A new study shows people who fled North Korea say they are content with the education and employment assistance they receive and appreciate having enough food — but they are most thankful to have finally found freedom.
By Julian Ryall in Tokyo
January 18, 2024
Some 33,000 North Koreans have fled into South Korea since the 1950sImage: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo/picture alliance
A record number of North Korean defectors are happy with their new lives in South Korea, according to a new study. And freedom seems to be the key factor, even beyond food security or job and education opportunities.
"For me, every part of my life is better in the South and I believe that defectors like me who live here and work hard can achieve anything they want," said Kim Eujin, who fled North Korea at the age of 21 and arrived in Seoul in 2007.
"We can study what we want at university, we do not have to worry about having enough food and we can travel — but I think for most North Koreans, the thing we enjoy most is just freedom," she told DW.
Her sentiment is backed by the latest annual study conducted by the Korea Hana Foundation. The Seoul-based nonprofit organization was set up by the South Korean Ministry of Unification in 2010 to help defectors settle into their new lives in the South.
Defectors still earn less than South Koreans
More than 30,000 North Koreans have completed the perilous journey into South Korea since the 1950s. However, South Korea recorded far fewer arrivals in recent years than before, due to the Pyongyang regime fortifying its borders to stop its citizens from fleeing.
North Korean defector: 'We are not traitors'
In 2009, South Korean officials reported 2,914 people escaping North Korea to reach safety in the South. The latest figures, however, show only 67 people defecting in the whole of 2022, and 99 in the first half of 2023.
The happiness report by Korea Hana Foundation is based on interviews with 2,500 refugees who have arrived since January 1997. The researchers found 79.3% percent were "satisfied" with their lives, up from 72.5% in 2018.
Some 41% of defectors attributed their happiness to "the ability to live with freedom."
More defectors are also employed, the study indicated, with 65.3% holding down jobs — a major increase since 2011, when less than half of defectors were working full time.
The defectors were also earning more money on average, taking home the equivalent of €1,680 or $1,830 per month. Still, the defector's average salary remains significantly below the national average in South Korea, which is close to €2,870.
'Work hard, take the opportunities'
Defector Kim Eujin is working on a master's thesis focusing on the economic and social conditions of North Korean women who have settled in the South. Her research indicates that the women are mostly better-off economically than immigrants from South Asian countries who marry South Korean men.
"There is more assistance available from the government for people who have arrived from North Korea, including education opportunities and help finding a place to stay and jobs," she said.
"My feeling, and I think it is the same with my North Korean friends here, is that if you are willing to work hard and take opportunities, then you can succeed in South Korea and achieve your dream of a better life," she added.
At the same time, defectors from the North face a unique set of challenges, according to Kim. Some are unable to contact their relatives in the North and fearful for their well-being. Some women were even forced to leave children behind in North Korea or China as they made their way to the South, Kim added.
"There is also discrimination against people from the North," she admitted. "I am not at all ashamed of where I am from, but my husband and I try not to talk about it in front of our friends or neighbors because we do not want my children to be teased or bullied because I am a refugee from the North."
"I can stand up for myself, but we will tell the children the whole story when they are old enough to understand."
Still kept at arm's length?
Lee Eunkoo is a joint founder of the Seoul-based Freedom Speakers International, an NGO which helps defectors learn English. She says the North Koreans that she speaks with do enjoy living in the South, but that enjoyment is tempered by the everyday challenges of South Korean society.
"It varies from person to person, of course, but the North Koreans I know are happy at the help and support they receive after arriving and the education and employment opportunities that are available for them," she said.
"They have freedom and they all say that is very meaningful for them. But often, there are issues at a deeper level," she added.
"For some, it can be hard to settle into a very different society to what they are used to, the language can be a problem as there are differences between the Korean that is spoken in the North and here in the South," she said, with an accent or certain phrases marking them out as being from the North.
North Korean defectors still find themselves ostracized to a degree in South Korea, prompting them to mostly form bonds with others from the North. This keeps them from fully integrating, Lee said.
"So yes, there are challenges, but I hope that the government will come up with more ways of helping these people to settle here and be happy."