak kwaje yeongu, p. 38.

(51.) Chosun Ilbo, April 16, 2002. The complaints about the "glass wall" created by the hakyeon-jiyeon system are quite common. See Hangyeoreh Sinmun, May 22, 2002; Munhwa Ilbo, March 17, 2002.

(52.) Son Han-seong, Bukhan i-tal jhu-min-ui chui-eop siltae-wa jeongchak gwaje yeonngu, p. 49.

(53.) The Segye Times, January 12, 2002. The research was ordered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and was conducted by the scholars from Konyang University.

(54.) The statements and complaints about difficulties with English and Chinese characters have become a commonplace in the interviews with defectors. A few of many relevant examples are Munhwa Ilbo, January 21, 1997 (a defector complains that he is unable to read even signboards and ads); Hanguk Ilbo, February 20, 1997 (a defector says he cannot read even a name on a name card; names are normally written in Chinese characters); The Segye Times, October 22, 1995 (a defector states that problems with English loanwords and Chinese characters are the major obstacle in his adjustment to a new life); Cha Hyeong-seok, "Talbuk cheongsonyeon 'Na-neun hakgyo-reul sireo'" [The defectors youngsters: "We hate going to school"], Sisa Journal. July 25, 2002 (a high school student says that he often does not understand his classmates who use many "foreign words"). In the above-mentioned study, 75.9 percent complained about their inability to understand English and 69.6 percent complained about Chinese characters (The Segye Times, January 12, 2002).

(55.) Yi Myeong-hwa, "Geo-chang-han tong-il i-ron boda jak-eun sil-cheon jung-yo" [Small practical deeds are more important than grand unification theories], Weekly Chosun, June 28, 2001.

(56.) Interview with Keum Myeong-ja, March 24, 2005, Seoul.

(57.) The Segye Times, June 30, 2000.

(58.) Dong-A Ilbo, October 4, 2004, p. 8.

(59.) North Korean official agencies reprinted a long article on the defectors' problems that was originally published by the monthly Shindong-A in the December 1995 issue (see Kookmin Ilbo, June 28, 1999).

(60.) Son Ji-yeon, "Dong-gu Gongsan-ggwon bong-goe-si yeolhan-myeongui Bukhan yuhaksaeng, geu-hu 10 nyeon" [The eleven North Korean overseas students who defected from east Europe: Ten years later], The Monthly Chosun, no. 1, 2001.

(61.) Interview with Pak Sang-hak, October 25, 2004, Seoul.

(62.) Hangyeoreh Sinmun, August 23, 2000.

(63.) Dong-A Ilbo, January 24, 1999.

(64.) See, for example, a recent study of the young defectors' adjustment, dotted with such statements, in Jeong Hyang-jin, "Talbuk cheong-so-nyeon-ui gam-jeong-seong-gwa nambukhan-ui munhwa simlijeok cha-i" [The emotionality of the young North Korean defectors and the social/cultural differences between North and South Korea], Bigyo munhwa yeongu 11, no. 1 (2005).

(65.) Cho Yong-gwan, "Bukhan jeongchi gyo-yug-ui naemyeonhwaga talbukja namhan sahoe jeok-eung-e michin yoeng-hyang," p. 175. Note that disappointment has partially resulted from the fact that the real North Koreans do not fit into a precreated, highly idealized image of themselves. Such an image, indeed, has been created by the South Korean left over the last two decades.

(66.) Cho Yong-gwan, ibid., p. 174.

(67.) Dong-A Ilbo, October 4, 2004 (the article by Chu Seong-ha appeared only in the early afternoon issues of the newspaper, but it is available online; the article was explained to me by Chu Seong-ha in a letter.

(68.) "Gukmin tong-il yeoron josa bogoseo" [The report about opinion poll on the people's attitude to unification], Tong-il Hanguk, no. 254 (2005): 88-91.

(69.) As cited in the Korea Times, April 14, 2005.

(70.) Kyeonghyang Sinmun, December 21, 2004.

(71.) See, for example, an interview with a repentant broker, published in the Hangyeoreh Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the South Korean left (December 12, 2004): "Only belatedly I realized that planned defections annoy North Korea and China, provoke large-scale arrests of the North Korean refugees living in China and make more difficult the situation of the refugees who otherwise would live in China or return to North Korea when the economic situation improves." This passage betrays the major desire of the South Korean left (shared by many on the right as well, albeit with lesser publicity) to send the North Koreans where they belong, to the North, and keep them there. It also contains an implicit denial that the refugees might have any other motivation but an economic one.

(72.) In late 2004 and early 2005, the monthly, widely read by "progressive" intellectuals, published one or two articles to such an effect in every issue.

(73.) Recently, describing the 25 percent drop in the refugees' number after the dramatic reduction in the aid packages available to them, a representative of a progovernment South Korean NGO said: "The government has ended the vicious circle when earlier refugees acted as brokers in order to get hold of the 'resettlement money' of new coming refugees" (The Segye Times, July 12, 2005). Of course, this "breach of the vicious circle" means that more North Koreans remain in hiding in China, doing odd jobs there--and even more are starving in the North, unable to overcome the tacit rejection by the South Korean officialdom.

(74.) Hangyeoreh Sinmun, Janury 4, 2005.

(75.) The Segye Times, July 12, 2005.

Andrei Lankov is a senior lecturer at the China and Korea Centre, Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University (ANU). He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Leningrad State University, and his main research interests are North Korean political and social history and history of Korean cities. His published books include three in English: From Stalin to Kim II Sung (2002), Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956 (2004), and North of the DMZ (forthcoming).
Table 1 Number of Newly Arrived North
Korean Defectors to the South

Before 1970 485
1970-1979 59
1980-1989 63
1990 9
1991 9
1992 8
1993 8
1994 52
1995 41
1996 56
1997 85
1998 71
1999 148
2000 312
2001 583
2002 1,139
2003 1,281
2004 1,894
Total 6,304

Sources: Bukhan i-tal ju-min boho mit jeongchak jiwon
[The current situation with defectors' arrivals
from North Korea], paper issued by the Ministry of Unification
on March 19, 2002. Data for 2002 and 2003 are from Bukhan
i-tal ju-ruin ibguk hveonhwang (01-04.06), paper issued by
the Ministry of Unification on July 28, 2004. Data for 2004 was
provided by the Ministry's Settlement Support Division at the
author's personal request on April 1, 2005.
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Author:Lankov, Andrei
Publication:Journal of East Asian Studies
Geographic Code:9NORT
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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