Huge gap between Koreas
Right now, some 20,000 North Korean refugees are residing in South Korea. This is not a big group if one compares them with 670,000 defectors who fled from East Germany in 1961-1989. However, merely a decade ago, in 2000, the number of defectors barely exceeded 1,000.
Few people doubt that the fate of refugees can help us to predict what will happen to Korea after its unification.
Unfortunately, the recent news and statistics do not bode well for the future of a unified Korean state.
Indeed, the recent reports confirm that refugees are by no means successful economically. In January 2010, a study, commissioned by a South Korean government agency, found that the unemployment rate among the defectors reached 14 percent.
In a country where the average unemployment rate — at least by an official tally — is merely 2 percent, it is a staggering figure.
Their income is not too high, either.
In January 2010 an employed refugee made about 1.3 million won a month (barely more than $1,000) — roughly 50 percent of the nationwide average.
Partially, it is a result of objective reasons. Gone are the days when most refugees came from the privileged groups of North Korean society.
Until the early 1990s most defectors from the North were diplomats, air force pilots or soldiers from the commando units — they were the only people who could defect in those days. Those early defectors were few in number, brought valuable intelligence and boosted the prestige of Seoul, which was engaged in an intense competition with the rival communist regime in Pyongyang. Therefore, the South Korean state could afford to shower them with money.
Things changed dramatically in the mid-1990s when North Koreans began to move across the long border with China. Nowadays nearly all the refugees living in the South come from this community of illegal North Korean migrants to China. And those people are a far cry from the elite defectors of the pre-1995 period.
Most of the post-1995 refugees are either poor farmers or workers in the least developed parts of North Korea.
They lack many skills which are essential in modern society, so in most cases they are stuck with low-skilled, low-paid work.
At the same time, the government cannot afford to treat the new arrivals with the same generosity. First, there are too many of them — some 2,000- 3,000 North Koreans arrive in the South every year (in the 1980s, the average number of defectors was fivesix per year). Second, most of those people do not possess any valuable intelligence, and their propaganda value is negligible, too — the competition between the two Korean states has long been won by the South.
The refugees are still eligible for some preferential treatment, but these privileges are quite moderate.
Upon arrival and after a short debriefing by the National Intelligence Service, refugees are sent to Hanawon, an educational facility where they spend two to three months, learning the basics of life in South Korean society. Most of the subject matter is very practical — they learn how to ride the Seoul subway or how to purchase food in a South Korean supermarket.
Then a refugee is provided with a subsidized flat and is allotted “arrival money” — a subsidy paid in installments to assist with establishing a household (the size of the subsidy depends on personal circumstances, but it is usually about $15,000). After that, the refugee is on his or her own.
The first few years are usually very difficult, so many of my refugee friends even complain that they even thought about going back to the North (a small number of refugees have actually done this). They very soon discover that the life around them is very strange and alien, and that their skills are not sufficient to earn an income which would make them financially equal to the average South Korean.
The South Koreans, as they soon discover, are at best indifferent to their plight — and in some cases might even be hostile to them. In spite of the oft-repeated unification rhetoric, South Koreans tend to perceive the refugees with certain suspicion and sometimes discriminate against them.
Sometimes, the alienation leads to really bizarre situations. Nam Su, a mid-level manager from North Korea, defected to the South in 1996. In 2000 he went to China and surrendered himself to the North Korean embassy, becoming the first ever refugee to return to the North.
The North Korean authorities used him as a propaganda boon, so he was not merely pardoned, but put on countless lecture circuits, telling his fellow countrymen about the horrors of the capitalist South and brutality of its American imperialist masters. However, in 2003 he defected again, having obviously decided that on balance South Korea is a lesser evil for a person like him. Now he runs a greenhouse somewhere in the countryside.
This is a sad story. The refugees can be seen as the most active and flexible part of the North Korean population.
Nonetheless, few of them succeed in the South. It does not bode well for the future of a unified Korea.
It seems that it will take a generation or two before the huge economic and social gap between the two Korean societies will be bridged.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.