South Korea’s active involvement in supporting refugees both domestically and internationally is consistent with its dedication to various international development causes worldwide. Since 2004, the government has contributed at least one million dollars towards UNHCR annually; in 2015, it donated almost $13 million. Much of these funds are earmarked towards specific humanitarian projects, such as supporting Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons in Colombia. South Korea also agreed to become a resettlement country for UNHCR in 2015, meaning that the country would accept refugees from other countries; South Korea is the second country to do so in Asia.
On the national level, South Korea’s Refugee Act is considered to be a landmark piece of legislation supporting refugees, particularly in the Asia region. The Refugee Act strengthened refugee status determination procedures, called for the provision of social welfare programs, and facilitated South Korean policies towards refugees to fall more in line with what is called for in the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
However, trends regarding the integration of refugees in South Korea indicate that there is a substantial gap between the laws and policies supporting refugees and how they are implemented and practiced. These trends are true for not only non-Korean refugees from countries such as Myanmar and Pakistan but also for North Korean defectors.
For North Korean defectors, it has been estimated that only fifteen percent of defectors successfully adjust to life in South Korea. Since North Korean defectors receive substantive support from the government such as funding for settlement, residence, and job-seeking expenses, welfare services, and free university tuition for those under the age of 35, this low rate indicates that there are significant barriers to integration.
Barriers to integration for North Korean defectors result from both their experiences prior to living in South Korea and also from socio-cultural factors. Many North Korean defectors face psychosocial difficulties, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression, and/or physical health problems, often because of their transit to South Korea via China. Upon arrival to South Korea and beginning their job search, North Koreans face a language barrier, a lack of job skills, and employer discrimination.
These barriers are reflected in statistics on North Korean defector employment in South Korea. Estimates of unemployment range from 14.7-36.5%, and employed North Koreans face a wage gap and may not have stable, full-time employment. Accordingly, eighty percent of North Koreans rely on social welfare programs from the government, and only five percent of North Koreans consider themselves middle-class or above.
South Korean perceptions of North Korean refugees can contribute to these patterns of employer discrimination. As the total number of defectors from North to South Korea increases, defectors are seen as a burden upon a strained government budget. Meanwhile, as time passes after the Korean War, increasing numbers of South Koreans are apathetic towards North Korean defectors and human rights issues in North Korea. These attitudes strongly affect public opinions regarding government programs aimed at North Korean refugees and the roles South Koreans should play in supporting North Koreans.
As a result, there appears to be a notable shift in how identity is constructed – people are not Korean, they are “North Korean” or “South Korean” and therefore different. In practice, this perception acts as a divide between defectors and South Korean host communities. Thus, North Koreans are often socially excluded from opportunities in their host communities and have a limited network. This social exclusion has significant implications for North Korean defectors’ access to jobs and education, health, and sense of integration.
Overall, the social exclusion and employer discrimination that North Koreans face continues their reliance on government programs, which perpetuates the current stereotypes regarding defectors. In order to break this pattern, the private sector must work to address employer discrimination practices. Without access to jobs, particularly stable, dignified employment, North Korean defectors cannot successfully integrate.
One way to increase access to jobs is to address gaps in North Korean defectors’ jobs and language skills. While the South Korean government provides some skills training in the Hanawon centers upon defectors’ arrival, the short-term nature of the program does not provide enough to assure North Korean defectors’ access to employment. Thus, civil society organizations have stepped in to help defectors overcome this barrier to integration. Organizations such as Seoul-based Teach North Korean Refugees, which provides personal tutoring to North Korean defectors, can work to help North Koreans become stronger candidates in the job market, which would help them successfully integrate into society.
While issues of refugee resettlement and integration continue to be contentious issues in South Korea and globally, it is important to consider how and why stereotypes of refugees are constructed and actualized. In South Korea, the notion that North Korean defectors are different isolates them from the job market and prevents them from becoming self-reliant, this keeping them unemployed and reliant instead on government funding. Given current tensions regarding South Korean government funding for North Korean defectors, the involvement of civil society will be critical in addressing these issues and facilitating meaningful change in addressing the barriers to integration experienced by defectors.
Priscilla McCelvey is a master’s student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy focusing on human security and gender analysis in the Pacific-Asia region. She has worked for NGOs in Cambodia, the Philippines, and the U.S., and is currently an intern with Teach North Korean Refugees.
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