PSPD People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy
[Civil Peace Forum] How did “the First Come Unification” become “Subject”?
- 2018.12.26 (18:19:52)
How did “the First Come Unification” become “Subject”?
Kim Wha-soon Senior Researcher of Institute for Unification and Peace Policy at Hanshin University
The number of North Korean defectors settling in South Korea began to increase rapidly during the North Korean Famine of the 1990s as some of the “food refugees” began to flee to South Korea. These North Korean defectors have been called as the “First Come Unification.” The process of integrating the First Come Unification and South Koreans has been glorified as a "unification experiment" and “unification of two Koreans” but the reality they faced has not been ideal or easy. “The First Come Unification” has now been forced to become “Subject”.
1. The power of the South Korean Government and North Korean Defectors
– Loss of Budding Citizenship
Through the democratic process, which is referred to as the “Candlelight Revolution", the Korean civil society was able to impeach Park Geun-hye and experience great accomplishment and excitement from the process of changing their world. Contrarily, North Korean defectors were extremely shocked to see South Korean citizens criticize and expel their president.
“I thought South Korea is a horrendous country. These people seem to be very mean… only a short time was left in her term as the President. Even though Park Geun-hye was a horrible person, she was the President of South Korea.”
- Interviewed by the author on April 15, 2017, 50’s male North Korean defector, ex-secretary from North Korea Party cell, currently an industrial worker.
Previous researches or papers related to North Korean defectors have been mainly focused on “difficulties with settlement” or “difficulties with adapting to the South Korean society”. This immigrant adaptation paradigm cannot explain the crisis the North Korean society has been experiencing for the past couple of years and their distrust and anxiety against the candlelight government (referred to as the Moon administration). It also cannot explain the phenomena of rumors about the Moon administration sending the North Korean defectors back to North Korea, the existence of extreme right-wing bias and the political participation as a “subject” in the North Korean defector’s society. The anxiety syndrome, which is currently creating many issues in the North Korean society, is caused by the Divided Regime. It is even more unfair that this anxiety syndrome is a mental distress suffered by victims, who have been used as unification force or defecting soldiers from North Korea, and not by perpetrators.
When illegally crossing the border, a sense of citizenship grows within North Korean defectors; however, it is completely trampled by the project called “Making a Citizen” in South Korea. This project has brought chaos into the North Korean defector’s society.
The North Korean defector community became more anxious and intimidated as the South Korean’s hope for peace grew and they began to visualize the transition to a peace regime with events such as the 2018 Inter-Korean summit as a result of the Moon administration. The First Come Unification lost their identity as “unification force”, which was created by the South Korean government, and the notion of “First Come Unification” has been discarded. Now the North Korean defectors considers themselves as worthless individuals in South Korean society and they drift around with fear that the Moon administration may be sending them back to North Korea.
This phenomenon is very paradoxical. Although North Korean defectors did not actively confront and protest against the dictatorship of the North Korean Regime, they were the ones who decided to reject their dictatorship and seek freedom and new life by illegally crossing the border. One North Korean defector stated that the moment they crossed the borderline of the country, a sense of citizenship sprung up inside. However, the political activities they’ve demonstrated in South Korea afterwards does not coincide with the statement. During the Park Guen-hye administration period, the North Korean defectors systematically participated in extreme right-wing political rallies more often. Even though the Sinking of MV Sewol gained strong support and empathy from the majority of citizens, some North Korean defectors took the lead in opposition and resulted in placing them against the South Korean civil society. The problem with the political activities of the North Korean defectors is that they were mobilized by their political connections in South Korea and not acted on voluntarily by their own judgments. For example, it was revealed that 1,259 North Korean defectors man-days were mobilized 39 times within 5 months for the anti-Sewol protest. North Korean defectors received 20,000 to 30,000 won (US $18 - $27) each time they participated in the anti-Sewol protest . As a result of the struggle for hegemony between the Union of Korean Neoliberal Extremists (UKNE) and the Union of North Korean Defector Extremists (UNKDE), it was disclosed that secret deals were made between UKNE, the Federation of Korean Industries, and the Blue House.
