For North Koreans, departure from North Korea is usually motivated by a need to find a way of supporting themselves and/or their families. Reasons for continuing onto South Korea usually stem from the fact that, for North Korean refugees, if found living and working in China without proper permits they face repatriation and an uncertain fate once returned.
Exposure to South Korean music, drama and movies while in North Korea and China mean that for North Korean refugees who decide to risk the journey out of China, South Korea is usually the chosen destination. Reinforcing the choice of South Korea over other countries such as the US., is the fact that many North Koreans already have family and/or friends in South Korea, and the waiting period to enter the US is more than double that of South Korea.
The journey from China to South Korea usually leads North Korean refugees through over-land trails that have become known as “The Underground Railroad”. These paths, reaching from China into Southeast Asia are a lifeline for North Koreans attempting to avoid detection by the Chinese police. For those lucky enough to make it into either Thailand, Laos or another ‘friendly’ country, they are detained, in squalid conditions, while both the local authorities and South Korean government agents attempt to verify their identity. Detainment and questioning can take anywhere from weeks to months.
Once North Korean refugees arrive in South Korea, they are once again dispatched for inquisition by the South Korean authorities. The questioning process is often long, stressful and repetitive, as South Korean security agents attempt to verify the identity of the person and confirm they are neither spy nor ethnic Korean-Chinese. Questions probe into the details of the person’s life, the exact location of their home in North Korea, their friends, their living conditions and their movements since leaving North Korea. Answers given are cross referenced with information received over the years from other North Korean refugees and through satellite derived data; until the authorities are satisfied the person’s reasons for travelling to South Korea are genuine.
Once released from the period of interrogation, North Korean refugees are then sent to Hanawon for education. Hanawon is a government centre set up in the early 2000s when the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea started to dramatically rise. North Koreans spend between two and three months in Hanawon -time required has fluctuated over the years in accordance with the demands of the South Korean government- during this time they are given basic information on South Korean society. This includes training on how to use the subway system, how to use an automatic teller machine and how to spend the money once withdrawn. Also on offer are history, maths, English, science and Korean classes. As all-encompassing as the education at Hanawon might try to be, the task of cramming a lifetime’s education into three months means that there are always going to be deficiencies in the understanding a North Korean refugee might have regarding South Korean society. As a result, for many, once the time to leave the centre comes, it is a case of learning as you go.
The common answer many North Korean refugees give when questioned as to how they felt after arrival in South Korean society is, “Shocked”, Disappointed”, “Lost” and, ultimately, “Very lonely”. In particular, for those North Koreans who arrive in South Korea without any family, the reality of their new lives can seem a world away from the well polished dramas they watched in North Korea and China. Rather than marking the end of their journey, entry into South Korean society marks the beginning of a long settlement period during which many North Koreans learn through a process of trial and error, adapting to their new home as best they can and with whatever help they can find.
Numerous studies have shown that a very high percentage of North Korean refugees arrive in South Korea suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This differs from person to person, according to the length of time spent in a third country, the severity of experiences in that country, gender, age, level of education, and whether or not they were accompanied by family members. The effects of PTSD manifest themselves in various ways; the most apparent, in regards to North Korean refugees in South Korea seems to be a distrust of strangers and a difficulty in forming long lasting, emotionally based relationships. Without people to rely on, without someone to talk with about problems encountered prior to arrival and arising over the course of settling into their new environment, many North Koreans run the risk of becoming introverted and distrustful of their surroundings. This poses an additional problem of a growing community of individuals for whom the wider society is conceived of as being hostile in character.
In the last five years the South Korea government has taken various steps which it believes will improve the settlement process of North Korean refugees in South Korea. This has included cutting back the settlement funding for new arrivals in an attempt to curtail a reliance on the state for free handouts amongst North Koreans and cut back on the amount of taxes used to support North Koreans. It is likely that the burden of ‘funding’ individuals has instead shifted to civil society, to churches and NGO groups. The scaling down of funding has occurred concomitantly with the establishing of “Hana centres”. Hana centres, staffed by social workers and persons considered qualified to deal with the needs of North Korea refugees, are expected to offer North Koreans the on-going support previously unavailable. The results of these initiatives are yet to be seen.
The South Korean government advocates an assimilationist policy towards North Korean refugees based on a shared ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity. Despite this, many North Koreans feel like outsiders in South Korea and are often more comfortable in the presence of other North Koreans. As the North Korean community increases in number, the dangers of a North Korean enclave forming in the midst of South Korean mainstream society are becoming apparent in both the hostility voiced by some North Koreans towards a felt rejection by South Koreans and the ambivalence expressed by some South Koreans towards these new arrivals.
The key to countering the formation of a marginalized group and staving off the troubles that would no doubt accompany such a scenario lies in the promotion of education and mutual understanding between North Korea refugees and South Koreans. NGO organizations and groups started by North Koreans such as book clubs, hiking clubs and such, play an important role in contributing towards the adaptation and settlement of North Koreans in South Korea. Many Non-governmental organizations in South Korea work hard to create an environment in which North Koreans feel safe enough to open up. Through cultural events, themed camps, organized classes and one-to-one mentoring programs, it is possible for North Koreans to interact with South Korean and foreign volunteers, thus laying the foundation for friendships to develop and mutual exchange to take place. The instrumental benefits for North Koreans who become involved in such groups are numerous, as they are given the opportunity to study English, maths, Korean and other subjects in the expectation that this will contribute towards their adaption to the South Korean education system.
Perhaps more importantly though, are the emotional rewards that North Koreans can glean from participation with such groups. The friendships made through these groups contribute towards much needed emotional support, offering feelings of acceptance and worth for individuals who may have felt alone for a long time. In particular, for North Korean refugees who arrive in South Korea without any family, many of these organizations offer a pseudo familial environment essential for the recovery of those suffering from the effects of PTSD. These groups play a vital role as a bridge between the mainstream South Korean community and incoming North Koreans. The work of the staff and many volunteers in NGOs and informal groups are an essential part of the narrative of North Korean refugees in South Korea.