Refugees Matter to the Korean Peace Process
South Korean president Moon Jae-in wants to build a so-called peace regime with North Korea. The idea isn’t new, but it remains unclear what such a regime would entail. At the very least, Seoul wants a peace declaration or treaty with Pyongyang that will re-establish trade. This would be one step of a process the goal of which is unification -- a goal both Koreas have shared since their division at the end of the Second World War.
But all too often Seoul avoids bringing up human rights during negotiations or in its public statements, for fear of derailing negotiations or provoking Pyongyang. As a result, the voices of North Korean defectors who live in the South are ignored. This is just one of the ways in which the needs of defectors from North Korea are ignored. Seoul must begin to include refugees in any potential unification process by looking at the struggles they still face.
Those who have lived in both Koreas can help guide a viable unification solution that will protect human rights. And because of the closed nature of totalitarian North Korea, defectors provide a valuable source of information on Pyongyang’s economic reforms and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s intentions. More than 30,000 North Korean refugees have fled to South Korea since the devastating famine of the 1990s. They hold a lot of valuable information from which the South Korean government should learn.
Defectors have warned that security-driven conversations over nuclear weapons and trade fail to consider human rights. The idea of political and economic unity with the system they’ve escaped worries them enough to make them speak out. But Seoul isn’t listening.
Last month, for instance, South Korea’s government erred by excluding a North Korean defector-turned-journalist from covering a summit with Pyongyang. Seoul asked for the reporter, Kim Myung-sung of the news outlet Chosun Ilbo,to be replaced for vaguely defined security reasons -- but the Chosun Ilborefused. In response, Seoul removed him from the press pool. South Korean media denounced Seoul’s decision, but few outlets outside of the country noticed the incident, and the news cycle moved on.
When it comes to integration, Seoul should take cues from defectors on what will work in a peace deal. Such a dramatic melding sparks questions about how two such different cultures and socioeconomic systems would ever fuse. Integration will increasingly matter as borders loosen, South Korean companies recruit North Korean labor, and more defectors flee oppression.
Hence, Seoul must ensure that integration support is robust, effective, and scalable. For instance, though both countries speak Korean, the difference in accents and slang can lead to employment discrimination from South Koreans. And North Koreans, unlike their native neighbors, aren’t taught English at all -- assuming they even finish high school. This causes problems in work and during studies, because most South Koreans speak and use English daily. Meanwhile, 35 percent of defectors are unemployed and 30 percent of those in college have considered halting their studies. All of this makes current integration difficult. If these policies don’t change, it’s hard to imagine how hard it will be to provide for a refugee population doubled or tripled in size.
That’s not to say it’s all misery for defectors. South Korea does provide them some financial or vocational assistance. They get preferential admission to universities and are given $6,450 in the first year they arrive in the South. Non-profits such as Teach North Korean Refugees provides English classes, and Liberty in North Korea helps defectors escape and change the integration narrative. But current government programs are insufficient. Certainly they are not readily scalable for the heavy flow of refugees that would accompany the unification South Korea wants.
Regulations create hurdles for defectors, too. It’s true that many North Korean degrees and much of the country’s technical training isn’t readily comparable to what’s on offer in South Korea, but they don't deserve to be unrecognized as they are now. Forcing refugees to start over with their education is demoralizing. It punishes defectors by forcing them into menial jobs when they might have otherwise earned high salaries.
An extensive 2017 review in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology found that the refugees “had a high prevalence and severity of psychiatric symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms.” Even so, Moon cut the budget of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation by 92.6 percent and assistance for North Korean refugees by 31 percent. And this will inevitably weigh on defectors whenever they try to speak up in any future policy proceedings.
Many North Korean refugees have made lives for themselves and participate as active members of South Korean culture. But they often struggle needlessly, and that simply won’t do if unification is ever to take place. Nevertheless, a humanitarian crisis can be avoided if Seoul will only see the refugees within their borders for what they are -- fellow Koreans with valuable insights for the day it finally finds peace with North Korea.
John Dale Grover is a Free Society Fellow at Young Voices. He is also an Assistant Managing Editor at The National Interest and a Fellow at Defense Priorities. His articles have appeared in The American Conservative, Real Clear Defense, and Fox News. The views expressed are the author's own.