Survey: North Korean Defectors in South Korea Fared Better Economically Last Year

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In a file photo, women who defected from North Korea to South Korea walk for their class at the Hanawon, a state-run official shelter for North Korean defectors.
In a file photo, women who defected from North Korea to South Korea walk for their class at the Hanawon, a state-run official shelter for North Korean defectors.
AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man

A South Korean Unification Ministry agency that supports the resettlement of North Korean defectors in South Korea has issued a report indicating that resettled defectors were economically better off last year than they reported under previous survey two years ago.

The Korea Hana Foundation’s report, based on their 2018 settlement survey of 2710 defectors living in the South, said that economic indicators such as rates of participation in economic activities and employment, as well as average monthly wages have all improved compared to those in 2017.

All of the respondents were living in South Korea for longer than three months at the time the survey was conducted last May.

According to the report, the defectors participated in economic activity, which includes employment and all other means of earning income at a rate of 65% last year, up 4% from 2017, while employment rose from 57% to 60%.

In addition, job security was up in 2018 as there was an increase in the percentage of defectors classified as regular employees, a term used in South Korea to describe non-contract workers who are employed full-time by a company.

Among defectors who receive wages, 64% were considered regular employees in 2018, up 7%. 2018 also saw a decrease in defectors working in temporary jobs.

Employed defectors had been at their jobs for an average of 27 months in 2018, up two months from the previous year. Average wages also increased from $1570 to $1670, with the gross income for defector households rising from $23,530 to $24,830.

Lim Soon-Hee, an official at the independent Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB),  said that not only was the defector community doing better economically year on year, it was also doing better when compared to South Koreans as a whole.

“The unemployment rate of North Korean defectors in South Korea is decreasing and the gap with the [average of all citizens] is narrowing,” she said.

As members of the community are working hard to improve their own lives, many had high expectations for academic success for their children in South Korea, she added.

Of the respondents, 64% said they wanted their children to go to college, while 16% hoped their children would be able to complete doctorate programs.

While data may prove that defectors are economically better off, the report also painted a rosy picture of their ability to settle in and integrate well into South Korean society, compared to previous surveys.

According to the report, 73% were satisfied with their lives in the South, with 23% saying they had neutral feelings about resettlement. Reasons for satisfaction varied, but the most popular answer was “living a free life,” with “earning as much as I work,” and “giving my children a better future,” following close behind.

While the survey indicated that only 4% of defectors were dissatisfied with their lives in the South, nearly a quarter of the community has thought about returning to North Korea, according to a different report by NKDB.

NK News, a news service specializing in North Korea, reported that in telephone interviews of 415 defectors over the age of 15 in November and December 2017, 22.9% said to NKDB that they had contemplated re-defection.

NK News also reported in February 2018 that many of the North Koreans who initially attempt to settle in South Korea end up moving to third countries, usually in the West because of discrimination they receive in the South.

Meanwhile the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI) released an academic paper in 2018 that examined the case of the defector community as a test case for reunification of North and South Korea. That paper listed discrimination, both socially and professionally as a major area of concern.

In order to avoid discrimination, North Korean defectors living in South Korea, some defectors have attempted to pose as ethnic Koreans from China, while many try to hide their North Korean dialects entirely, with varying success.

There is also concern that female defectors could be particularly vulnerable as South Korean society is quite male dominated.

The Guardian released a report in October about a South Korean matchmaking service that sets female defectors up with well-to-do South Korean men.

In that article, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification expressed concern that women who have defected to the South might be “excessively commercialized.”

She also noted that many of the firms in this industry focused excessively on racist notions of “pure Korean blood” as a selling point, differentiating them from other marriage brokers that match Koreans with Southeast Asian women.

She also described the portrayal of North Korean women as submissive, and expressed worry that the public would view current and future female defectors as sexual objects.

More than 30,000 North Koreans have made their way to South Korea in recent decades, including several senior diplomats.

In several cases, however, North Koreans have re-defected back to the North after reportedly failing to adjust to life in the South.

According to South Korea's Ministry of Unification 28 defectors re-defected between 2012 and 2017.

RFA reported in 2017 that a defector couple who had married after meeting in South Korea returned to the North in October of that year. They reportedly helped state security agents identify and arrest citizens suspected of having contacts in the South by giving information they had on other defectors.

In another high-profile case Jon Hye Song, who had become a TV personality in the South after defecting in 2014, suddenly appeared in North Korean propaganda in 2017 saying that her life in South Korea had been hellish, and that she had been made to slander North Korea in TV appearances.

Reported by Yong Jae Mok for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.





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