Well, imagine you were an expat from North Korea trying to fit in.
For a North Korean defector fleeing the planet’s most repressive society, the journey itself is difficult enough. But getting out is just the beginning of what quickly turns into a struggle to adapt to new surroundings. This is especially difficult in South Korea, where North Koreans are suddenly confronted with a highly-educated, fiercely competitive workforce and a culture seemingly not quite ready to accept them as equals in the rat race.
In 1993, only eight refugees reached South Korea after defecting from the North. According to recent numbers, North Koreans, emboldened by greater access to news from the outside world and tales of the financial opportunity, have seen at least 2,000 arrive in the ROK every year since 2006.
However, around 10 percent eventually choose to leave the south for a third country, with most heading to the United Kingdom, America, Canada, Australia and Norway.
“When I wrote that I’m from the North on my resume, no companies showed interest in interviewing me at all… If I have a chance for a job interview, I’d just want to tell them that I’m a person capable of handling the assigned work.”
North Korean defectors that leave South Korea for other countries tend to be younger than the overall refugee population and depart mainly for economic reasons, with 44 percent making less than one million Korean won (US$885) per month while suffering far higher unemployment rates than the general populace.
While the government grants defectors immediate citizenship upon arrival, as well as offering numerous support programs, these state-funded initiatives are only designed to help defectors get started with their new lives. After that there is little in the way of assistance they can offer to help North Koreans integrate with and be accepted by their South Korean counterparts.
Lee Min-young came to Seoul three years ago after hiding in China for 10 years following her escape from the North. Lee says she does all she can to hide that she is from North Korea on her resume when seeking a job. Otherwise, she says she won’t get an interview.
“When I wrote that I’m from the North on my resume, no companies showed interest in interviewing me at all,” Kim said in an interview with the Korea Times last year. “I think they have a negative attitude toward North Korean defectors. If I have a chance for a job interview, I’d just want to tell them that I’m a person capable of handling the assigned work.”
When speaking with the Korean language daily Donga Ilbo, 50-year-old North Korean defector Kim Sae-yong attributed much of the trouble to worries that defectors are serving as spies for the North.
“Basically, law-abiding North Korean refugees are afraid of misunderstandings and suspicions,” Kim said, adding that he has received “threatening phone calls from people who won’t say who they are… the police are telling us to be very careful about these phone calls.”
Whatever the reason, the experience can be disheartening.
“I believed a whole new life would await me here,” said Lee. “I also thought I would enjoy what I deserved if I worked really hard, but the reality is much harsher than I expected.”
Recent statistics released by former opposition lawmaker Park Sun-young claim that it is so difficult adapting to life in South Korea that some North Koreans are actually going back. Though the Ministry of Unification calls the claims “groundless”, Park estimates that around 100 North Korean defectors living on Jeju returned to North Korea via China over the last year.
In reality, it's hard to verify the number of “double defectors” outside of gushing press conferences staged by the North that contain such genuflection as the following gem from returnee, Park Jong-suk:
“I hope many defectors return to the state security department. ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-un hasn’t blamed me for my unforgivable sin at all, and even allowed me to live with my son and daughter-in-law in Pyongyang.”
The Park production aside, a recent report from the Ministry of Unification claims that all is well on the southern front. Their poll found that seven out of 10 adult defectors are “satisfied” with life in the South, with only 4.8 percent saying they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” living here.
Once again, getting solid data is difficult, but one would suspect they are happier here than they were north of the 38th Parallel. If for nothing else than what must be a mind-boggling experience at the grocery store.
Helping Ease the Transition
With a reported 10 percent of defectors making their way out into the rest of the world after a go at it in South Korea, some foreign governments and NGOs are funding free programs to help them integrate into the international community.
Last February, in cooperation with the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, the Canadian embassy in Seoul launched a pilot program with three Canadian teachers offering free English lessons and cultural classes for defectors.
According to a statement released by the Canadian embassy, the program aims not only to teach North Koreans English, but also “to help expose them to Western culture, including Canadian values and global perspectives.”
In a recent interview, David Chatterson, Canadian Ambassador to both North and South Korea, told Haps that the program is primarily focused on helping North Koreans adjust to life outside of North Korea, be it here in the South or anywhere in the world.
“We have highly qualified teachers who have volunteered to teach very small class sizes of North Korean defectors. Teaching English, one, but also through teaching English, [opening] a discussion of the outside world, the world beyond North Korea. In fact, the world beyond the Korean peninsula.”
Chatterson expressed satisfaction with February’s pilot program and said that it will be expanded.
“We’ve had very positive feedback. One of our students, in fact, just received a scholarship to study in the US. We are going into phase two, doubling the number of students through the summer, then we’ll look at it again and see how we can run it in the fall.”
How You Can Help
If you are teacher interested in volunteering for this unique and promising program, the Canadian embassy in Seoul is currently accepting teaching applications for the fall session which is taught onsite at the embassy.
The program asks volunteers to teach one two-hour class per week, held weekdays during business hours, for 12 weeks from September through December.
The deadline for applying is Friday, August 31, and they ask that those interested forward a CV and a cover letter explaining why they would be an ideal candidate for the program. You can email the embassy directly at email@example.com.
You can visit the Canadian Embassy in Korea website here.
English translations of Korean language media sources for this article are from Asian Correspondent reporter, Nathan Schwartzman.
Related Story: North Korea Increases Domestic English Education (Radio Free Asia)