By Dr. Vernasius T. Tandia
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Compared to about a decade ago, when there was widespread opposition to reunification, a growing number of Koreans now seem to be settling for it.
With increasing public discourse on the issue, including the current jostling over a mandatory reunification tax, the move appears imminent, at least from the South Korean side. Of course, widespread preparations are being anticipated with the Ministry of Unification taking the lead in establishing various structures for accommodating and integrating North Koreans, in case reunification eventually sees the light of day.
Nevertheless, protracted views of North Korean refugees as pests, usurpers, and rogues that frequently find expression among South Koreans might be doing more in offsetting the psychological balance required for such an ambitious project.
North Koreans as citizens certainly did not choose despondency over prosperity just as they did not opt for senseless imprisonment in place of freedom. A majority of them happen to be victims who grow up to find themselves dangerously entrapped under the high hand of a repressive regime.
They suffer gross economic deprivations, must withstand the violation of their civil liberties, must not escape for refuge or practice a religion, and must praise the regime at all times.
The state’s (former) strongman Kim Jong-il has carved out for himself a nuclear sanctuary manned by a callous military that sap up the tons of food aid sent from the South and other countries to the suffering masses.
Those who have succeeded in escaping from the cruelty tell horror tales of human rights abuses from the regime that usually result in the death and secret disposal of the victims.
Yet, once escaped, they risk reclining into the same life of oppression in the hands of their new employers, brokers, state agents, and new neighbors.
More than 23,000 North Korean refugees are currently in South Korea. They come traumatized and frightened, but, on the other hand, dazzled at the abundance of food, prosperity, and above all, the freedom reigning in South Korea.
They dream of a new beginning, but remain haunted by the draconian consequences at home were they ever to be repatriated for their defection. That dream does not come easily with numerous visible and invisible discriminations tied to them in various domains of everyday life. Potential employers and other citizens continue to look at them with wariness, suspicion, and disdain. Meanwhile, the government’s one-size-fits-all training policy confines them to low level jobs like cleaning, cooking, and nursing, though some do have higher education and demonstrate credible abilities.
Without their families and barely surviving on meager disbursements from the government’s unification ministry and charity organizations, their psychological pain is often far from over.
A young defector recently recounted how she has spent almost every month of her 21 years on earth finding enough food to stay alive. While this might be one in a thousand cases, it is remarkable that an adult who has known nothing but oppression and seclusion her entire life maintains hope for a brighter future.
It takes the courage of a lion and the slyness of a fox to dream and successfully embark on an escape mission from one of the world’s most secluded terrains. Likewise, it takes a true heart to tirelessly work to secure the more than $10,000 USD in broker fees needed to rescue a family member or loved one from North Korea, as those that have succeeded in escaping to neighboring countries are reportedly doing.
As much as genuine worries remain about the security threat that some of these refugees could pose, it might prove important to see them primarily as humans with equal rights, capable of reconstituting themselves enough to pursue and attain economic and social stability.
It is incumbent on South Korean authorities to take measures that would prevent the possibility of some of the refugees posing security problems. But it is possible that this can be done responsibly, without resorting to any methodical abuses of their rights as humans.
Of course, much of the little that is known about North Koreans indicates that they are inherently hard working, creative, enduring, passionate, and ambitious — not simply bitter, ignorant, and aggressive as popularly portrayed.
If reunification is inevitable and if it must be realized peacefully, it would be important for the journey to begin with a mental reinvigoration, which allows for a more accommodating and positive idealizing of North Koreans.
This is precisely what aid groups and state authorities should strive to reflect in any new legislation or policy towards North Korea in the new quest for reunification. (end)
Vernasius T. Tandia, Ph.D., teaches International Organizations at the Department of International Relations at Daegu University in Korea. He specializes in international peace and security.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.