Assimilation from the Other Side: Looking at North Korean Resettlement in the ROK

By | July 10, 2012 | No Comments

There is no North-South wall to come tumbling down, but the divide and hopeful unification is as real on the peninsula as it was in 1980s central Europe | Image: Dwelling in the Word

Readers who were living in “West Germany” one day and then just “Germany” the next will be familiar with the dizzying array of new dynamics and inter-Korean interactions envisioned in a united Korea. If the limited sample size of North Koreans living in South Korea today is any indication, language will again be a thorny issue, symbolic of the ways in which the divided nations diverged into systems and ways of life which were mutually unfathomable. It also seems the more important the issue is and the closer the problem is, the greater the tendency to ignore the issue.  Inevitably, the price for these cultural divides is friction caused by hearing words, but (mis)understanding their cultural context.  

Our peripatetic Assistant Editor, Steven Denney, recently attended the Asan Plenum; this article stems from his engagement with the work and themes of Joanna Hosaniak and Dr. Sandra Fahy, who are working hard to shorten and smoothen what will surely be a bumpy road to reunification. – Roger Cavazos, Coordinator

Assimilation from the Other Side: Looking at North Korean Resettlement in the ROK

by Steven Denney

As the number of North Korean defectors in South Korea has grown to upwards of 20,000, the subject of North Korean refugees and defectors has become a topic of growing interest both in the ROK and abroad.  Narratives of defection, such as Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 and Mike Kim’s Escaping North Korea, positively litter the shelves of bookstores; to an extent, the topic has become so familiar that even a strange case of “reverse defection” revisits familiar themes.

Despite an increasing number of North Korean defectors in the last decade and a half, there does not seem to be a corresponding rise in peoples’ general understanding of defectors’ lives, particularly those residing in South Korea.  North Korean defectors identities, attitude towards their native North Korea and their livelihoods abroad are all in need of greater investigation.

Enter  Joanna Hosaniak and Dr. Sandra Fahy.  They are, respectively, head of the International Campaign and Cooperation Team for Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, and from the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.[1] Both Hosaniak and Fahy presented their ongoing research at the 2012 ASAN North Korea Week, the theme of which was appropriately entitled “Life on the Other Side: Insights into North Korea.”  A précis of their ongoing research is presented below.

Shin Dong-hyuk in Seoul | Image: Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk in Seoul | Image: Blaine Harden

Joanna Hosaniak, “Homecoming Kinsmen or Indigenous Foreigners? The Case of North Korean Re-settlers in South Korea,” presented at the 2012 Asan North Korea Week, “Life on the Other Side: Insights into North Korea,” June 20-June 22, 2012, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Seoul, South Korea.”[2]

Hosniak reports on the results of interviews with 109 North Korean defectors residing in South Korea. The survey results show, amongst many things, that despite being Korean, North Korean defectors living in the South face difficulties that any other immigrant from a non-Korean ethnicity would expect to face in South Korea—or any other foreign country.

Difficulties caused by language and cultural differences were reported to be a major impediment to assimilation; for example, Korean used in North Korea does not contain English words that are a part of everyday Korean vocabulary in South Korea. The cause for feelings of linguistic and cultural differences was suggested to be due to the “lack of friends and community involvement.”

Linguistic difficulty in integrating into South Korean society is compounded by the discrimination faced by those who reveal their North Korean origin. Many defectors reported experiencing discrimination in society and the workplace if their true identify was revealed. Many cope with social discrimination by concealing their North Korean origin, thus causing problems of identity. Though North Koreans have to pass through a thicket of initial assimilation programs and are granted modest government assistance, a perceived lack of institutional support thereafter further complicates the assimilation process for North Korean defectors, who are left to deal with social isolation.[3]

Female North Korean defectors appearing on South Korean TV show “Eje Mannaro Gapnida” | Image: KoreAm

