Hanawon, the resettlement center run by the South Korean government for North Korean defectors, marked its 10th anniversary on Wednesday. A total of 16,500 North Korean defectors have arrived in South Korea until now and their numbers are expected to surpass 20,000 next year. North Korean defectors still account for just one out of every 3,000 people in South Korea, but their numbers will continue to rise.
The Organization for One Korea, which provides support and assistance to North Korean defectors, surveyed 255 of them last month and found that 58 percent still felt they were North Koreans, and only 6 percent felt they were now South Koreans. The statistics show how difficult it is for North Korean defectors to feel like they are proud members of South Korean society.
The biggest problems facing North Korean defectors are unemployment and poverty. Between 40 to 50 percent of North Korean defectors are jobless, while around 65 percent fall into the lowest wage bracket, requiring government assistance. What jobs they do manage to find are mostly part-time or temporary work, and only a small minority find full-time positions or start their own business. It is difficult for the government to provide indefinite assistance since that would not only entail huge fiscal burden but also be unfair to other minority groups.
The best solution is to boost job training programs for North Korean defectors and to help them find stable work that suits their talents. Hanawon is a temporary shelter and provides only three months of training. It is impossible for the center to offer job-training programs. Defectors can receive job training if they wish and attend classes at educational facilities for South Koreans. But defectors say they find it difficult to keep up with those classes and have a tough time getting the necessary certificates. What's needed are specialized job training programs.
And even after receiving job-training programs, North Korean defectors have a hard time finding work. They must apply for positions offered through regional job centers run by the Labor Ministry, but only a small handful say they used them, while most only hear about jobs through their own community. hey are not only unfamiliar with the free market but also suffer from being stereotyped by South Koreans. We need to come up with employment assistance programs that are more open to the needs of North Koreans.
There are many other areas in which the government could strengthen support programs, such as medical services and more courses for students from the North to adjust to South Korean schools.
We all need to change our negative stereotypes of North Koreans and look for ways to help them. According to the survey by the Organization for One Korea, 87 percent of South Koreans said the government should either "put special emphasis on" supporting North Korean defectors or "try its best." Yet 39 percent said they had negative perceptions of North Korean defectors because of the threatening actions of the North Korean regime, while 24 percent said they viewed defectors negatively simply because they came from the North.
Whether defectors can adjust successfully to South Korean society is a litmus test of the success of reunification. It can be achieved sooner only if North Korean defectors who risked their lives and went through countless obstacles to get to the South, can spread their wings here and expand their areas of participation our society, and there represent the interests of other people from the North and have a say in the process of reunification. The government must be offer a set of programs and measures for defectors that are markedly different from those provided by the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments.