Aliens among Brothers? the Status and Perception of North Korean Refugees in South Korea*

Article excerpt

The recent dramatic increase of North Korean refugees in South Korea (called saeteomin, new settlers) has attracted the attention of scholars as well as practitioners not only because of their impact on South Korea and its citizens but, more significantly, because of their unique experiences there. They have encountered various hardships in South Korean society, including economic difficulties, maladjustment to schools, and emotional distance or isolation. This article attempts to illuminate and analyze the status of the North Korean refugees and their perceptions and emotions with respect to South Koreans.

Key words: North Korean refugees, human rights-East Asia, Korean unification

Introduction

According to the Ministry of Unification of South Korea, the number of North Korean refugees has reached 9,706 as of 2006. Many of them made arduous treks as long as 6,000 miles from North Korea across China/Mongolia and Southeast Asian countries to get to South Korea. When the 400 North Koreans currently being investigated and educated at the Hanawon1 and the 500 North Koreans under protection of South Korean embassies and consulates in Thailand and Mongolia for their entry into South Korea are added together,2 the current refugee total is more than 10,000.

How well have these saeteomin settled down in South Korean society? Are they respected by or living in harmony with South Koreans? Or have they become second-class citizens who form a new minority group in South Korean society?

A 2003 survey by the Korea Institute for National Unifica- tion (KINU) shows that 60.5 percent of saeteomin respondents are satisfied with their overall life in South Korea whereas only 6.7 percent of them are not satisfied.3 The 2005 study by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (DCNKHR) on saeteomin settlement conditions indicates that the percentage of "satisfied" respondents (28.4 percent) is about four times higher than that of "unsatisfied" respondents (6.6 percent).4

However, it is possible that they measure their satisfaction based on a comparison between their life in South Korea and the hardships they survived in North Korea and the countries they stayed in en route to South Korea.5 This measure of satisfaction does not explain how successfully they have settled into South Korean society nor their integration with South Koreans.

In this article, we examine the status of saeteomin in South Korea and their perception of South Koreans. For the purpose of analysis, we employ the three categories of "making money in South Korea," "studying in South Korea," and "interacting with South Koreans." For comparison, we will address South Koreans' perception and attitude regarding saeteomin in their society.

Making Money in South Korea

Making money in South Korea is very important and urgent for North Korean refugees. Many of them arrived in South Korea with the expectation of economic betterment and a hope for freedom. However, the 2003 KINU survey showed that the largest number of respondents (28.8 percent) indicated that they most needed "economic betterment."6 Also, in the 2005 study of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, the largest number of respondents (22.7 percent) indicated that "economic difficulties" are the most difficult obstacle in their life in South Korea.7 In the same study, only 5.1 percent considered themselves middle-class (or above) residents. Many identified themselves as middle-low class (9.9 percent), lower class (57.3 percent), or as living in abject poverty (27.5 percent). These data reveal that a sub- stantial number of saeteomin feel relative (though not absolute) deprivation in South Korea.8

Actually, in 2005, the average monthly income per capita for the South Korean population was approximately 1,390,000 won (about $1,482).9 About 77 percent of surveyed saeteomin said their total monthly income, including wages, government subsidies and nongovernment financial aid, was less than 1,000,000 won (about $1,066). …