Posted : 2008-07-23 19:46
Updated : 2008-07-23 19:46

North Korean Defectors in South Korea

By Rhee Soo-hyun

In the wake of a barrage of Hollywood summer movies, one Korean film continues to stand out.

Directed by Kim Tae-kyun, ``Crossing'' recounts a touching story about a father and son, torn apart in the process of escaping North Korea.

Perhaps because the subject of North Korean defectors is so controversial in South Korea, the film appeals more to the heart than the intellect of the audience.

The director certainly has a knack for tugging the heart strings; the brutal treatment of the characters under the North Korean rule draws tears from the audience.

Even after ``crossing" the North Korean border however, the plight of the North Koreans seems to continue. Feeling ostracized by South Korean society, many of the refugees become depressed.

A survey conducted in June indicated that four in five refugees find the ``cutthroat and intolerant" South Korean society unbearable, despite the relative prosperity they enjoy. A startling 20 percent responded that they preferred their lives in the North.

These survey results are hardly surprising; a case study by Sogang University last year concluded that South Korean attitudes toward refugees can be characterized by either ignorance or hostility. The study was based on an extensive survey of a random sample of 500 South Korean citizens.

The survey asked specific, hypothetical questions about refugees such as, ``How would you feel about employing a North Korean refugee?" or ``How would you feel about your children befriending a refugee youth?"

The results revealed that while South Koreans respond positively to generic questions such as ``How do you feel towards the refugees?" they are significantly more guarded and unsympathetic when confronted with these specific situations.

The reality is that few South Korean citizens are willing to become personally involved with refugees; many citizens associate refugees with crudity and coarseness. To expect that the entire South Korean community will go out of their way to aid them seems altogether unrealistic. The pretense of ``brotherly love" set aside, prejudice, intolerance, and ignorance seems to dominate South Korean attitudes toward North Korean refugees.

Naturally, they feel neglected and ostracized by the South Korean people. Choi Young-hee, a female refugee, explains how her distinct North Korean accent provoked cold-hearted condescension from her South Korean neighbors.

Choi recalls an incident at a hair salon, in which her hairdresser, initially kind and friendly, suddenly turned frigid after realizing her North Korean heritage. Choi is now preparing to immigrate to the United States, where she feels ``she will be treated equally since Americans will not recognize her North Korean accent."

Such intolerance and ``racism" has put tremendous stress on many, says a volunteer therapist, who meets with dozens of depressed refugees on a regular basis. Identifying with the South Koreans as peoples of the same race, the refugees have high expectations of the South Korean people; ``they expect to be treated as brothers and sisters."

When their hopes become shattered by the harsh reality of a cold, unwelcoming society, the refugees not only feel ostracized, but also develop a hostile attitude toward the South Koreans.

Their disappointment and misery occasionally culminates in aggression. According to a study by Professor Kim Tae-suk of the North Korea Research Center, the crime rate among refugees is an alarming 9.1 percent, twice that of South Korean citizens. In 2006, 285 refugees were arrested. Of them, 111 were persecuted for violence. Of course, such sporadic acts of hostility serve only to bolster South Korean prejudice against the refugees.

Though some have undoubtedly found success and happiness in South Korea, the vast majority of refugees continue to struggle ― no longer for freedom, but for acceptance and equality.

Perhaps, the release of the film, ``Crossing'' is rather timely; a little more heart, understanding, and sympathy might be what the refugees really deserve after their perilous escape from North Korea. The same tears we have shed during the poignant scenes of the movie might be better served for the thousands yearning for acceptance in our society.

The refugees in South Korea present us with a unique opportunity to test our ability and willingness to embrace North Koreans. Failing to accommodate the 20,000 refugees within our borders will not bode well for the one day that will come, when we will be responsible for an impoverished nation of 23.5 million.
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