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“I thought Korea was a scary country. People seemed too sly… That woman Park Geun-hye was bad but she didn’t have much time left in the office, and she was the leader of a country.” 
— A male North Korean defector in his 50s. Former secretary of a Workers’ Party cell. Now a laborer. April 14, 2017.
“In the North, a president remains a president until death. But in South Korea… In North Korea, presidents are like gods. You can’t criticize a president even a little and you get killed if you do. And in South Korea, the president is the leader, but people criticize her, vilify her, and I didn’t understand that at first. She’s a president of a country, so I didn’t understand how people could criticize her and look down on her.” 
— A woman in her 40s. Defected in 2006. June 21, 2017.
These were responses from North Korean defectors in interviews conducted by Kim Hwa-sun, a researcher at the Eurasia Institute at Hanshin University and Jeon Tae-guk, honorary professor at Kangwon National University.
How well do we know North Korean defectors? Why did North Korean defectors join the Taegeukki rallies? Now there is an argument that we need to approach the North Korean defector issue from many different angles in the era of peace of the Korean Peninsula.
On October 23, North and South Citizens’ Integrated Research Society and the Citizens’ Peace Forum hosted a seminar on the “Integration of North Korean defectors in the transition to a peace regime: What needs to be done?” at the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. This seminar focused on the North Korean defector issue in South Korea.
On May 3, 2017, a week before Park Geun-hye was impeached, there was a press conference under the title “3,000 North Korean defectors to defect”. During the press conference, North Korean defectors announced that they would defect to a foreign country if Moon Jae-in was elected president because they are scared for the country’s security.
Kim Hwa-sun and Jeon Tae-guk explained, “Their announcement left a messy aftermath, etching a widespread sense of repulsion against North Korean defectors for their undemocratic speech and belligerent idea of unification and widening the gap between them and South Koreans.” They also assessed that, “Since the candlelight rallies, the ‘North Korean defector’ label that was affixed to this group of minorities became a type of sign for ‘non-Korean citizens’ and they came to be excluded from the future civil society in South Korea as well.”
According to the Ministry of Unification, the total number of North Korea defectors was 30,805 as of June 2017. In 2001, the number of North Korean defectors surpassed 1,000 for the first time, and the number grew by 2,000 every year since 2006. In 2008, 2,803 defected from North Korea, which was the highest figure ever in history, but it decreased to 1502 in 2012, at the onset of the Kim Jong-un regime. Then 1,275 North Koreans defected in 2015, and 1,418 in 2016.
What kind of people are the North Korean defectors in South Korea? “Having been socialized in the Cold War anti-Communist ideology promulgated by authoritative rule, many people became followers of this ideology. And those who enjoyed benefits in this authoritarian system put their roots down deep in Korean society over generations and laid the basis for Korea’s right wing”, explained Jeon Tae-guk. “With the emergence of the right-wing government, anti-Communist ideology gained recklessly destructive power. This kind of anti-Communist sentiment forms the basis of South Koreans’ prejudice against North Korea defectors.”
According to the source data of the Korean General Social Survey (2003-2016), 43.5 percent of North Korean defectors responded positively to the statement “People who criticize the government only create confusion and chaos for most people”, and 36.6 percent answered positively to the statement “What South Korea needs the most is people who obey and follow the leader”.
Jeong said that the survey results demonstrate North Korean defectors’ sense of being subjects. “North Korean defectors are particularly exposed to outdated authoritarianism. This is the result of the combination of their being unable to enter the general society, being detached from the rest of Korean society and leading lives in an isolated parallel society, coupled with the state’s monitoring and demands.”
According to a study by Kim Su-am and Kim Hwa-sun (2016), 62.1 percent of North Korean defectors answered positively to the statement “South Korea needs stronger law and order instead of people’s rights”. Only 15.1 percent responded negatively. In addition, 80 percent and 71 percent respectively answered positively to the statements “If law is not enough to eradicate social crime, it is necessary to take emergency measures” and “Strict control and order is necessary to improve the efficiency of our society”.
This explains why North Korean defectors joined the Taegeukki rallies. Jeon explained, “Gwanghwamun candlelight rallies showed characteristics of citizens, while Taegeukki rallies showed characteristics of subjects.” He further elaborated, saying, “[Taegeukki rallies] were an expression of the premodern mindset of the protestors, who blindly support and follow Park Geun-hye’s irresponsible and incompetent administration. It seems that North Korean defectors, who believe that South Korea’s identity as a state lies in anti-North Koreanism and that Taegeukki rallies are for putting pro-North Korea supporters, were able to confirm their identity in Taegeukki rallies and felt a sense of relief.”
What are North Korean defectors’ political leanings like? Among North Korean defectors who voted in the general election to elect the members of the 20th National Assembly, 71.8 percent answered that they voted for the Saenuri Party (study conducted by Kim Su-am and Kim Hwa-sun). In April 2014, 154 of the 176 North Korean defectors, or 87.2 percent, voted for the Saenuri Party and the Liberty Advancement Party.
Kim and Jeon defined this characteristic of North Korean defectors as “political participation as subjects”, because “The sympathy people feel for Park Geun-hye, the supreme leader of South Korea and the tragic head of a nation who was impeached by the people, is fueled by the material element of ‘money for attending rallies’ and becomes strengthened into support for a certain party or candidate who favors Park Geun-hye.” Kim said, “The basis of North Korean defectors’ actions is the sense of subject, state power, and money. They defected to South Korea in order to escape poverty and oppression, but universal values of liberty, dignity, and safety have been put on the back burner, and the sense of subject that they acquired in the early socialization education in North Korea became infused with the logic of the system of money and power after they came to South Korea.”
