In the News – North Korean defectors emerge from periphery

In the News – North Korean defectors emerge from periphery

North Korean defectors are emerging from the periphery to take center stage in academic, political, religious and other spheres, hoping to lay the groundwork for reunification.

Brushing aside lingering prejudices against the defectors in South Korea, they have striven to carve out a distinct role to raise the public understanding of the communist state and bring about a change for the people struggling north of the border.

Among them is Cho Myung-chul who became the first defector elected to the National Assembly last week. 

“My heart is all aflutter as the very citizens here elected me to the Assembly with many defectors pinning hopes on me. I feel humbled by all that trust and will try to pay back while working harder with my experience and knowledge,” he told The Korea Herald.

Before taking the ruling party’s proportional representation seat, Cho, a former economics professor at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University, headed the Education Center for Unification under the Unification Ministry for nine months until March. He was the first defector to hold the high-level government post.

Cho, who defected to the South in 1994, now dreams of an active legislative role to craft “future-oriented, realistic policies” aimed at helping defectors better adapt here and stopping human rights abuses in the repressive state. The number of defectors was 23,513 as of March, according to government data.

“We can first achieve reunification on a small scale by helping the defectors settle here smoothly, develop their potential and grow as successful citizens here. Through this process, we can achieve a genuine one on a bigger scale,” he said.

“To this end, I will work hard to enact laws to support their settlement and craft policies concerning their medical care, housing, education and activities in various sectors of society.”

Touching on the North, which has missed out on decades of progress while holding onto its outmoded governing system, Cho stressed the importance of change for its survival in the competitive world.

“In the process of us pursuing reunification, the North should actively seek change. Under the current system, it cannot move forward when every country in the world constantly strives to change,” he said.

“The North continues to hold on to the past and refuses any change as it believes any change could lead to the collapse of its regime.”

Another high-profile defector is Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center.

He is well-known for being the first defector to receive a doctorate in the South. He defected here in 1979 at age 25, studied political science at Seoul’s Korea University and earned his doctorate from Konkuk University in 1997.

Since last year, he has run a private academy to train young North Korean defectors to become leading members of society here ― a mission that he believes is critical to raise those who can help facilitate the reunification process.

“As uncertainty deepens with the new leadership in Pyongyang, reunification could come all of a sudden. For this, we should prepare sufficiently by raising human resources who can successfully lead the preparation,” said Ahn.

“There are some who gave up their studies and are wandering aimlessly. We can make young defectors sort of successful models through training and education, and that would give hope to others who can follow in their footsteps.”

Ahn is also aspiring to enter politics to play a more effective role in the country’s preparation for reunification. He now serves as vice chairman of the Saenuri Party’s human rights panel.

“The reason why I studied politics here is I had this hope to establish a society just like South Korea in the North. That is why I now focus on educating young students about unification and seek to become a legislator myself,” he said.

“From a broader perspective, I hope more defectors take a leading role in this society to facilitate the reunification process and the efforts to improve humanitarian conditions, given that the North is also defined as our territory in the Constitution.”

Lee Ae-ran is another success story. She made headlines in 2009 after she became the first female defector to receive a doctorate in food and nutrition from Ewha Womans University.

Lee, who defected to the South in 1997, currently leads the private North Korean Traditional Food Institute where she gives job training to other defectors and strives to spread Pyongyang’s food culture as a way to bridge the yawning cultural gap between the two Koreas.

“There are big gaps in social, cultural aspects, which spawned misunderstandings and prejudices and a lack of communication between the two sides. So, I have long thought of what I can do to help bridge them,” said Lee.

“Through North Korean cuisine, I want to share with South Koreans the way North Koreans live so that I can raise their understanding of their northern brethren.”

She has also been at the forefront of the campaign against the repatriation of North Korean refugees held in China. Last month, she led a hunger strike for 18 days in front of the Chinese Embassy, calling on Beijing to help save their lives.

“I always feel sorry that I live a good life here in the South while many in the North are suffering. I am not an activist or anything, but I felt sad that North Korean issues are being politicized here, which has made people here lose interest in them,” Lee said.

“We should think about the issues without any political, religious intentions.”

All the high-profile defectors hoped that South Korean society could embrace the defectors with a more mature perspective, rather than thinking of them as a drain on taxpayers’ money.

“Some people here believe the defectors are only burdensome, rather than looking at their potential to help facilitate the reunification process. With a little investment in them, we can rake in bigger gains later on,” said Cho.

“We also have to think about the exclusive nature of our culture that was reluctant to embrace not only defectors but also those from multicultural families.”


Original article can be found here.

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