New Values and Old Orders: Where do North Koreans Fit in the New South Korea?

By | May 14, 2019 | No Comments

New report explores native South Koreans’ attitudes towards North Korean defector-migrants and other prospective immigrants. Click the cover image to download the report.

The notion that Korean nationhood is defined by shared ancestry and culture is being relentlessly challenged in South Korea by demographic realities and a new discourse on multiculturalism. What are the implications for integration of North Korean defector-migrants?

From 1998-2017, the number of resettled North Korean migrants in South Korea rose from fewer than 1,000 to more than 30,000. Compared with the total number of immigrants in the country, currently 2.2 million, 30,000 represents a mere drop in the bucket. However, North Korean arrivals are a special case, a group that receives an unusual degree of attention and whose experiences are often assumed to offer a proxy measure for the ostensible willingness of today’s South Koreans to unify with their increasingly different ethnic brethren.

With research funding from the UniKorea Foundation and published in collaboration with Leiden Asia Centre, a new report by Steven Denney, Christopher Green, and Peter Ward explores this new social reality in South Korea.

The authors ask some searching questions. Are co-ethnic newcomers from North Korea warmly received or looked upon with suspicion? And how do South Koreans’ attitudes towards defector-migrants compare to attitudes toward immigrants of both Korean and non-Korean descent? Furthermore, how do North Korean defector-migrants, who hail from an authoritarian regime, adapt to their new host democracy? What are their attitudes towards politics and nationality and how do these compare with native-born South Koreans? The foreword is written by Darcie Draudt.

The executive summary from the report is reproduced below. A presentation of findings will take place at Leiden University’s campus at The Hague on Thursday, May 16. For more details about the event, refer to the Leiden Asia Center posting.


Executive Summary

Researchers from the University of Toronto, Leiden University, and the University of Vienna surveyed 1,008 South Koreans and 350 North Korean defector-migrants. The surveys were designed and implemented in cooperation with a Canadian survey firm, Delvinia, and the South Korean state-run Hana Foundation.

The South Koreans were asked about their attitudes towards and preferences regarding immigrants and diversity. A primary focus of attention was attitudes toward people of the same ethnicity, in particular North Korean defector-migrants and Korean-Chinese, vs. non-Korean groups. Innovative survey experiments were conducted to better understand “true” preferences towards defector-migrant resettlement, who South Koreans prefer coming to their country, and to whom they do and do not wish to confer public assistance.

The North Korean defector-migrants were asked about their attitudes towards national membership and belonging, as well as democracy and components of state and society in South Korea. In order to establish the nature of resettled North Korean identities, they were also asked about the factors of the North Korean lives they left behind. Their opinions were compared to native South Koreans on identical questions.

The key findings are as follows:

What do South Koreans Think About Immigration and Diversity Overall?

  • Most South Koreans support their new, multicultural national identity. While citizens show some uneasiness about immigration in general, there is no evidence that they are rejecting diversity.
  • Most South Koreans support their new, multicultural national identity. While citizens show some uneasiness about immigration in general, there is no evidence that they are rejecting diversity.
  • South Koreans express a preference for ethnic Korean immigrants, but not all ethnic Koreans. They are most at ease with the entry and resettlement of North Korean defector-migrants, whereas Korean-Chinese are among the least preferred immigrant groups.
  • Among prospective immigrant attributes, language capacity and employment plans trump other considerations.

What do South Koreans Think about North Korean Defector-Migrant Newcomers?

  • When provided with complete information about prospective immigrants, North Koreans are, all else considered, highly regarded as potential newcomers to South Korea. Among a selection of context-relevant nationalities, North Korea ranks second behind the United States.
  • South Koreans prefer to provide welfare distribution (in this case, public housing) to native-born Koreans over those born outside South Korea, and that includes defector-migrants. However, there is no evidence of targeted discrimination against newcomers from the North.
  • Multiculturalism is not at odds with the resettlement of North Korean defector-migrants.

What do North Korean Defector-Migrants Think?

  • National identities of resettled North Korean defector-migrants and native-born South Koreans largely converge.
  • Defector-migrants are somewhat less accepting of difference compared to native-born South Koreans, but not substantively so. Defector-migrants do not prefer a multicultural to an ethnically homogeneous country, but there is no opposition to the idea of a multicultural South Korea per se.
  • Defector-migrants are just as supportive of democracy as native South Koreans but diverge somewhat from native South Koreans regarding democratic alternatives.
  • North Korean defector-migrants are much more supportive of national reunification than are native-born South Koreans.
  • Defector-migrants show greater pride in the accomplishments of South Korea than do native-born South Koreans.

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