Identity, Security, and the Nation: Understanding the South Korean Response to North Korean Defectors

By | April 22, 2016 | No Comments

South Korea's Ministry of Unification (MOU) plays a large role in determing the tone and content public policy discourse on North Korean defectors resettling in South Korea. | Image: Sino-NK

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) plays a large role in determing the tone and content public policy discourse on North Korean defectors resettling in South Korea. | Image: Sino-NK

Barring North Korean regime collapse, national reunification is not poised to happen anytime soon. It doesn’t help that neither side is taking active steps to bring about the reconciliation necessary to bring unification to fruition. Nevertheless, the meta-narrative in South Korea supports the eventual unification of a divided nation; indeed, the constitution states as much, and no one is proposing to amend the Republic’s foundational document.

However, closer examination of this narrative reveals cracks and fissures. The reality is that ethnic affinity is not enough to transcend the very real differences between South Koreans and North Korean defectors resettling as new citizens in the Republic of Korea. Resettled defectors are simultaneously identified as members of in-group and out-group in both public discourse and in popular opinion. In a contribution to a special issue for Asian Ethnicity, Dr. Sarah Son (Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London) interrogates the former.1)Sarah Son, “Identity, Security and the Nation: Understanding the South Korean response to North Korean defectors,” Asian Ethnicity 17 no. 2 (2016): 171-184. In this piece, Son summarizes the main thrust of her work. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Identity, Security, and the Nation: Understanding the South Korean Response to North Korean Defectors

by Sarah Son

The study of North Korean defectors is an area which has been growing in popularity with researchers over the last decade. In large part this has to do with novelty of meeting and learning from a people who are living testimonies of life under a regime which is so difficult to access and which has become a source of global curiosity and concern in recent years. North Korean defectors have thus been the subject of a range of studies in anthropology, psychology, migration studies, and now in international relations. These studies trace their often dangerous journeys of escape, their efforts to find and build a new life in relative freedom, and the full range of social, political, economic and other questions that this process prompts.

One factor which becomes evident early on in any research done on North Koreans who have come to South Korea in particular, is how unfamiliar the host society is with the lived experiences of the defector community. The reasons for this are complex, but the lack of interest or understanding many defectors report experiencing in South Korea is not necessarily due to a lack of effort to the contrary on the part of the South Korean government. Indeed, the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) has dedicated significant energy and funds into providing automatic citizenship and integration support for the almost 28,000 North Korean defectors who have sought entry over the past two decades.

Identity as Driving Force | Exploring the settlement process, policy landscape, and public reception for North Koreans in the South is aided by examination of identity as a significant driving force both in the rationale for the acceptance of North Koreans as citizens in the first place, as well as in how they experience life in the South afterwards. More concretely, the role of identity in policy formation, as expounded by constructivist international relations scholars linked to the Copenhagen School, can be seen as significant in shaping the conflicting ways in which South Koreans identify with North Koreans as both brothers and strangers, enemies and allies, often all at the same time.

The result of competing types of identification evident in public discourse on defectors is their unconditional entry into South Korea as members of a nation-state which the constitution claims covers the entire Korean Peninsula. With this comes a settlement support system that outshines provision for refugees of other origin, and includes life-skills training, education support, housing subsidies, job subsidies, and if they are really lucky, a spot on one of a number of prime-time TV shows focussing on aspects of life before and after escape. At the same time, however, media reports tell of endemic unemployment, adaptation struggles, social marginalisation and financial difficulties within the defector population, while occasional stories of North Korean spies being found in their midst raise suspicion as to their status in society. The suicide rate of North Korean defectors in the South exceeds the already high national average, accounting for some 14 percent of deaths.

North Korean defectors participating in the variety show "Now on My Way to Meet You" [이제 만나러 갑니다]. | Image: Sino-NK

North Korean defectors participating in the variety show “Now on My Way to Meet You” [이제 만나러 갑니다]. | Image: Sino-NK

The process of social identification which has for some time been seen as a strong driver of how North Koreans are perceived in South Korean society as either “us” or “them” is influenced by factors which are inherently conflicting. On the “us” side of the identification spectrum can be seen the historical ties to the North and its people as part of “one Korea,” tragically wounded and divided by external forces, from the Japanese colonialists (1910-45), to the soon-to-be Cold War powers who orchestrated the physical division of the Peninsula into two states in 1948. The work of nationalist historians during the Japanese colonial era and beyond aimed to construct a narrative that healed and gave confidence to a people in a state of deep physical and emotional uncertainty, and the continuing calls for unification and the restoration of the Peninsula to its rightful status, including via welcoming North Koreans to the South, remains a powerful part of the national narrative today.

Yet when it comes to North Korean defectors, there is also an acknowledgement in both policy and discourse surrounding them that despite their rightful citizenship, their “North Korean-ness” is inherently undesirable, rendering them a “tainted” version of the national self. This tendency demands initiatives which remove the tainted aspects of their identity to help transform them into model members of developed, modern South Korean society where economic independence and social sophistication are paramount markers of success.

The struggles that many North Koreans have faced in meeting this expectation and making the use of the resources available to transform themselves, shed the evidence of their previous life and wean themselves off state support, have led naturally to an alternative type of identification with them in South Korean society: as strangers, or ostensibly “foreign” others. Although their status as escapees and “victims” of a brutal regime does largely devolve them of complicity in the sins of the North Korean state, the “differences” they exhibit in a society where homogeneity is so valued and defining, has led to a tendency both in policy and in social practice to treat them as outsiders. At times this has also led to them being grouped together in public policy aimed at foreigners of other origin as part of “multicultural Korea,” much to their frustration and disappointment.2)Nora Hui-Jung Kim, “Co-Ethnics, Refuges, or Immigrants? Multiple Identities of North Koreans in ‘multicultural’ South Korea,” Asian Ethnicity 17 no. 2 (2016): 167–70.

These multiple, conflicting, but yet co-existing identity narratives at work in South Korean policy and discourse on North Korean defectors present a puzzle with no easy solution. There is an obvious need for greater coherence in the South Korean national response if defectors are to settle well, and perhaps more importantly, if they are to become successful, living examples of the greater unification of the peninsula that so many hope for in the future.

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1. Sarah Son, “Identity, Security and the Nation: Understanding the South Korean response to North Korean defectors,” Asian Ethnicity 17 no. 2 (2016): 171-184.
2. Nora Hui-Jung Kim, “Co-Ethnics, Refuges, or Immigrants? Multiple Identities of North Koreans in ‘multicultural’ South Korea,” Asian Ethnicity 17 no. 2 (2016): 167–70.