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October 21, 2009
South Korea struggles to provide for more North Koreans

Pyongyang residents at the Arch of Triumph. Photo: Ben Piven

The South Korean government says that the number of North Korean refugees in South Korea has surpassed 16,000, and recent immigrants are generally uneducated and underemployed. Worldfocus contributing blogger Jamblichus writes about their plight.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry has requested 9.3 billion won (US$7.9 million) to beef up its resettlement facilities for defectors from the North as the number of refugees arriving from its destitute neighbor keeps climbing.

According to the ministry’s 2010 budget proposal, Seoul plans to spend just over four million dollars to build a second Hanawon, a resettlement center for defectors and around three million dollars to establish smaller “Hana” support centers across the nation.

Lets hope that those doling out the cash take the request seriously (the ministry has requested a 25% budget increase for next year) for North Korean refugees are becoming a growing underclass in the South whose needs current resettlement facilities are hugely under-equipped to accommodate.

Until the late 1990s, the number of North Koreans defecting to the South remained insignificant, totaling just 86 between 1990 and 1994 and remaining in double-digits each year until 1999. Numbers began to shoot up thereafter — following a devastating famine in the North — with 583 arriving in South Korea in 2001 and 1,139 the following year.

On February 16, 2007, the unification ministry pulled a cracker for Chairman Kim Jong-il on his birthday by announcing that the total number of Northern refugees arriving in the South had reached 10,000; just 32 months later there are now more than 16,000. You do the math.

The first wave — in fact more a gentle ripple — of defectors were largely drawn from the North Korean elite. But recent defectors have often been young and unskilled, hailing from the communist state’s North Hamgyong province. The sheer numbers have meant they are treated no longer as romantic escapees deserving of full approbation by the southern public — but a burden on the taxpayer, somewhat unsophisticated and potentially threatening to the social order.

The South’s rigid and hyper-competitive education system looks almost designed to alienate young defectors further from an already difficult-to-crack South Korean society. And while there are success stories — from world champion female boxer Choi Hyun-mi to journalist Kang Chol-hwan — the vast majority wind up unemployed.

A survey of 654 defectors that was conducted in December 2006, showed that 45.1% were unemployed, 30% had part-time employment, 13.1% had temporary employment, and only 11.8% were either self-employed or had full-time employment. Another survey conducted by Professor Park Sang-an of Seoul National University in the same year came up with an unemployment rate of over 67%.

Things may have improved since then, but I’m guessing not dramatically, particularly given the sheer increase in numbers arriving. Another survey reported by the Chosun Ilbo in 2007 found more than half of North Korean teens in South Korea drop out of school, a staggering figure compared to the 1-2 per cent drop out rate for South Korean students.

Given the numbers, seven million bucks doesn’t sound like all that much. There’s only so long South Korea can afford such a failure of integration — as defector numbers burgeon — before the problem becomes significantly more visible. Let’s hope the Unification Ministry gets its money.

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1 comment


Possibly the cutest boxer I’ve ever seen. Seriously though, good piece. I wonder if the South Korean government provides up to date employment figures for defectors?

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