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Since the ceasefire at the end of the Korean War in 1953, North and South Korea have developed in vastly different directions. South Korea has become one of the world’s largest economies, while North Korea’s totalitarian regime has become one of its most notorious. As if stuck in a time capsule from the 1950s, North Koreans are culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically distinct from their southern relatives. Dreams and hopes of reunification remain among older generations like current South Korean president, Moon Jae-In, but the assimilation problems of North Korean refugees illustrate the reality of how difficult reunification can be.

Since the 1990s, the South Korean government has used North Korean refugees in South Korea as a sample group for possible reunification. Under its Constitution, the South Korean government views North Koreans as citizens, defining South Korea’s boundaries as the entire Korean Peninsula. With the amendment of the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act in 1999 (Refugee Support Act), South Korea vowed to provide settlement support, diplomatic protection, and a pathway to establish permanent domicile for North Koreans. With this declaration of a national obligation to North Koreans, South Korea’s managing authority, the Ministry of Unification (MOU), believes its assimilation program would show the “will and capability for unification of Korea.

Yet despite the MOU’s position as the agency to plan and develop a reunification process, it continues to struggle with effective policies to help more than thirty thousand North Korean refugees adapt and integrate into South Korean society. North Koreans face the same issues many refugees experience after escaping from communist countries into capitalist societies: they are often ignorant of the “basic skills” of the modern world, such as banking, using a phone, riding public transportation, and even enjoying leisure activities. Additionally, many refugees are dealing with the traumatic memories of public executions, violent beatings, and the starvation of family members.

In response, the MOU operates a twelve-week education and assimilation program through its Hanawon Resettlement Center. After administering a crash course on the internet, phones, laws, jobs, schooling, and the general high-tech and fast-paced life of South Korean society, the government gives refugees an apartment and housing subsidy—as well as some cash—to help get them settled for the first year. Still dealing with physical and mental damage they have experienced, refugees do not have the opportunity to heal from the trauma and are almost always overwhelmed by the feeling of having too much freedom.

Though the Refugee Support Act establishes necessary support and protection measures, the notion that North Koreans must “strive to lead healthy and cultural lives by adapting themselves”  is extremely problematic. North Koreans, riddled with severe mental health disorders, arrive in a country that has historically ignored mental health issues. With a primary focus on providing money, goods, and education as the basis of support and protection, South Korea continues to disregard the need for North Koreans to cope with the trauma. This disregard for mental health treatment may even be the biggest reason for the struggle to assimilate.

Similarly, the affirmative action program pursuant to Article 17 of the Refugee Support Act ignores the reality of the highly competitive society North Koreans are expected to join. North Koreans are expected to adjust and compete with their South Korean brethren, all within the two-year employment protection period. Additionally, South Koreans frequently blame North Koreans for their struggles to assimilate, a standard South Koreans generally do not apply to other foreigners. And as the dissimilarities of South and North Koreans continue to increase, reunification seems less feasible. Even as the government continues to expand settlement support programs, South Korean attitudes towards North Koreans have become more negative.

Though the recent historical meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In on April 27, 2018, to issue the Panmunjom Declaration for Korean Peninsula Peace, Prosperity, and Unification has provided hope for reunification on the Korean Peninsula, the assimilation experience of North Koreans reveals a challenging future. Along with younger generations of South Koreans becoming increasingly less interested in reunification, the biggest concern is the estimated millions or even trillions USD it could cost to implement modern healthcare, infrastructure, and school systems in North Korea. If reunification became a reality, colossal affirmative action programs would be needed just to allow North Koreans to be professionally competitive with South Koreans. And with only fifty-seven percent of South Koreans supporting reunification, inconsistencies between policy obligations and community support suggest that reunification may be more of a fantasy than a reality.