KOREA FOCUS
Resettlement Training for North Korean Refugees
Lee Sang Man

Professor of Economics
Chung-Ang University



The number of North Koreans settling in South Korea after escaping from the North began to increase noticeably in 1994, and by the end of 2000 the total number had reached about 1,300. There are various factors behind this increase and the manner of their escape. Before the 1990s, most cases of North Koreans fleeing their homeland involved political reasons. Recently, however, refugees from the North have cited other reasons for their decision to flee, including hunger and discontent with the North Korean system. Similarly, the manner of these escapes varies from lone attempts to group efforts. Meanwhile, the social status of escapees has become more diverse, ranging from high-ranking officials to low-skilled workers. In some cases, entire families have escaped en masse. In short, as long as food shortages in the North remain acute and signs of lax authority continue to exist throughout the country, it is likely that increasing numbers of North Koreans will attempt to flee their country.

Regrettably, many of these North Korean refugees have failed to adapt well to their new lives in South Korea. After 55 years of national division, numerous aspects of society in the North and South have become pronouncedly divergent. As a consequence, it has been particularly difficult for North Korean escapees, who are used to living in a repressed communist society, to adapt to the more diverse and complex capitalist market environment of the South. Many North Korean escapees, for example, find it difficult to maintain steady employment and often unsatisfied with the adequacy of their work skills. Often, these workers experience difficulty in the workplace due to their lack of professionalism.

Many North Korean escapees in South Korea suffer from financial hardship, and more than half live below the poverty line. The reason many of these refugees end up financially hard-pressed is that they are unfamiliar with the basic fundamentals of a market economic system, which emphasizes individual ability and market competition. Often, these escapees squander their earnings by not managing their personal finances prudently. Moreover, many North Korean escapees experience psychological problems in adapting to South Korean society. Many suffer from a sense of isolation and alienation, and this mental distress can often worsen when the disdain with which many South Koreans treat refugees collides with the strong pride exhibited by North Korean escapees.

In general, North Korean escapees go through a number of psychological stages in the course of adjusting to South Korean society. As seen in Table 1, many North Korean refugees adapt to their new surroundings by undergoing a process of complex psychological changes that unfold as stay longer in the South.

As for adaptability, North Korean escapees generally avoid competition due to their limited ability, while many seem to lack common sense about life in South Korea. As a result, many have difficulty holding permanent employment. In addition, they tend to be conservative, with a strong attachment to traditional views that one's treatment should be based on one's age. Their sense of motivation tends to be weak as well and many are passive, which causes them to suffer at their places of work. Second, many North Korean escapees find it difficult to understand the diversity of behavior and expression in South Korean society and often become frustrated as they tend to see such diversity and complexity as disorder. Given their sense of duality and narrow-minded perceptions, many are confused when making routine decisions. Third, many North Koreans living in South Korea exhibit a strong tendency toward impulsive behavior. They tend to be overly sensitive in their pride, resent being controlled, and show a strong sense of dependence.

The issue of social adaptation by North Korean escapees involves a number of complex issues, which is why many find it more difficult to adapt to South Korean society, despite their familiarity with the language and culture, than to resettle in other countries. Regardless of the shared history of North and South Korea as one nation, the difficulty of adapting to the new environment of the South is largely attributed to the deeply ingrained heterogeneity and enmity stemming from the Korean War and the 55-year-long ideological confrontation between the two countries. Moreover, the expectation that as Koreans they will somehow be treated at work on an equal basis with their South Korean colleagues only heightens their frustration.

Table 1. Psychological Changes of North Korean Escapees

All North Korean escapees experience some degree of difficulty in adjusting to life in the South because of the drastic differences in the political and social systems of North and South Korea. It will thus likely require considerable time before they can properly understand South Korea's social values and ideology, as well as the country's political and economic systems. Therefore, for North Korean escapees to successfully adapt to South Korean society, they will have to be allowed ample time to adjust to their new ideological, social, and psychological surroundings.

