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The Peninsula

Defectors Caught in South Korea’s Social Changes

Published February 14, 2022
Author: Korea View

What Happened:

  • In January, a man who had defected to South Korea in 2020 returned to North Korea.
  • Subsequently, the South Korean government launched an interagency team to further assist defectors with employment, education, and psychological concerns.
  • Traditionally, the government’s focus has largely revolved around providing defector-migrants with economic assistance.

Implication: South Korea’s public policy heavily reflects the country’s societal values. In line with an emerging national identity based on middle-class values and employment capabilities, the government’s approach to integrating defector-migrants from North Korea has focused consistently on their capacity to be economically self-sufficient. Meanwhile, support for mental health challenges facing this community has been lackluster – again, consistent with South Korean society’s own unwillingness to openly discuss this widespread problem. The reduction of financial support for defector-migrants from the Korean government in 2005 was explicitly framed as a means of promoting “independence, self-sufficiency, and self-support.” Meanwhile, the November 2014 Ministry of Unification’s Manual for the Resettlement Support for North Korean Refugees mentioned the term “employment” 72 times while “psychological” appeared only 3 times.

Context: South Korea’s conception of national identity is in flux. Younger people increasingly see North Koreans as members of a separate national community. In their attitudes towards social integration, surveyed individuals also placed the greatest importance on immigrants who demonstrated both an ability to work and employment plans. Meanwhile, North Korean defector-migrants have differing attitudes towards South Korea based on when they arrived. More recent escapees may not have been motivated to leave North Korea by political repression or existential economic distress, which establishes a different relationship with the country than earlier arrivals.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Kayla Harris, David Lee, Sarah Marshall, and Mai Anna Pressley. Picture from the flickr account of PBS Newshour

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