North Korea and the Coming Crisis

If the hopes of South Korean hawks were to come true and that the government of the North were to collapse, the South could be inheriting a nightmare of unimaginable dimensions, according to a report titled Strangers at Home, which was issued on July 14 by the International Crisis Group.

The 66 years since Korea was partitioned into two nations in 1945 have created two disparate nations that bear virtually no resemblance to the other, according to the 44-page report, making potential reunification a nearly overwhelming task, both on a personal and governmental level.

It is not possible to predict how, when or if such an event could happen although the United Nations World Food Program said in May that the north’s food supply is about to run out and that perhaps a quarter of the country’s people would be at risk of starvation. But if the north does collapse, it is likely to make the reunification problems between East and Western Germany look like a picnic. “What would be likely if that time arrives, however, is a massive outflow of refugees because of the brutal living conditions in the North. South Korea’s struggle to integrate quite small numbers shows what an immense challenge this would be for the region and international actors.”

North Korean defectors, the report says, “are sicker and poorer than their Southern brethren, with significantly worse histories of nutrition and medical care. They have distinctive accents, use different words and have little experience in the daily demands of life in a developed and open society. In the North, their education, employment, marriage, diet, and leisure were determined by the government, which assigned them to a class of people based on family history and political reliability. In the South, the array of choices presents them with endless difficult decisions that can be overwhelming.”

Although prior to 2000 very few North Koreans had defected from their starving country, an erosion of border controls that opened escape routes into China has begun to push the numbers considerably higher. There were only 86 defectors – about 20 a year – between 1990 and 1994. But the numbers began to climb dramatically, to the point where by December 2010 more than 20,000 had arrived in the South.

Both sides use the defector issue as a political tool against the other. Although a handful of spies have slipped into the South disguised as defectors, they appear to have been few and far between. However, one was spectacularly successful. A woman named Wŏn Jŏng-hwa entered the South in October 2001 immediately after marrying a South Korean businessman she had met in China, where she had assisted in the kidnapping of seven South Korean businessmen and about 100 North Korean defectors for repatriation to the DPRK. In South Korea, she was eventually hired to give lectures about the north to military personnel.

”In 2008, authorities discovered that she had taken photographs of US and ROK military installations and engaged in sexual relations with South Korean military officers to acquire classified information that she passed to the North.”

Eventually, Wŏn exposed South Korean agents in the north who were later murdered, and delivered contact and background information on about 100 senior military officers as well as the whereabouts of prominent North Korean defectors such as Hwang Jang-hyŏp, who would become the target of an assassination plot.

Although the first defectors were greeted as heroes, that is no longer true. North Koreans have distinctly different languages, use words differently and have little experience in dealing with the demands of a developed and open society. In the South, the report notes, “the array of choices presents them with endless difficult decisions that can be overwhelming.”

Defectors often face serious mental health problems from the trauma of living in one of the most repressive societies on earth. That in turn makes employment and integration into what has become a large, expensive, fast-moving society in the South much more difficult. As many as 30 percent of the defectors, most of whom have gone through debilitating experiences just to get to the South, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. More than 80 percent said they had feared for their lives while in hiding during their trip south.

Once they arrive in the south, “many defectors encounter difficulties…because of an inferiority complex as they struggle to assimilate. Many of them feel marginalized, discriminated against, excluded and victimized by a systemic bias. South Korean society tends to be clannish, which makes North Korean defectors feel like strangers in their own country.”

In addition to loneliness, most defectors are afflicted with intense guilt over having left their relatives behind.

The North’s continuing public health crisis from malnutrition and lack of hospital and medical services has meant that many of the defectors have consumed as much as 40 percent of their food consume about 40 per cent of their food in the form of in digestible filler from fibrous plant matter and husks, causing chronic digestive problems. Many are afflicted with parasites of various kinds.

As a result, the report notes, the average North Korean male defector is 164.4cm tall and weighs 60.2kg,, compared with the average South Korean who stands 171.4cm tall and weighs 72kg. North Korean female defectors are 4 cm shorter than their Southern counterparts and weigh 5 kg less.

Childhood malnutrition has meant that children are stunted and face cognitive development problems, meaning that they face related health problems that “have a significant impact on an individual’s prospects for education, employment, and life-time income.”

The defectors largely are unfamiliar with the concept of work, in a new, dynamic and highly competitive society where they are simply unprepared to survive. In January, only half of the defectors were employed, mostly in unskilled manual labor jobs. Only 439 of the 20,000-odd defectors were working in skilled jobs, and another 381 were working in administrative positions.

That has not changed since at least 2006 despite government efforts to train and find them work.

That has meant that many become discouraged and simply give up. These levels of unemployment persist despite subsidies for employers who hire defectors. The government provides roughly half of monthly salaries in an effort to induce employers to hire them.

As a result of the disparity between the two societies, defectors are frequently victims of an array of prejudices about Northerners that developed during the decades when both sides demonized each other, the report continues.

“Few South Koreans know much about the North; indeed many defectors are shocked how little they even care. South Koreans tend to underestimate or ignore the cultural differences between the two Koreas and assume that any burdens of adjustment and assimilation fall upon defectors. Koreans generally apply different standards for cultural integration; foreigners who speak a few simple words of Korean will be praised repeatedly and told they speak Korean so well, but ethnic Koreans who grew up abroad are harshly ridiculed if they are unable to speak like a native.

Media coverage of defectors often has been negative. “For example, an article headlined ‘More defectors rely on crimes for living’ referred to criminal acts by defectors and asserted that ‘crimes by defectors are also getting more pervasive and grave.’” The article, however, provided no statistical evidence to back up the story.

Defectors are perceived as noisy, heavy drinking, and troublesome neighbors, social workers say. Women often suffer from the mental and physical effects of sexual assault and forced prostitution during their journeys to the South. North Korean children are now physically distinctive from their peers in the South because many are stunted as a result of famine.

“These children and teenagers often struggle to develop personal relationships in the ROK. In addition to the general difficulties of adjusting to South Korean society, they often exhibit anxiety caused by their experiences in North Korea, uncertainty over their future and their confusion over how their past fits into their identities.”