N.Korean Defectors Ambivalent About Life in the South

Many North Korean defectors in South Korea are satisfied enough with their life in the South to bring their family over but feel that fierce competition and discrimination are hard to overcome. Their feelings remain ambivalent even after a considerable time spent living here.

Pundits say this failure to integrate fully into South Korean society must be addressed before reunification.

In a survey by the Chosun Ilbo of 200 North Korean defectors at the end of January, 71.5 percent said they are satisfied with their life in the South, compared to 22.5 percent who said neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and 4.5 percent who are not satisfied.

Ninety-one percent of the respondents said they are familiar with the ways of South Koreans, with 63 percent describing themselves as South Korean. Only 25 percent still identify themselves as North Koreans and 10 percent as neither.

Asked whether they would like to bring family members from North Korea here, 51 percent said they will do so as soon as possible and 42.5 percent if they get the opportunity.

Most said their image of South Korea improved once they got here, with 82 percent, as against a mere 5.5 percent who said it got worse. Most North Koreans in other words are adapting to the life here reasonably well and comfortably.

Freedom and affluence were cited as the most satisfying elements of life in the South.

North Korean defectors walk across a crosswalk in Seoul. North Korean defectors walk across a crosswalk in Seoul.

Kim Hee-jae was originally from Tokchon, South Pyongan Province, where it was "still hard to feed myself in the North despite working in the mine for 20 hours a day. Now in the South, I can earn according to how much I work, and I can even save a little."

Kim Yong-hwa came from Pyongyang. "I used to get stopped and checked seven times every time I went to Sinuiju from Pyongyang, but here I can travel freely without having to worry about the police."

Cho Kyong-il, who now studies in a South Korean university, said, "At first, South Korean society was strange, but now I'm totally adapted to it. After a few years, young North Korean defectors will fully adapt to the economic and social system of South Korea."

But many defectors are economically disadvantaged here and suffer discrimination. Only 26.5 percent of the respondents earned more than W1 million (US$1=W1,068) a month, or roughly the minimum wage, while 45 percent said they earn nothing and 18.5 percent that they make less than W1 million.

Just 27 percent had permanent jobs, and 46.5 percent had never worked here or were unemployed at the moment. Only 25 percent worked at least 20 days a month and 27 percent eight hours or more per day.

Many also complain that prejudice and discrimination against North Koreans can make them feel like second-class citizens.

Kim Song-chol from Nampo said, "There is serious discrimination against North Korean defectors and rigid social stratification. Moving up the social ladder into the middle or upper-middle class is virtually impossible."

Some defectors who come from the North Korean elite or have a good education manage to make a good life here, but those who do not struggle to adapt.

Jong Kwang-song from Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province. "Because competition is so fierce in South Korea, it's hard to survive and adapt." And Park Chung-kwon from Hamhung added, "South Koreans are not friendly to those who are different and tend to treat them as outcasts."

Song Won-jun was shocked how many people commit suicide in the South. "People are so individualistic, inhumane, and cold-hearted." He said.

englishnews@chosun.com / Mar. 18, 2014 08:18 KST