SEOUL, South Korea — Whether their reason is to seek asylum, livelihood, stability or a combination of the three, North Korean refugees have long required significant help starting over in their new home nations. International, national and local organizations all take part in this process.
The complex process of migration and resettlement has become a critical issue in the global arena. In addition, discussion has increased over the role that states play in supporting people who are not citizens.
Recently, there has been a shift from focusing on humanitarian aid towards development aid when working with refugees. Consequently, organizations that facilitate the integration of migrants are key actors in this process.
The case of South Korea with regards to North Korean refugees is a strong example of this. South Korea is a developed country whose GDP is among the top 15 in the world. In fact, average GDP per capita has risen dramatically after the Korean War, from $156 in 1960 to $27,222 in 2015.
Meanwhile, North Korea has regressed to an oppressive state, known primarily for its failed nuclear tests and the quirky personality of its leader, Kim Jong-Un. The country also has a reputation for, in the words of the U.N., “systematic, widespread, and grave human violations.”
The North Korean government controls the media, limits people’s movements within the state and forbids free trade. In addition, they allocate the vast majority of their money towards military spending, ignoring the negative consequences for its citizens.
For example, there was a massive famine in the 1990s that the government did not address. These harsh conditions explain why so many North Koreans choose to become refugees.
The United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees would not consider North Korean asylum seekers as worthy of refugee status unless they experience persecution on an individual level.
However, the South Korean Constitution considers North Koreans citizens and believes they have a right to various government benefits, including resettlement support.
In spite of this framework, it is uncommon for defectors to successfully adjust to life in South Korea. North Korean defectors cite poverty, unemployment, low-paid employment and educational exclusion as some of the primary barriers to their integration.
Only 5 percent of these refugees consider themselves middle class or above. In addition, the rate of reliance on social welfare is 18 times that higher than the general population.
Different sources cite the age of unemployment range to be anywhere from 15 to 37 percent. There also is a significant wage gap between South Koreans and North Korean defectors.
In order to reduce the rates of poverty among the North Korean defectors, increased access to employment opportunities is imperative. For North Koreans, this increased access to employment is contingent upon job and language skills training.
Several civil society organizations in Korea have made it their mission to empower North Korean defectors by helping them become more compelling candidates for jobs.
Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), for example, is a Seoul-based non-governmental organization. This group matches North Korean defectors with personal language and job skills tutors.
Through the flexible, one-on-one nature of the program, participants can ensure that the tutor address their exact learning needs. They can receive tutoring in a variety of avenues, including basic English or preparation for a college entrance exam.
Since 2013, the organization has provided tutoring to more than 240 North Korean defectors. Several of these defectors have gone on to Ivy League schools or published books about their experience.
Thus, TNKR’s programs work in two ways to support refugee integration:
- By working to improve defectors’ language skills, TNRK helps defectors gain knowledge that makes them more appealing to potential employers.
- The program’s design also encourages the refugees to make active decisions regarding their own learning. This increases their sense of confidence and ownership of their experience.
In order to integrate into their new home countries, refugees need to establish some sort of livelihood. Humanitarian support will only go so far, but addressing long-term needs is essential to building self-reliance.
TNKR’s work enables defectors to get skills they need with cost to the government and little impact on the host community.
Volunteers run the entire program according to the needs and schedules of the defectors. North Korean refugees continue to arrive to South Korea, programs such as TNKR and other similar organizations will have the capacity necessary to continue their work in supporting a population in need.
– Priscilla McCelvey