People’s perception of North Korea and North Korean defectors changed negatively through conservative governments. According to the survey conducted by Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification on perception of North Korea (2007-2017), 16.2 percent considered North Korea a ‘hostile aggressor’ in 2017, while only 6.6 percent answered so in 2007. In 2017, 22.6 percent of respondents considered North Korea a ‘cause for alarm’, while only 11.8 answered so in 2007.
On the other hand, the percentage of people who consider North Korea as a “cooperative partner” continued to fall from 56.5 percent in 2007 to 41.9 percent in 2010 and 35.2 percent in 2015. Those who consider North Korea as a “target for support” was 21.8 percent in 2007 but decreased to 13 percent in 2017.
Between 2007 and 2009, a survey of ‘social distance’ (the perceived degree of remoteness between a member of a social group and members of another) found that less than 40 percent or respondents felt friendly toward North Korean defectors. In 2013, 42 percent had said they felt friendly toward North Korean defectors and 45.9 percent had answered positively in 2015.
For a decade, starting in 2007, less than 20 percent answered that they were reluctant to have North Korean defectors as neighbors or colleagues. About 40 percent answered that they were reluctant to partner with a North Korean defector in business, and the number rose to 43 percent in 2017. In particular, 55.7 percent answered that they were reluctant to marry a North Korea defector in 2017.
In 2014, 63.4 percent answered that North Korean defectors would be helpful for reducing differences between North and South Korea
s, but only 53.1 percent answered so in 2017. Regarding the opinion that the government should provide more support for North Korean defectors, 45.1 percent, 60 percent, and 40.1 percent responded positively in 2008, 2011, and 2017 respectively.
“The only positive attitude people have toward North Korean defectors is in reducing the differences between North and South Korea
s; other than that, people have cold and negative attitudes toward North Korean defectors,” said Jeon Tae-guk. “More than half of Korean citizens are not happy about providing support to North Korean defectors. They believe that North Korean defectors should compete with them on a level playing field and are against providing special benefits to North Korean defectors.”
Prejudice against North Korean defectors is related to the fact that they are treated as potential criminals once they defect. According to the Enforcement Decree of the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act, North Korean defectors are subjected to joint interrogation for 180 days after they enter South Korea. The National Intelligence Service has the right to investigate North Korean defectors. For the defectors, joint interrogation is a brutal process. They are exposed to surveillance and violence, and they are isolated from the outside under de facto incarceration. They are also considered suspects of espionage. Sometimes they become labeled as spies through false testimonies from other defectors.
Byeon Sang-cheol and Kim Hwa-sun remarked, “They cooperate with the state authority’s illegal demands out of the fear of state authority, threats, torture, or their own benefit. North Korean defectors are turning other defectors into spies without even realizing. As a result, even among defectors, people come to distrust each other, and the system makes it easier for them to turn to turn fellow defectors they don’t like into spies.”
They also explained, “We should not overlook the fact that the joint interrogation process that all defectors have to go through is a system that can easily incriminate North Korean defectors for being spies.” Byeon and Kim argued that the authority to interview and investigate North Korean defectors should be transferred from the National Intelligence Service to the Ministry of Unification.
Jeong Chan-dae, researcher at the Demos Archives at SungKongHoe University, who participated as a panel discussant explained, “North Korean defectors are thoroughly reeducation through the joint interrogation and Hanawon. This process creates conditions for all kinds of human rights violations and conditions to falsely turn them into spies. They are not reeducated to become democratic citizens but simply anti-Communists. And once they are released to live in our society, they are exposed to surveillance and monitoring once again. North Korean defectors are forced to live on the margins of South Korean society. They become people that can be easily plucked out of our society when necessary. Because of their inherent weakness in terms of ideology, North Korean defectors, most of whom are in financial difficulties, end up becoming subjects rather than citizens even in South Korea.”
In a survey on how defectors think of their situation in South Korea, the respondents showed characteristics of being minorities, marginalized, and drifters.
According to the 2016 study by Kim Su-am and Kim Hwa-sun, 63.3 percent responded positively to the statement “South Korean society looks at North Korean defectors with prejudice”. To the statement “I live in South Korea but I try not to forget that my spiritual roots are in North Korea”, 40.1 percent responded positively while 30.5 percent responded negatively. Also, 16.7 percent answered positively while 82.7 percent answered negatively to the statement “I want to leave South Korea and go to another country.”
Kim Hwa-sun analyzed that, in South Korea, the existence of North Korean defectors “proved the superiority of South Korea”, and that the terms used to describe the defectors changed from ‘defecting soldiers’ in the 1960s and 1970s, to ‘recipients of livelihood protection program’ in the 1990s and 2000s, and ‘New Unification Personnel’ after the 2010s.
Arguing that we need to “change the protective isolation policy for North Korean defectors” as we enter the era of a ‘peace regime’ on the Korean Peninsula, Kim asserted, “In the peace regime, North Korean defectors should not be shown off as though they are assets for unification or unification personnel. We need to stop using North Korean defectors for political purposes as the previous administrations have done and also break free from the principle of particularism of North Korea. We need to help the defectors to settle down and live in South Korea as ordinary members of the Korean society.”
Kim further added, “In the transition period to a peace regime, the North and the South are no longer in a hostile and competitive relationship but have to build a reconciliatory and cooperative relationship. We no longer have to compete on security and defense, and we will mutually regulate the people of our own countries illegally crossing the border into the other country. As North Korea’s economy begins to develop, North Koreans will become more economically prosperous and their economic expectations will grow in the future. Once that happens, North Koreans will not defect for economic reasons, although defecting for political reasons or family reunions might continue to occur.”