Embracing young defectors
“Never tell them you are from North Korea. Just tell them you can do whatever they ask you to. That’s the only way you can survive”
— Journal of Mousan
When the film, Journal of Musan, was released, it awakened South Koreans to an important issue that many have been too often ignorant. The movie depicts a young North Korean defector named Seung-cheol as he crosses the border to seek a better life only to face barrier after barrier.
Just like his citizen registration number, which starts with 125, he is labeled and regarded as an ‘outsider’ rather than a ‘brother’ from the moment he made it safely into South Korea.
Not only is he harshly discriminated against by potential employers, he is verbally and physically assaulted just because he comes from North Korea.
His never-ending struggles, portrayed throughout the movie, make it seem impossible for him to ever fully integrate into Korean society no matter how hard he tries.
Each year, a number of North Korean defectors, now often called ‘Saeteomin,’ cross the border at the risk of being caught and to escape the food shortages in the North. According to the Status of North Korean Refugees in South Korea, more than 17,000 refugees had settled in South Korea by October 2009. This number is expected to increase year by year.
In particular, the number of North Korean adolescents and young adult defectors comprise about 40 percent of all North Korean defectors. Just like Seung-cheol in the film, young refugees undergo severe difficulties as they try to adjust to the economic, political, and social differences in South Korea.
Discrimination that draws a clear line around ‘us’ and distances ‘others’ and treats them unequally is one of the many obstacles that make the lives of these refugees so hard. It not only violates their human rights, but also creates other problems such as a personal identity crisis and becoming listless.
Social researchers have found that North Koreans suffer from psychological stress; they feel they belong nowhere and continuously fear being caught and deported.
To confront these issues, not only to offer better humanitarian support, but also to attain sustainable peace in Korea, the South Korean government makes considerable efforts by creating a solid social infrastructure and educational program to help the refugees resettle in the South successfully. Despite this, ignorant views and biased or no attention paid have only made the situation more challenging.
We must educate our next generation to be open to accepting changes in Korean society and to view our fellow North Koreans without prejudice. Along with the history of the Korean War and the ongoing political tensions between the two countries, more information about the refugee issue need to be taught to approach the issue positively.
The more people are educated, the more they will see the world without bias or unfounded views. Further, educating Koreans to accept refugees with a deeper cultural understanding and embracing them as descendents of a once united nation is important.
Connecting these two divergent cultures by designing a workable support program that includes mentoring and language teaching can be an effective way to build lasting relationships and give much-needed support to refugees.
To achieve peace on the divided Korean peninsula, all of society must confront the young refugee issue and create bridges that connect these two cultural groups.
The writer is a student at Sogang University. She can be reached at email@example.com