North Korean refugees head for home
By Andrei Lankov
Sisa Journal, an influential and well-informed South Korean weekly, recently
published interesting statistics. It is well known that some 20,000 North
Korean refugees currently reside in South Korea. However, the magazine reports
that an estimated 200 of them are not here any more. Surprisingly, they have
moved back to the North.
Who are those returnees? Broadly speaking, from this correspondent's personal
knowledge of North Korean refugees, they belong to three separate categories.
To start with, some returnees - a few dozen, perhaps, are North Korea spies who
completed their missions and went back to Pyongyang to receive their medals and
promotions. Indeed, as a
recent attempt to assassinate Hwang Chang-yop, the highest-ranking defector
from the North, demonstrated once again, it is not too difficult to plant a few
intelligence agents into the steadily growing stream of refugees.
To complicate things further, most refugees have their families in the North,
so it is easy for the North Korean intelligence agencies to recruit even a bona
fide refugee by blackmail.
However, one should not make too much from the presence of espionage agents in
South Korea. They usually have no access to sensitive information, since
refugees are seldom employed in jobs that give them such access (and if they
are, they are watched carefully). So, the only area where they can gather
meaningful intelligence is the activities of refugee groups from North Korea.
Indeed, many of the refugees who have gone missing in recent years once
demonstrated suspicious interest in defectors' groups and organizations.
Another group of returnees are those refugees who were disappointed with life
in South Korea. Most of the North Koreans went South with great and often
inflated expectations, but soon they discovered the life they had to lead was
far less glamorous than the life they saw in smuggled copies of South Korean TV
North Korean refugees are not faring well in the South. Their average income is
about one million won (US$625) a month, roughly half of the national average.
They do not have many useful skills, so they have to do only badly paid
unskilled work. Last but not least, they are often discriminated against by
"locals" - to the extent that many of them try to pass for ethnic Koreans from
China (those are discriminated against, too - but to a somewhat lesser degree).
The situation is aggravated by a sense of loneliness and alienation. So, some
North Koreans begin to perceive their past life in the North as an attractive
alternative, and move back.
Technically, it is easy: since the refugees have South Korean passports, they
can always depart from China after using a North Korean embassy or consulate
It helps that the North Korean regime follows a lenient policy towards
returning refugees. They are allowed to settle down in their native towns and
villages, and if they make a sufficient donation (reportedly, a few tens of
thousand dollars) they can even be granted good positions and privileges. They
are often used for propaganda, telling horror stories about life in the
capitalist hell down south. Professional propaganda mongers help them to
prepare such stories in which the personal experiences of the returnees
(bitter, to be sure) are liberally mixed with necessary inventions.
And finally, some refugees cannot stand the thought of the families they left
behind. Many of them move back to reunite with their families. In recent years,
family defections can be arranged via a professional defection broker, but
there are people who due to different reasons prefer a do-it-yourself
defection. They go back and sometimes perish somewhere in China or North Korea.
So, even the tremendous material advantage of the South does not always make it
more attractive. Yes, merely a few hundred refugees have chosen to move back
(less so, if we take into account spies and those who went to get their
families). Still, this is a discomforting reminder about their position in the
prosperous and sophisticated South. It also does not bode well for unification.
South Korean society is not doing well when it comes to absorbing 20,000 North
Koreans, most of whom are active and even adventurous people. However, sooner
or later it will have to accommodate 20 million. How will it handle this task?
The experience of the refugees makes one suspect that the first few decades of
a unified Korea will be a tough.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.