In downtown Seoul, N Korean refugees find solace in the local population


SEOUL, South Korea – A small group of North Korean defectors gather in an elegant seven-story building in Seoul. Together with the inhabitants of South Korea, they play the accordion, make decorations and learn how to grow plants. Some go out for coffee later.

“South Koreans and North Koreans gather here, smile and talk to each other. They wonder about the past. Some (South Koreans) say that their parents are also from North Korea, ”said Ko Jeong Hee, 60, a defector who teaches accordion at the Inter-Korean Center for Cultural Integration. “The atmosphere here is really good.”

The center, which opened last year, is the first government facility in South Korea to bring together North Korean defectors and locals to get to know each other through cultural activities and entertainment. It is intended to support the often difficult relocation of defectors to the south, but it also aims to study the possible mixing of rival cultures if they unite.

Unification is a cherished part of the political rhetoric of both Koreas, but the difficulties of creating a united Korea made up of a fantastically rich and prosperous South and a poor, authoritarian North make the reality of such a plan deeply complicated.

Korean unification in the near future seems very unlikely. The North, despite decades of poverty and mistrust in the outside world, is not politically unstable and there have been no significant recent reunification talks between Koreas.

Exchange programs between Koreans – singers, art troupes and basketball games – have been frozen amid a dispute over the continued accumulation of nuclear weapons in North Korea. There are also questions about how useful the center will be and whether many refugees, who are suffering economic hardship, will join events that offer no chance of earning a living.

About 34,000 North Koreans have moved to South Korea after fleeing poverty and political oppression at home, mostly in the last 20 years or so. That is about 0.06% of the 52 million people in South Korea. Upon arrival in South Korea, refugees receive citizenship, housing, resettlement money, three-month social orientation courses, and other benefits.

But they come from an extremely repressive, nominally socialist country whose estimated nominal gross domestic production was only one 54th from South Korea in 2019. Many are often discriminated against in the South and struggle to adapt to their new brutally competitive, capitalist life.

Last year, official data showed that the average monthly salary of a defector is about 80% of South Koreans. They stayed at work for an average of 31.6 months, less than half the time South Koreans spent; and the dropout rate was almost three times higher. A 2019 survey found that only 9.4% of South Korean respondents would accept defectors who married into their families.

The plight of the defectors in the South raises questions about what would happen if South Korea had to endure a sudden influx of 26 million North Koreans in the event of unification under South Korean conditions.

“This country is unable to accept those who are fleeing North Korea voluntarily, but many are shouting for South and North Korean integration and unification,” said defector Son Jung Hoon, who has worked as a human rights activist in South Korea for years. “It’s hypocrisy.”

Even the establishment of the center was controversial. The opening was postponed for several years due to protests by local residents who worried it would tarnish the image of their neighborhood and reduce housing prices. Center officials say there are no more such complaints.

Churches and civic groups have previously offered activities involving defectors, often luring them with cash. They included a chorus, camping and football matches with South Korean-born residents. But Kang Woo-jun, a university profession in charge of some programs at the government center, said the institution does not offer money, but strives to provide high-quality teaching to refugees.

“Cultural integration is much more difficult and requires a longer time than political and institutional unification,” Unification Minister Lee In-Young said recently. “Even though South and North Korea have been separated for about 70 years, becoming one long, treacherous journey, we must not stop it. It’s a journey we have to go on together. That is why there is an Inter-Korean Center for Cultural Integration. “

Built in a quiet residential neighborhood in western Seoul, the center is not well known to the general public. Restrictions related to COVID 19 have largely forced him to offer more than half of his programs online and limit the number of personal participants to less than 10. On Monday, his personal programs were suspended or switched to the network due to the Seoul virus resuscitation.

During a recent visit to reporters by the Associated Press, four female defectors and a man from South Korea, all in masks, played the accordion and instructor Ko helped them.

Yu Hwa-suk, 57, fled to the south in 2015 and said she wanted to realize her childhood dream of becoming an accordionist.

“Participants (South Koreans) have a lot of interest in North Koreans so we felt close to them,” Yu said, adding that she and others often dine after their lecture.

In the craft class, four defectors and three South Korean women, all women, seemed a little uncomfortable, saying they had no meaningful conversations.

Song Hyo Eun, a 39-year-old South Korean, said she would not ask defectors about their lives in North Korea because it could involve a painful topic like their relatives left behind. Two defectors in the 1970s said they were worried that South Koreans might have a negative attitude about defectors.

Authorities should use various local facilities to integrate refugees living around South Korea, instead of establishing one large center in a particular area, said Kim Whasoon, who works at a research institute at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University.

Many refugees earn a living and have been paid to attend cultural events in the past, said Kim Jong Kun, a professor at Seoul’s Kunkuk University. Because of this, Kim said, “I don’t think they want to get together with South Koreans just to learn calligraphy and musical instruments or sing a song.”

Some defectors and South Koreans also view unification differently.

Park Seong Hee, 50, a South Korean craft class instructor, said she hopes for a gradual process. “If we unite, I think all North Koreans would come down to South Korea and disrupt the order we have established,” she said.

Yu, a defector, cried as she spoke of unification as a way to join her relatives and teach them what she had learned in South Korea.

“Honestly, sometimes I want to go home,” Yu said. “When I lived in North Korea, I thought I would be happy if I was well. But after coming here, I realized that being happy means being with people I miss. . “


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