North Korean Migrants: Friends or Strangers
What do you think of North Korean migrants? Many South Koreans may think of North Korean migrants as our countrymen, but we are not very concerned about them. In reality, most of us have a negative image and feelings toward them. It is likely that the number of North Korean migrants will increase in the years to come. Therefore we should be more concerned about them, and not simply say they are our country people. In order to do that, we need to become more informed about them and change some of our negative thoughts.
The first North Korean migrants were considered defectors/heroes. After 1990, North Korea had severe financial difficulties, so many people escaped out of North Korea. At that time, these people were referred to as North Korean refugees. The Ministry of Unification labeled them North Korean migrants in 2005. This recognition by our government made these people who risked so much to come to South Korea hope that they could live a new life.
There are stark differences between North and South Korea today. In the 1970s, South Korea began a rapid economic and industrial development that created a large gap in wealth between the North and the South. North Korea also experienced several natural disasters during this time from floods to droughts. Many North Koreans have experienced severe poverty since that time. These hardships caused many North Koreans to attempt to escape to the South. The number of North Korean migrants since that time is around 10,000. As a result of this increase, the OECD Fact book, in an annual bulletin of statistics, reported that Korea was first in incoming refugees in 2007.
Nowadays, many North Korean migrants live in South Korea, so the Ministry of Unification established three Hana Centers north of Seoul and west of Gyeonggido and one in Daegu. We visited the Hana Center in Daegu, which is a welfare center for North Korean migrants, to find out more about the realities facing them.
Interview _ Young-Ik Cheon (Head Official of the Hana Center in Daegu)
Q. What is the purpose of the Hana Centers?
A. After the increase in North Korean migrants, the government first established the Hana Center to help them locally. So authorities should be concerned about them. For example, North Korean migrants who live in places like Daegu will have help with their settlement from the Hana Center.
Q. Do many people have a negative image of North Korean migrants? Is it true that they receive poor treatment in our society?
A. In reality, when they come to South Korea, they have a great deal of mental and physical stress as an illegal foreigner. In addition, there is some confusion in adjusting to the different environment in South Korea. They also have a hard time changing their way of thinking, as well as their way of talking, and their daily habits. These situations contribute to their negative image and make life harder for them.
Q. What can we as university students do for them?
A. When we went to Keimyung University and Kyungpook National University, we asked the students, "Do you want national unification?" Only one student answered yes. Many students have negative feelings about the North or little interest in unification. The first thing students can do is become more aware of and more concerned about national unification.
The Hana Center provides programs that allow university students to assist North Korean migrants. We are currently running a support center where students can volunteer to teach English and do other kinds of work. If students participate in these programs, it will not only help the migrants but also help them understand each other.
Q. What do you want to say to our students about North Korean migrants?
A. Although they lived in North Korea, they are our country people. They went through hard times in order to get here, so we should do our best to help them.
We wanted to interview some North Korean migrants, but we were not able to meet with any.
We surveyed 200 YU students about their recognition of North Korean migrants. Many students answered that they did not know much about them at all. Their image of them is that of poverty stricken refugees more than as fellow Koreans. The majority of the surveyed students also expressed their desire to have the government be selective when it comes to admitting North Korean migrants. They seemed to feel that there should be more consideration before we decide to accommodate migrants in the future because of the reality of cost. In 2008, the government reported that North Korean migrants faced difficult living and working conditions due to reasons like cultural differences.
Possible Solutions for North Korean Migrants
We must change our negative feelings toward them because we have the same blood. We need to recognize the importance of national unification for our society and culture. We must also recognize that as conditions grow worse and worse in the North, many more will attempt to escape. In this process, many of them will lose their lives. Even though we know to some degree what they go through we still lack compassion for them. This must change if we are ever to be one nation again.
Our government has made some attempts to help them. For example, they have initiated the "Helper of Settlement" program recently. 500 people have participated in this program so far. This program helps the new settlers with fundamental needs such as resident registration, apartment contracts, and connecting utilities. It also helps with banking and purchasing basic necessities of life. There is also an adjustment center that helps students enter school and provides assistance with family relations, improvement of health, and finding employment. They periodically give information about the region to them. Most importantly they try to understand what they want out of their new lives.
The program focuses on three separate goals. For juveniles, it provides support for education and adjusting to South Korean culture. For senior citizens, it provides programs through consultations. They also prepare child care consultations and child care services.
The Ministry of Labor has initiated a program that helps them find employment. In Daegu, 90 people have participated in this program managed by the Hana Centers since 2008. It provides training programs and employment programs linked with small businesses in the area through the Job Center and the Small and Medium Business Corporation. It also provides hands-on experience in employment skills, such as fieldwork and mock-interviews. The rest of the program is designed to support their health. It provides medical services for them. Counseling centers have also been established locally to provide psychological counseling. There are also information-oriented education programs on how to use basic computer applications like Powerpoint, Excel, and Internet.
Our country has been divided for almost 60 years. During that time the number of North Korean migrants has steadily risen. However, our recognition and understanding of them continues to be inadequate. We must first be concerned about their welfare as a nation. We must also volunteer and support them so that they can start a new life.
Although the Ministry of Unification has established three Hana Centers, social support systems are still lacking. Therefore, our society needs to make it a priority to support their welfare to help them through this difficult transition. Needless to say, the support of local organizations is very important. Our attitude toward North Korean migrants needs to improve, but that can only happen if we change our way of thinking. Now, when you are asked "What do you think of North Korean migrants?" what will your answer be?