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Ethnic Brothers or Migrants: North Korean Defectors in South Korea
Published February 29, 2016
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Over the past sixty years, the two Koreas have embarked on completely different paths in almost every respect. One developed into a successful example of democracy with remarkable economic growth, while the other became one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet under a dynastic dictatorship in its third generation. Despite their differences, reunification remains a national goal for both countries. Ethnic identity, connected to the belief that Korea is a single nation destined to be unified, drives this goal. Yet, recent studies indicate the declining importance of ethnic identity among the South Korean people. This chapter, an extension of the discussion on ethnic identity, examines the South Korean public’s attitude toward North Korean defectors in South Korea. It first finds that emotional distance between South Koreans and North Korean defectors has not changed much despite their increased encounters. In fact, South Koreans are beginning to see North Korean defectors similarly to how they see migrant groups. Those who do not regard ethnic identity, such as bloodline or nativity, as an important component to being Korean are more likely to have accommodating attitudes toward North Korean defectors as toward other immigrant groups. On the other hand, those with negative opinions on immigrants are more likely to feel greater emotional distance from North Korean defectors. Finally, the perceived security threat level from North Korea also influences one’s attitude toward North Korean defectors. As it increases, negative feelings toward defectors also increases, which contributes to the defectors’ shaky status in South Korean society.

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