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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Immigrant Blues

by | April 4th, 2014 | 06:02 am

Last fall, I wrote a post on refugee success stories but recent surveys document how many continue to struggle. According to a survey by the NGO North Korean Refugees Foundation, the jobless rate among North Korean refugees rose in 2013 to nearly 10 percent, up from 7.5 percent the previous year. (By point of comparison, at the time the survey was conducted, the official South Korean unemployment rate stood at 2.7 percent.) And even among those employed, consistent with past surveys, the group finds that earnings among their respondents are quite low. Most North Korean refugees continue to fare poorly in the labor market.

Their problems don’t end there. Rigid social stratification and discrimination in South Korea are common complaints. Even with the right credentials, many North Koreans struggle to advance in South Korean society which they regard as hypercompetitive and unfeeling. Drug use is the most common reason North Korean refugees are jailed in the South.  The Chosun Ilbo, the Dong-A Ilbo and the Asahi Shimbun have been jointly conducting surveys of refugees. The Asahi Shimbun documents how some of these refugees have fallen prey to unscrupulous brokers who encouraged them to enter what is perceived to be, in certain respects, the more welcoming environment of Canada. But Canadian authorities have discovered rampant falsification of political asylum claims and plans to begin repatriating the offenders back to South Korea.

Yet even with such challenges, the Chosun Ilbo survey finds that most (71.5 percent) are satisfied with their lives in the South, and the vast majority (93.5 percent) would bring their families in the North to the South if they could. A large majority (82 percent) report that their image of South Korea improved after they arrived, experiencing freedom and affluence that gave lie to North Korean propaganda which they had been fed.