Unification: Not Only the Future but Also the Present


In my last article, I discussed the various different groups of defectors entering South Korea before and after 1994. In this article, I intend to go over the difficulties defectors experience in adjusting to South Korean society so that others may understand how the successful or unsuccessful integration of North Korean defectors is a reflection of the future of a unified Korean peninsula.

In my previous article, I had looked to Yoon In-Jin’s thesis North Korean Diaspora: North Korean Defectors Abroad and in South Korea for information on the diversification of North Korean defectors in South Korea. Yoon continues with a description of the stages of adjustment that defectors experience while in South Korea. After defectors undergo investigation through the Intelligence Command under the followed by rehabilitation and education at Hanawon centers, refugees are put under the guidance and protection of police officers for one or two years as of 1999. Yoon argues that the training that refugees receive at Hanawon and the guidance they receive from officers does not suffice their need for help to adjust to life in South Korea materially and mentally.

Yoon uses J.W. Berry’s “Finding Identity: Segregation, Integration, Assimilation or Marginality” to illustrate the adjustment of North Korean defectors. J.W. Berry categorizes integration as successful material and mental adjustment; segregation or isolation illustrates successful material adjustment but unsuccessful mental adjustment; assimilation or acculturation indicates unsuccessful material adjustment but successful mental adjustment, which is highly theoretical in the case of North Korean refugees; and marginality represents unsuccessful material and mental adjustment. Yoon details that most defectors struggle materially because they are either unemployed or underemployed. Oftentimes, defectors are not able to work the same positions in South Korea that they had when they lived in North Korea. The problem of unemployment is more serious for female defectors as well. Yoon describes mental maladjustment as a result of the struggle to adapt to the competitiveness of a capitalist society and the feeling of estrangement from South Koreans when met with prejudice and discrimination.

However, it is not necessarily true that all defectors experience a lot of strife adjusting to South Korean society since a large percentage of defectors who arrived before 1994 were equipped with human resources useful to the South Korean economy and prepared for the capitalist system since they resided in foreign countries. Having adapted to life outside of North Korea at an early age before, they were just as capable of adapting to life in South Korea. Also, those who defer at a moment when they are capable of either repeating or starting their university educations in South Korea have a better opportunity to obtain the connections and knowledge necessary to compete in the capitalist environment.

Yoon points out that other demographic factors influence a refugee’s ability to adjust as well. For example, Yoon indicates that married defectors who come to South Korea with their spouses or with their families have an easier transition into South Korean society because the family can put their incomes together increasing the rate at which they can achieve economic stability. Furthermore,

Age is inversely related to social adjustment: those who are younger at the time of entry are more likely to adapt quickly to South Korean society. Those who are in their forties or fifties have difficulty, however, receiving job-related education or training and are subject to age discrimination. (Yoon, 16)[1]

This explains the dedication of the instructors at Hangyeore to the education of the refugee students while I volunteered as an English conversation partner during the M.O.U. summer internship. During my stay with the students I did not recognize too many emotional concerns amidst the students other than the pronounced frugality of one student and a bit of moodiness of another student that could or could not be related to the general horror that is the existence of teenagers. But overall most of the students were learning to become very capable and independent young adults who would continue to work hard at university or vocational college upon graduation from Hangyeore.


Two other factors that influence the ease with which defectors can transition into South Korean society include South Korea’s political and economic circumstances upon the arrival of the defectors and the existence and support of a sponsor. According to Yoon,

until the 1980s, the number of defectors was not very large, and it was a time when anticommunist ideology was used as a means of governing, so defectors were used for political purposes, and had no problem adapting due to broad government support. In the 1990s, however, the influx of students […] increased the number of defectors, and apprehension arose that the preferential treatment of defectors would become difficult if large-scale escapes occurred. (19)[2]

Because the South Korean government works to strike a balance between South Koreans and the increasing defector population, one cannot simply blame the government for insufficient attention to the issue of a struggling defector community because the social environment also influences the extent to which the government supports the defector community. Relying solely on the government – to address the emergence of social inequality between South Koreans and North Korean refugees – neglects the importance of the public’s positive energy on behalf of defectors.

With a wider support system, refugees are more likely to succeed and eventually gain enough stability to become economically independent. Many of the support networks available to refugees at the moment include the Ministry of Unification, the officers put in charge of protecting defectors who leave Hanawon centers, a few NGO groups, and other defectors. Most defectors have a tendency to seek other refugees because of the unease they experience with South Koreans. Refugees need a wider system of support from their South Korean neighbors in order for them to be accepted as equal members of society because a society in which refugees only rely on each other indicates the emergence of de facto segregation.

More attention is necessary to see to refugees’ entrance into South Korean society, but with more defectors joining the South Korean population as of 1994, national security issues are given priority over these defectors’ adjustment. It has been difficult to strike a balance between protecting the refugees and South Korean citizens while providing refugees with the tools they need to gain independence and provide for themselves. I do not think that the situation has changed too much from the beginning of the twenty-first century because South Korea is currently in the middle of an economic boom. I think that right now is a moment in which South Korea will be devoting most of its attention to demonstrating South Korea’s importance to the international community as a key player in the global economy. However, I think that the issue of North Korea and unification will soon come to the forefront of the government’s attention because the growth of South Korea’s image throughout the international community will constantly remind the world of North Korea, its disregard of human rights, and the potential threat it represents to the Far East. North Korea is also a key member of East Asia, so the international community with South Korea at the forefront will want to bring peace to North Korea as well. To bring peace to North Korea, the peaceful coexistence of South Koreans and refugees is essential.

[1] Yoon In-Jin, “North Korean Diaspora: North Korean Defectors Abroad and in South Korea,” Development and Society, Volume 30 Number 1, June 2001, pp.1-26.

[2] Ibid.

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