North Koreans face prejudices due to language barriers and negative perceptions of their country, new survey says
North Korean refugee, Kim Hongkyun, settled in South Korea and now runs a transport business. A new survey found one in every five North Korean defectors face discrimination in South Korea. (Photo: Korea Hana Foundation)
North Korean defectors residing in South Korea face discrimination due to language barriers and negative perceptions about their country causing many to have psychological breakdowns, says a new survey.
The Korea Hana Foundation (KHF) in its 2022 North Korean Refugees Social Integration Survey found that one in every five North Korean defectors face discrimination due to their “speech, lifestyle, and attitude,” Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation (CPBC) reported on Feb. 1.
Park Joo-myung,* 43, felt that apart from the support and benefits provided by South Korea to settle in, the defectors’ North Korean accent is also a factor that impacts discrimination.
“I felt a lot of alienation because of [my] North Korean accent. So, I have no choice but to react sensitively to even passing [comments],” Park said.
KHF is a non-profit public organization established by the Ministry of Unification in 2010 to help defectors settle down through its multi-faceted projects.
In the organization’s 2022 annual survey among 2,198 of the estimated 30,000 North Korean defectors in the county, 19.5 percent of respondents acknowledged facing discrimination of some sort, CPBC reported.
In contrast, 16.1 percent had experienced discrimination while trying to settle down in South Korea in 2021.
Concerning the reasons for discrimination, “negative perception about the existence of North Koreans” among South Koreans ranked second at 44.2 percent after the speech, lifestyle, and attitude issues.
The assumption that North Koreans “lack the ability compared to South Koreans in terms of professional knowledge and skills” ranked third at 20.4 percent.
The respondents were given multiple options to better understand the types of discrimination faced by them.
Kim Seong-gyeong, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies pointed out that South Koreans are friendly to defectors, however, they “wear colored glasses” and discriminate when it comes to employing them.
“Because of the discrimination experienced in terms of social exclusion, some North Korean defectors do not want to talk about coming from North Korea. It [experiences of discrimination] is not easy to overcome,” Kim said.
Among the people surveyed, 85.9 percent of respondents in the age group of 20 to 50 were able to engage in economic activities.
However, the pressures of resettlement and discrimination have caused many to have psychological issues, says Sister Jean Mariange, head of the church-run 'Seed of Peace' community in Uijeongbu.
“Many of the North Korean defectors have psychological problems such as depression, and many live isolated lives,” Sister Mariange said.
The 2022 survey revealed that the suicidal tendency among North Korean defectors is at 11.9 percent, more than double the national average of 5.7 percent.
In 2021, the number of respondents confessing suicide ideation was 13.3 percent.
However, Park and many other North Korean defectors feel that the reduction of prejudice and misconceptions about them will help them to settle easily in South Korea.
"I hope people don't have a prejudice against North Korean defectors… I feel that I am living well when I live in harmony with this society. I am trying to live well by making new memories and creating a future,” Park said.
Reportedly, the Catholic Church and more than 10 of its related institutions have been at the forefront to support North Korean defectors to settle in.
Father Choi Joon-gyu, director at The Catholic University of Korea, pointed out that the university gives various grants to reduce the financial burden of defectors who take up study in the country.
“North Korean defectors also want to go to college and study to settle down in Korea, which is based on academic background, but it is a difficult situation in reality,” Father Choi said.
“Even if you come to Korea to study, it is difficult to focus on your studies because you have to work part-time until late at night to make a living,” he further added.
Since 2017, the Catholic University provides a living expense support of 500,000 Korean Won (US$407) per month, including full tuition and dormitory services to North Korean refugee students.
Reportedly, more than 10 religious congregations operate group homes and shelters to help North Korean defectors to settle in.
In 2010, the Franciscans established the “Hanuri Community” where male defectors above 18 years of age are allowed to stay and become self-sufficient by obtaining employment in South Korea.
Father Kim Kwon-soon, head of the community, hoped that the stay in the community would help the defectors to “not only adjust to South Korea,” but also serve as a driving force “to connect North and South Korea once unification is complete.”
Park Joo-myung,* -- name changed for anonymity
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