Defectors' Material Obsessions Raising Concern in Seoul

      June 15, 2011 11:12

      North Korean defectors attend an event to mark the 11th anniversary of Hanawon, the government institution for North Korean refugees, in July last year (file photo).

      A seminar has found that North Korean defectors who have relocated to the South to build new lives for themselves and their families tend to obsessively pursue money and remain alienated from their communities. The seminar was hosted by the Institute for Modern Korea at the Academy of Korean Studies on Tuesday.

      Over 20,000 North Koreans have risked their lives so far to escape the harsh realities of their homeland -- including collectivism, oppressive rule, famine and the threat of being interned in a Soviet-style gulag -- for a new life in the South.

      However as they attempt to fit in to a new democratic society and raise funds to try and be reunited with those family members they left behind, many have become overrun with unhealthy ideas of materialism, or "distorted mammonism," participants of the seminar found.

      Instead of chasing the kind of "wholesome individualism" encouraged by a free democratic society, many of the refugees tend of alienate their fellow defectors due to feelings of shame, the participants said. They also found that the North Koreans suffer from having too little time to adjust to a capitalist system, and mainly end up as work horses.    

      Pundits voiced a chorus of constructive observations at the gathering, but many expressed concern that money-worshipping has become a new trend among the North Koreans, as they squirrel away funds to bring their relatives over. Others blamed South Koreans for seeing the defectors as cheap laborers rather than making greater efforts to embrace them and understand their difficulties.

      ◆ Mammonism

      One defector, a 45-year-old surnamed Han, said it was hard to make ends meet in her newly adopted home. She has been living in the South for nearly three years, but still has not managed to fully adapt, she said.

      "I'm doing part-time jobs here and there until late at night, including working at a restaurant, so I'm always tired," she said. "I want to learn something new, but I have no time. The only idea I have in my head is that I have to make money to bring my younger sister's family over from the North."

      A 38-year-old defector surnamed Chung, who has been here for three years, said that everybody she knows shares the same goal: work to make more money.

      "I haven't thought seriously about what to do in the future. I know nothing. I'm a total stranger here. Even though we can't make much money now, we women should hope for a better future."

      This is creating an ironic situation that has North Koreans becoming more materialistic than their South Korean counterparts, said Joseph Cho, chief of research at the Police Science Institute.

      "Defectors are obsessed with the mistaken belief that they must make money at all costs in order to survive in a capitalist society. This is the wrong way to look at things, and it make their attempt to settle in South Korea that much more difficult."

      ◆ Women as Core of Defectors

      Women accounted for only 7 percent of the defectors until 1989, but from 2002 they began to outnumber their male counterparts. They now account for 69 percent of the 20,539 defectors who have relocated to the South.

      There are several reasons for this. It is easier for women to flee the North, because security guards generally consider them less of a flight risk and so pay less attention to them. Furthermore, many brokers work in the North Korea-China border regions, the main escape route for North Koreans, look to earn a commission by finding single women to marry Chinese men.

      Women also appear to be more willing to risk their lives for their families. Increasing numbers of North Korean women have arrived in the South in recent years, obtained citizenship and then sought to bring their families over, usually via China. Female defectors aged between 20 and 39 now account for more than 60 percent of all defectors in the South.

      "These years are the most important period in women's lives, as it is the time when they do their studies, find professions, get married and have children," said Han Mi-ra, an official who is tasked with finding jobs for women at the Gyeonggi provincial government. "We need to develop role models for them and implement a policy that supports female defectors so they can fulfill their dreams and attain their goals in life."

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