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North Korean defector policy faces overhaul

Publication Date : 17-09-2012


The Seoul government is seeking to enhance its overall policy to support North Korean defectors amid growing criticism that it has not been effectively carried out with many still struggling to adapt here.

Calls have persisted that the authorities should craft more systematic and efficient programmes for the defectors, whose number has topped 24,000, in order not to waste taxpayers’ money.

“The government is making multi-faceted efforts to complement (the existing) policy while in the process of evolving the policy in consideration of the defectors’ needs and the changing environment,” the Unification Ministry said in a press release.

The ministry’s budget dedicated to defector-related programmes is 123.9 billion won (US$110.8 million), accounting for 58 per cent of the ministry’s total budget for this year. Together with provincial governments’ budgets, the total public funds for defectors are much greater.

“It still remains questionable whether the public fund is well distributed to actually improve the livelihoods of the defectors,” said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center who defected to the South in 1979.

“The authorities are trying to increase the number of counseling centers, resting places and other facilities with state organizations trying to yield good achievements from them. It is just window dressing, (and is) not welcomed by the defectors.”

Amid such criticism, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance has launched an assessment of government projects for the defectors and is expected to release the results later this month.

“Some have raised the need to analyse the outcome of the programmes to help defectors adapt here, given that part of the government budget is spent on them. This is why we started the assessment,” Woo Beom-gi, senior ministry official in charge of the financial management, said in an interview.

Separately, the Board of Audit and Inspection has also looked into government agencies managing defector-related programmes. They are the Unification Ministry’s settlement support division, the North Korean Refugees Foundation and the Hanawon resettlement centre. It already conducted a preliminary survey last month regarding the policy implementation and budget management at the agencies.

Ahn of the WNKRC pointed out that a big chunk of the public funds allotted to supporting the defectors is spent on staffing the state agencies rather than focusing on ensuring the defectors’ resettlement.

“The state-funded North Korea Refugees Foundation, for example, spends an annual budget of more than 30 billion won. It hires only a small number of defectors and most of the employees are from outside or from the Unification Ministry,” he said.

“The best that can be done to help the defectors is offering them sustainable employment. This has not been successful.”

The government offers each defector 19 million won for their resettlement in the South. On top of this, it gives each financial support worth up to 21.4 million won for his or her job training and employment plans.

Other support programmes include subsidising the cost of living - when defectors earn less than the government-assessed minimum cost of living - and a medical insurance policy.

But many still appear to have difficulty living in the South.

According to a state survey conducted in January on 8,299 defectors, 30 per cent of those polled had a monthly income of less than 1 million won. The unemployment rate among defectors was 12.1 per cent, more than three times higher than the overall rate for the country.

Reflecting their disappointment with capitalist society, some have even opted to defect from the South to other nations with more welcoming welfare programmes for refugees.

Defectors said that many defectors in their 20s and 30s have ventured to Britain and other European countries as they found little hope for a decent life here given cut-throat competition with more affluent, educated South Koreans.

“Rather than applying a comprehensive policy covering the defectors’ community, programmes should be divided according to age groups. Each group has different needs as they are in situations different from one another,” said Joseph Park, who defected from his communist homeland in 1999.

“Those who attend universities and receive higher-level education appear to get along well, though they do have some difficulty mingling with South Korean students due to the cultural and education gaps. But those without higher education, they have much more difficulty adapting here.”

After all, what matters most is the public attitude toward defectors, Park added.

“South Korea has a culture that is quite exclusive and is reluctant to embrace other cultures, making it difficult for defectors to smoothly assimilate into society,” he said.

“There are still prejudices, bad opinions of defectors. There should also be programmes to enhance the understanding of the defectors among young students here as they still don’t know and have never met us before.”


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