Dr. Sandra Fahy, “North Korean Refugee Flows: Existing Knowledge, Trends from Other Cases, Lessons to Learn,” presented at the 2012 Asan North Korea Week, “Life on the Other Side: Insights into North Korea,” June 20-June 22, 2012, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Seoul, South Korea.”[4]

Discussion, predictions and fears of regime change in North Korea are easy to find in Western and Eastern print. Policy analysts both north and south of the Yalu River have long been preoccupied with scenarios of North Korean collapse and the implications of refugee flows.  In China, such analysis tends to be almost completely internal, very rarely seeing the light of day, whereas in the US, scholars like Jennifer Lind grind out long and exhaustive looks for journals like Foreign Policy on the question.  The notion of refugee outflows then, is hardly new, but it is also hardly a settled affair.

Fahy’s presentation provides an alternative perspective on North Koreans emigrating from North Korea by focusing on refugee flows out of North Korea in the event of sudden regime change or collapse in North Korea. Overall, Fahy finds that there will be no “flood” of refugees fleeing North Korea for China or South Korea. Even if the most liberal predictions are correct, less than 5 million North Koreans are expected to migrate to another country. According to conclusions of other studies and Fahy’s own work, most North Koreans will remain in North Korea. Thus, the bigger issue is that of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), of which will account for a majority of displaced North Koreans in the event of regime change or collapse.

IDPs, not to be confused with refugees, are individuals who have been displaced due to armed conflict, general violence or human rights violations, but have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary under the protection of another government. The peninsula has once before experienced a high number of IDPs. During the Korean War, more than 2.9 million people were considered internally displaced. Even during the war, many choose to stay within the borders of the Korean peninsula. Cultural factors, geography, strong familial ties and the fear of foreign countries kept Koreans inside Korea. Fahy predicts a similar situation within North Korea in the event of sudden regime change or collapse.

In addition to those who will find themselves internally displaced within North Korea, Fahy’s own work reveals that many North Korean refugees are not particularly satisfied with living outside of North Korea—a conclusion supported by Hosaniak’s work—and would have stayed if only the most basic necessities were met, such as food and the ability to maintain a livelihood.[5] This finding is made even more significant by the opinions expressed by many of the same refugees that given improved socio-political conditions they have interest in returning home (return migration). Both of these addition findings, especially when viewed together, make the issue of IDPs even more significant, because it can be assumed that many refugees who migrate home following regime change may quickly find themselves internally displaced.

Conclusion | North Korea, although technically the same “nation” as the South, is perceived by both North and South Koreans as different, revealed in the difficulties faced by North Koreans re-settling in other countries, particularly South Korea, and the attitudes towards return migration amongst many refugees. According to myth, the entire Korean race descended from Mt. Baektu. However, share a pot of rice wine with a Korean friend who concerns him or herself with the issue of reunification and North-South relations and you may hear something along these lines: we were once the same, and wish to see the situation as such, but have grown to be very different. Although the South Korean constitution does not differentiate between a Korean residing in Pyongyang and a Korean residing in Seoul, the reality is much different. Decades of separation and starkly different levels of economic growth and social development between the two countries have resulted in an divergence between the people of North and South Korea that the similarity of their names and their shared heritage conceals.


[1] Both Hosaniak and Fahy cover the topic of defectors but from slightly different perspectives. Hosaniak focuses exclusively on defectors residing in South Korea. Fahy, on the other hand, looks more generally at refugee flows in the region—her own fieldwork concerning refugees in both Seoul and Tokyo.

[2] .ppt hosted by SinoNK.com with permission by the author.

[3] In addition to other burdens of social integration, such as cultural and linguistic differences and identity issues, Hosaniak’s survey of defectors reveals that a high percentage (46 out of 109 respondents) reported believing that North Koreans are viewed overall as a burden to South Korean society.

[4] .ppt hosted by SinoNK.com with permission by the author.

[5] Dr. Fahy has also provided a copy of a short report on refugee flows, wherein references to her fieldwork in Seoul and Tokyo are made. Hosted by SinoNKcom with permission by the author.

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