Just as North Korean escapees currently have difficulty resettling in South Korean society, so too will the Koreans still in the North find it difficult to adapt to a new environment following national unification, even though they will not likely encounter the same kind of difficulty experienced by North Korean refugees.

Significance of Adaptation Training for Escapees

If national unification between North and South Korea is realized based on the South's current market economic system, the centralized economy now being operated in North Korea will inevitably have to be discarded. To this end, a series of economic reforms will have to be implemented to introduce a valuation mechanism based on the principles of competition, private property, and the privatization of public enterprises. In the process of such a change, many North Koreans will inevitably suffer from utter confusion due to the radical contrasts between the two systems and their respective social values.

The problem of how to best deal with the need to help North Koreans adapt to a totally new social paradigm following national unification will significantly affect the actual cost of unification. The major costs of unification are likely to result from mass unemployment related to the collapse of North Korea's state-run enterprises, welfare subsidies for unemployed North Korean workers, and the need to retrain and reemploy the North's workforce. However, if such programs can be promoted effectively, thereby enabling North Koreans to adjust smoothly to a new market economic system, the cost of unification could be greatly reduced.

In this respect, the adaptation training currently being provided to those North Korean escapees who have fled to South Korea provides a benchmark for developing systematic adaptation programs for North Koreans following unification. At the same time, such training can contribute to the formulation of policy measures that can help reduce the cost of unification that South Korea will invariably have to shoulder. Since the current training can serve as a model for the development of adaptation training programs for North Koreans after unification, long-term support for the continued operation and refinement of these programs is needed. The experience acquired in the course of operating these programs will also need to be systematically enhanced as part of the country's preparations for unification.

The unification of North and South Korea is a historical challenge that will require the collective energy and cooperation of all Koreans. Here, national unification involves two particular facets. The first is the institutional unification that focuses on politics, economics, the military, law, and diplomacy. Thus far, most attention on Korean unification has emphasized institutional unification. The second is what I call sociocultural unification. This refers to the unification of two peoples who have experienced a process of forced separation and heterogeneity over more than 55 years of national division, their coming together, and their creating a new community and single society. This second facet is far more complicated and challenging than the institutional unification process, with recent examples including East and West Germany as well as North and South Vietnam.

Until recently, examination of the dynamics involved in sociocultural unification has been limited due to the strained and confrontational nature of the North-South relationship. However, with the number of North Korean escapees fleeing to South Korea on the increase in recent years, and as the condition of these refugees has become known through the news media, public awareness has been raised along with the interest of the academic community. Unfortunately, press reports on the living conditions of North Korean escapees have often come under fire for their commercialization of the issue of North Korean refugees rather presenting a systematic and thorough examination of the subject.

The problems associated with the adaptation of North Korean escapees to South Korean society provide much food for thought. First, the issue of how well and to what extent North Korean escapees adapt to South Korean society offers a case study of the social and psychological problems that can arise when North and South Koreans are forced to live together. Second, how and to what degree North Korean escapees successfully adapt to South Korean society greatly influences South Korean perceptions of their North Korean brethren. Finally, the fact that the issue of social adaptation by North Korean escapees has begun to attract popular attention, both in academia and society overall, indicates that South Koreans have started to recognize the significance of socioeconomic integration.

Adaptation Training Programs at Hanawon

Resettlement Facilities for North Korean Escapees
As the number of North Korean escapees fleeing to South Korea began to grow in the mid-1990s, there arose a need for expanded facilities to help these refugees resettle in the South. In December 1996, the South Korean government decided to establish resettlement support facilities to address this need, and in July 1997 enacted the Law on the Protection of North Korean Escapees and Support for their Resettlement. These measures included the opening of Hanawon (Institute for Oneness) on July 8, 1999, in Anseong, Gyeonggi-do province, south of Seoul. The facilities, which are capable of accommodating up to 100 North Korean refugees, are designed to assist North Korean escapees in their resettlement efforts and to teach them how to stand on their own in South Korean society.

