By honoring defectors is South Korea unintentionally erecting a barrier to integration?

The Republic of Korea’s Minister of Unification, Kim Young-ho, meets with the heads of North Korean defector organizations regarding the establishment of ‘North Korean Defectors’ Day’ on Jan 29. (Source: Ministry of Unification,

When I started English lessons again when I was 20, the first topic in the textbook was St. Patrick’s Day in America. This celebration of immigrants gave me a favorable impression of American society as one that embraces its minorities. It stuck with me for a long time. 

Now it looks like South Korea is going to give us immigrants from North Korea a similar day. But I’m not sure how I feel about this.

President Yoon Suk-yeol raised the idea of a North Korean Defectors’ Day in a cabinet meeting on January 16 and the following month Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho announced the selection of July 14. Events for the inaugural day are in the planning stage.

The ministry has said the intention is to honor the suffering of defectors and those who died trying to escape and to promote an inclusive social attitude towards.

The reason for choosing July 14 is that this was the date in 1997 when the law was implemented that provided legal protection and support for the rapid settlement of people escaping from the North. The law used the term “defector” to define anyone who had left North Korea and not acquired foreign citizenship. At the time, there were 848 northerners in the South who were referred to variously as repatriates, deserters, escapees and refugees. There are now around 34,000.

Since the ministry announcement in February, media covering the issue have tended to be positive. 

Some, however, have quoted people claiming that designating a special day keeps North Koreans from assimilating and exacerbates discrimination. Some suggest a day promoting human rights for North Koreans instead. 

“People say a defectors’ day will help social integration, but I think that’s the opinion of people who haven’t experienced living here as a North Korean,” said Song. “The only way I can avoid discrimination at work is to hide my background. Many of us just want to live as citizens here. Setting up a defectors’ day only serves to remind us that we’re still seen as different.”

As an example, Song, who has a trucking business, said that when drove to the presidential residence in Yongsan to deliver landscaping material, he was the only driver denied entry at the main gate. 

“While other drivers were allowed to go in, I was the one denied of the entry there. So, I thought it was because I was a defector from North Korea,” he said. “I appreciate it was probably a security measure, but it just made me wonder once again. No matter how hard I try or how long I’m here, am I always going to be an outsider?”

Another defector, named Baek, said her personal experience is that she feels “exposed and in danger” when she discloses her identity. 

She described how after three years in a company she discovered she was being paid 200,000 won less than other new hires and, unlike them, had received no raise because the boss knew she was from the North. 

“I wanted to resign and look for a higher paying job. But he told me to stay, saying nobody else would hire a North Korean like me,” she said. “Then he patted me on the shoulder.” At the time, she didn’t know workplace harassment could be reported, and that threats of this nature regarding salary or to prevent people quitting was illegal.

“When I meet defectors who have settled in places like the UK or Canada, they don’t seem to understand the discrimination we face. They say people there don’t care that they are from North Korea. I want to live in a country like that. In fact, until this discrimination disappears, I don’t even want to hear the words ‘North Korean defector.’”

Baek said a defectors’ day may work politically in that, now Kim Jong-un is saying South Korea is the enemy and that defectors are traitors, it may send the message to would-be defectors in North Korea that South Korean society welcomes them. 

“But it won’t promote social integration between us here,” she said. “Instead, it will segregate us more.”

The concerns of Song and Baek are not isolated. In a 2015 survey by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, around 50 percent of defectors said they had experienced discrimination in South Korea. Women, comprise the majority of defectors, in particular complained about sexual harassment,  wage discrimination and other forms of prejudice.

The creation of a particular day could create the impression that North Koreans are being treated as victims who need special treatment. This could undermine efforts by defectors themselves to positively develop their identities and capabilities.

“One of my South Korean colleagues even said it seemed to her like reverse discrimination,” Baek said.

The integration of North Koreans in South Korea is a process of overcoming cultural differences in the interest of the future united community. The irony is that, by creating a North Korean Defectors’ Day, the government may be erecting a barrier to integration.

Lee Jia

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