The news of the demolition of a symbolic Christmas tree along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is important to this chronic and pervasively psychological battle between the two nations.

Defectors from North Korea to South Korea have increased since the devastating famine in the 1990s, and they face a remarkable array of issues that impact how they adjust to life in the fast-paced, capitalist, democratic South. The transition evokes several existential crises that effectively leave many in purgatory, as many struggle to build new lives, knowing that they cannot simply return home.

South Korea gives each defector about $20,000 in monetary aid to find housing, pay rent for a few months and look for work. However, this money is often squandered or misused, because these defectors do not understand how money works in a capitalist system. In addition, finding work is difficult, as many from the DPRK are employed in trades that have been long defunct in more-developed South Korea. There is a gap in skills that is not easily filled, leading more than half of the defectors to experience severe economic hardship.

Some turn to crime or prostitution in order to support themselves. As Barbara Demick, a scholar on North Korea, notes, others are exploited by smugglers, “who [agree] to provide a passport and a plane ticket, in return for a fee of $14,000 to be paid from the defector’s stipend she would receive from the South Korean government” — a clearly exorbitant amount. Many defectors are viewed as outsiders in South Korea, and they stand out because of their accents and different lifestyles.

All of this, coupled with a desire to see family that may still be back in North Korea, can create an intense yearning for home. This is, of course, very dangerous, as defectors who return to North Korea risk being sent to labor camps. In order to make sure that North Korean defectors can share with the world their stories and experiences in the “hermit kingdom,” there has to be a better system for them to adjust to South Korean society.

One good initiative would be a partnership between the North and South Korean governments for a more effective allocation of the $20,000 stipend given to each defector. Such an initiative would educate defectors about personal finance and South Korean society so that adjusting to their new lives is not so painful. With Seoul’s unemployment rate sitting at 3.6 percent, average rent (outside the city center) at $433 per person and monthly disposable salary at $2,463, it is a realistic proposal that North Korean defectors could achieve financial security in the booming economy of the South — so long as they are equipped with the proper know-how. Complementing this monetary security, the government should encourage defectors to organize into communities, so that they can collaborate to find affordable housing and adequate employment, and use their stipends to cover their first year of rent.

This initiative, guided by members who have already experienced adjustment to life in South Korea, can be powerful in forming social bonds in a society where isolation is common among defectors. A sense of camaraderie in a seemingly hopeless situation builds morale and reduces some of the adverse effects of such a drastic culture shock.

The best way to assess the impact of this initiative would be to keep track of North Koreans’ long-term financial performance. If, after several years, most defectors are paying their bills and building up savings, then this program could be considered a success.

Allowing and welcoming defectors to the South is valuable only if those defectors’ lives are actually improved. Saving them from bankruptcy and from emotional and psychological isolation is an important factor in welcoming these individuals to the free world.

Parth Shah is a junior in the College. Politics of Parth appears every other Friday.

One Comment

  1. Hello!
    Thank you for writing about this in the Hoya!
    You do a good job illustrating the challenges North Korea defectors face after they arrive in South Korea. It is true that the South Korean government does allocate cash stipends to the defectors, but as you point out, that is not enough and the defectors face many challenges in adjusting to an ultra-competitive capitalist society, not least of which is lack of knowledge on how to spend it properly.
    I am curious what you mean by this “One good initiative would be a partnership between the North and South Korean governments for a more effective allocation of the $20,000 stipend given to each defector. ”
    I am dubious of any partnership forming between the two sides of the Korean Peninsula. Seoul claims to be the only legitimate government of the entire peninsula, as does Pyongyang. North Korea considers it a crime for its citizens to leave the country without permission. I am therefore skeptical that the North Korean government will do anything to help defectors better use their cash stipends.
    You also bring up another good point – that the defectors generally feel very isolated. The communities you suggest are a good idea. Although, keep in mind that people who have defected from the North tend to want to hide their backgrounds as a result of social stigma, and organizing such communities might be difficult to do in practice.

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