To date, over 100 escapees in four separate classes have completed the training program at Hanawon, while the program's fifth and sixth classes are currently undergoing training. Most of the trainees are male, with the majority being in their 20s and 30s. Trainees are housed two to a room, while escapee families are housed in special quarters. Several trainees have even wound up getting married with other escapees.

Adaptation Training Programs at Hanawon
The training curriculum at Hanawon is focused on three goals: easing the socioeconomic and psychological anxiety of North Korean escapees; overcoming the barriers of cultural heterogeneity; and offering practical training for earning a livelihood in the South.

At the beginning stage of the program, the psychological state of trainees is evaluated by administering personality and aptitude tests and conducting individual interviews, which are intended to help trainees cope with the anxiety created in the process of fleeing from the North, living like a fugitive in a third country, and resettling in South Korea. This stage also includes programs on adjustment training, professional counseling, religious events, and people-friendly social adaptation. By the time North Korean escapees enter Hanawon, many often begin to experience acute stress from their ordeal and are treated at nearby hospitals in Anseong.

The second stage of the program is aimed at overcoming the cultural shock that results from a lack of understanding of South Korea's more liberal society, democratic political system, language preferences, ways of thinking, and social customs. Programs designed to facilitate this adjustment process include a basic introduction to South Korean politics, economics, and culture, as well as language training, attendance at bansanghoe (neighborhood group) meetings, holiday home visits with local families, training for the development of personal relations, and instruction in basic etiquette.

The third stage of the program features counseling on future plans, such as employment or schooling, although specific vocational training has yet to be incorporated into the program. Nonetheless, some on-site training has been made available, including a driving school and computer training. In addition, special lectures on everyday practical skills, such as finding a home, handling household finances, and filing taxes, are presented, as are the shared experiences of former escapee-trainees. This curriculum is presented flexibly depending on the feedback from trainees on the impact of their training. Since it has only been one year since the center opened, the curriculum, training content, and faculty have yet to be formally established. At the same time, the curriculum has been continually supplemented based on self-evaluation of the training results. For instance, language and etiquette training have been improved to instruct trainees about unfamiliar words and the use of Chinese characters, as well as to help them better understand the news media.

Overall, the enthusiasm of trainees for training is quite high, with particular interest in those programs seen as being the most practical in everyday life. For example, every trainee in the program's second class of entrants successfully completed the requirements for obtaining a driver's license. This was all the more impressive given that the trainees frequently had difficulty asking detailed questions because of their unfamiliarity with certain vocabulary. Similarly, trainees have shown keen interest in computer training. However, to prevent Hanawon from degenerating into simply a driver's education or computer training institute, and to enable it to better assist North Korean escapees to overcome social and cultural barriers and develop into productive law-abiding citizens, existing training programs need to be improved and expanded.

Evaluation of Hanawon Training Programs

Background of Evaluation
In 1999 social adaptation programs for North Korean escapees were launched in earnest. With the establishment of Hanawon, social adaptation training for North Korean escapees is being conducted under government sponsorship.

However, a number of problems have emerged in the implementation of social adaptation training at Hanawon. The most significant problem is the disinterest of many trainees and their undisciplined classroom behavior, in addition to an inability to control North Korean escapees, an indifference to specific training programs, and a lack of appreciation of the need for such training. These shortcomings stem from a lack of familiarity with social adaptation training on the part of North Korean escapees as well as insufficient experience on the part of instructors. However, as many of these problems are addressed as training progresses, the center is steadily moving closer to fulfilling its goal of providing basic instruction for North Korean escapees to better adapt to South Korean society. Even so, a lack of interest in the training among many North Korean escapees continues to pose a major problem. Consequently, it is important to develop programs capable of generating greater interest from escapees.

This study is based largely on personal interviews with North Korean escapees who have completed social adaptation training, educators familiar with the programs provided by the center, and instructors who conducted training sessions. The study also includes an assessment of the extent of social adaptation achieved by those escapees who have undergone training at the center. Finally, the study incorporates information from various sources including the operation of an "integrated North-South class" conducted by the National Unification Institute of Chung-Ang University as well as similar programs offered by a variety of non-governmental organizations.

Evaluation of Programs
a. Evaluation of social adaptation training: Contrary to the initial concern that resettlement facilities for North Korean escapees might become accommodation camps and that social adaptation training in an isolated environment would not help escapees adapt to everyday life in South Korean society, the adaptation training for North Korean escapees has thus far been conducted quite smoothly. To be sure, some North Korean escapees have complained that they have been forced to endure overly restricted lives at the center. However, the majority of escapees have regarded their time spent at Hanawon as being helpful in preparing for their adaptation to life in South Korea. Similarly, the initially negative attitudes of many neighborhood residents toward the Hanawon project have since dissipated, while the wedding of one Hanawon couple was recently celebrated as a community event with the participation of local residents.

Still, there are several obstacles to the continued operation of Hanawon. First, nearly all Hanawon trainees are worried about the fate of their family members left behind in North Korea, and many are anxious about bringing to South Korea family members now waiting in China and other countries. Moreover, due to their new environment, culture, and diet, many escapees are prone to illness, and fights often break out among them. And though most trainees are receptive to the adaptation training program at Hanawon, a few are wary, skeptical, and even cynical toward the training, with confidence in their own ability to adapt to South Korean life after overcoming the difficulties involved in fleeing North Korea. As a result, certain trainees regard Hanawon's three-month training program as something of a waste of time.

Second, because the Hanawon facilities are located in the countryside, trainees invariably have only limited opportunities to actually experience ordinary South Korean life. Hanawon does offer on-site observation visits and voluntary activities, but chances are limited for trainees to freely interact with South Koreans. There is thus concern that the training program is overly "theoretical" while not offering enough practical activities. Moreover, the lack of practical vocational training is a source of widespread criticism among many trainees, which thus undermines their enthusiasm for the training program.

Third, escapees in general lack a proper understanding of South Korean society, yet uniform training is provided to all trainees without regard to differences in age, work experience, academic background, and home region. This serves to reduce trainee interest in the program as well as the effectiveness of the training.

Fourth, since most program instructors are generally ignorant of the social customs of North Korea, the basic characteristics of people who have lived their entire lives in socialist countries, and the particular problems facing North Korean escapees, they lack a proper understanding of what kind of instruction their trainees actually need, what they need to know, and the best way to teach them. Since there has been no systematic evaluation of the results of these training activities, the program relies on the instructors themselves to develope the content of the training. Therefore, the selection of instructors is all the more important, since even if a highly respected professor were to be selected, he could hardly achieve the hoped-for goals if he lacked an accurate understanding of the mindset of North Korean escapees. Indeed, even seemingly innocent jokes can greatly offend trainees. Thus, to ensure more effective training, it is necessary to compile systematic data on the living environment, abilities, ways of thinking, and cultural characteristics of North Korean escapees as a reference for developing a more comprehensive training program.

b. Evaluation of the need for re-education: A survey of escapees who underwent training at Hanawon indicated that 88 percent of the third class of trainees and 96 percent of the fourth class thought their training was helpful for better understanding of and adaptation to South Korean society. Meanwhile, only 12 percent of the third class and 4 percent of the fourth class trainees thought the program was "so-so," and none thought it was not helpful. This suggests that the vast majority of those who received training at Hanawon gained much from the experience. In fact, eight respondents said the training was "very helpful as we learned a lot about South Korean society"; four said they were "grateful to the instructors for their sincere concern"; three said they "developed sound basis for carrying out all their daily activities"; 17 said they "learned a lot through Hanawon training" and were "really grateful"; and one each said that Hanawon training was "really necessary" and "very helpful," with one adding: "I believe Hanawon training will continue to be helpful for the successful resettlement in South Korea of North Korean escapees."

c. Evaluation of existing programs: The current programs being offered to North Korean escapees are intended to ease their sense of instability in the early stages of resettlement. These include adjustment training at the Korea Humanistic Development Institute, psychological stability training at various Christian and Catholic churches, and general training designed to overcome cultural heterogeneity by presenting cases of successful resettlement by other defectors, as well as teaching trainees new vocabulary, Chinese characters, computer skills, and practical skills like driving and cooking.

Training is focused on understanding activities that are particularly helpful to trainees, such as how to acquire housing, manage personal finances, and comply with the country's tax system. Moreover, counseling is offered on employment and other future plans to help escapees lead stable lives. To this end, employment information is provided based on the results of aptitude tests and questionnaires on individual areas of interest. In addition, vocational training is provided to trainees at Jungsoo Polytechnic College and other vocational institutes. Opportunities are also arranged for trainees to experience consumer transactions and to visit industrial sites. During these field trips, trainees are taught how to use banks and even submit civil petitions.

When asked about specific activities, four trainees said they "wished the training programs were better suited to their tastes"; three said it would be good "to provide training in consideration of the psychological state of the trainees"; five said that it would be helpful if Hanawon "offered a vocabulary improvement program so that trainees could learn standard South Korean vocabulary"; one said he would like to have more training in "grassroots customs of society and career counseling"; one said he felt "there was no need for training in attitudes and gender relations"; two said they would like to have expanded training "in foreign words and computers"; and one said it would be good "if female trainees were instructed in how to cook."

Direction of Future Training

For North Korean escapees to successfully adapt to life in South Korea does not require that they earn large amounts of money or gain high social status. Rather, successful adaptation means that they are able to enjoy productive lives as members of South Korean society. To help North Korean escapees become regular members of South Korean society, diverse programs are needed to support their transition. In the past, such programs were rare, with most North Koreans beginning their new lives in an almost helpless state. In this context, then, the government's decision to establish Hanawon is a welcome development.

However, for social adaptation training for North Korean escapees to be more effective, programs should be planned and carried out in ways that promote long-term adjustment. In other words, programs need to be implemented in a manner that enables North Korean escapees to resolve for themselves any problems they may encounter. It is also important to address the issue of social adaptation in concert with private civic organizations. North Korean escapees are often suspicious of government authorities because of their past experience, a phenomenon evident among former East Germans as well. To improve the effectiveness of adaptation programs, they should be administered jointly by both public authorities and private organizations. At the same time, additional vocational training and psychological adaptation programs should be offered.

Many North Korean escapees complain of various difficulties in the process of adapting to South Korean society, one of which is the differences in psychological outlook. North Korean escapees also often fail to maintain steady employment due to their lack of the kind of qualifications required by South Korean businesses. This employment problem in turn leads to socioeconomic friction and financial difficulty, making life in the South all the more difficult. Vocational training should thus be provided in a more systematic manner to better enable North Korean escapees to adapt to South Korean society.

Furthermore, training programs for North Korean escapees should include instruction on how to interact better with their South Korean brethren. Adapting to South Korean society first requires that North Korean escapees get along with their fellow South Koreans. Of course, harmony can hardly be attained through efforts on the part of North Korean escapees alone. It can be achieved only when both North Korean escapees and the South Korean people genuinely adopt an open-hearted attitude based on accommodation and understanding. However, for North Korean escapees to adapt effectively to South Korean society, follow-up training after the program at Hanawon is also necessary.

Education on the significance of democratic citizenship and unification is also needed for the South Korean people to ensure greater understanding of and responsibility for individual rights and obligations. Through such training, a spiritual foundation should be built upon which citizens can live in harmony while respecting diversity. An appreciation of the importance of a country having a democratic citizenry is essential not only for today but also for the future of national unification. Systematic training to instill a true sense of democratic principles among our citizenry is needed not only to ensure better adaptation of North Korean escapees to South Korean society but also to prepare for national unification.

The recent changes in North Korea make the specter of national unification loom ever larger. Yet even at this moment, North Koreans are continuing to defect to South Korea. With this in mind, new means of facilitating the adaptation of North Korean escapees to South Korean society should be developed.

[The above is a paper presented at a seminar organized by the Korean Association of North Korean Studies that was held at Dongguk University in Seoul on December 2, 2000.]
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