Previous administrations have always shown a particular interest in North Korean defectors, however, North Korean defectors became one of the most significant topics as of 2016. Over the past twenty years, an exponential growth of those fleeing from North Korea to South Korea has been seen and they have been symbolized and utilized as living proof of the instability in the North Korean regime and superiority of the South Korean system. They were used as an effective means to change the political situation and win elections during the regime’s crisis. Right before the general election in April 2016, the Ministry of Unification made an unusual announcement to bring attention to the public about twelve North Korean waitresses who fled from a North Korean restaurant. In the same year during the speech for Armed Forces Day on October 1, the President encouraged North Koreans to flee to South Korea. North Korean defectors’ participation in extreme right-wing political rallies peaked during the process of impeachment from winter of 2016 to spring of 2017. North Korean defectors were voluntarily or involuntarily involved in the “Taegeukgi rallies” . The sense of citizenship they brought with them was crumbling as they steadily became “subjects”, further showing their subordinating attitude to the power of the government. In accordance with Jeon Tae Kook (2018) , a “subject culture” refers to a culture where citizens only have passive understanding of politics and considers themselves as political objects. The reason behind North Korean defectors becoming such “subjects” lies in the division system under the defector support policy, also known as the settlement support system, which interrogates and separates defectors in the name of protection from the general population the moment they arrive.
2. The Republic of Korea seen through the eyes of North Korean defectors who left
It needs to be noted that the North Korean defectors have resisted the unfair treatments they received from the South Korean government. Researchers failed to identify the reasons for a large number of North Korean defectors leaving South Korea for ten years following 2005. This was because they were only trying to find causes in the North Korean defectors and did not try to find the reasons from the power of the government. The researchers had many explanations such as North Korean defectors’ inadaptability, how they were “welfare shopping”, or that the immigrants have a tendency for re-immigrating. There were various interpretations but they never looked to find reasons from the government itself. Facing a transition to a peace regime, the South Korean society now must take lessons from the unification experience that the North Korean defectors have gone through for the past twenty years.
It is unclear how many North Korean defectors have left Korean society since the mid-2000s. According to a study by the Korea Institute for National Unification in 2016, it was found that 16.2% of North Korean defector respondents answered they wanted to leave South Korea.
Why I Left Both Koreas (2017), a documentary film by director Steve Choi, delivers the calm and honest voice of North Korean defectors who left South Korea for Europe. They did not leave because they failed to adjust, to find better welfare, or simply because of discrimination. They said that they had left because they saw no hope in South Korea as they were politically mobilized by the government, were under constant surveillance by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), and stigmatized and isolated by the society. In 2017, North Korean defectors residing in South Korea also stated that they are stigmatized, isolated, and feel like they are living behind glass walls.
What does the South Korean society look like in the eyes of North Korean defectors who have left? It is a society where the government mobilizes them as it pleases, locks them behind glass walls, stigmatizes and watches them. Like the fraud case of Hanseong trading corporation, the government never truly protects North Korean defectors if real danger arises, even though the government says they watch the defectors to protect them. South Korea is a society where all North Korean defectors are viewed as potential spies, and some are even fabricated as real spies because it is a society that ultimately needs spies.
① A society where the government mobilizes North Korean defectors
Choi Seung-chul, a defector who applied for asylum in Europe, illustrated the government-sponsored mobilization of North Korean defectors in South Korea as follows:
“North Korean defectors do not participate in demonstrations because they want to, but because they can make money. Conservative organizations pay them. A negative aspect of Korean society is that there are people behind the curtains. Quasi-Governmental Organizations do whatever the government tells them to do since they are paid for mobilizing people to rallies. Tell people to protest against The Unified Progressive Party (UPP), and are paid 20,000 won (US $18) for transportation expenses. North Korean defectors are also hired as part-time workers to leave online comments. Whenever something happens, the North Korean defectors will be mobilized.”
It was revealed that 1,259 North Korean defectors were mobilized 39 times within 5 months against the families of victims of the Sinking of MV Sewol. Each defector was paid twenty to thirty thousand won (US $18 - $27) for each protest. One defector was mobilized through another defector right after he finished the Hanawon program (Settlement Support Center for North Korean Defectors) to post comments online as ordered by the NIS. He was paid fifty thousand won (US $45) per month to do so. Why do North Korean defectors participate in such things? North Korean defectors would do the dirty jobs that most South Koreans would refuse to do even for a considerably higher payments because they are naive enough to think that this is a way to show their patriotism and can be persuaded to provide cheap labor. The fundamental and critical responsibility for this lies on the government.
② Behind the glass walls: segregated and excluded from Korean society
In the documentary film, Why I Left Both Koreas, the most memorable person is a North Korean defector who lived in South Korea for 7 years. The scene shows water droplets on a window and a man saying in a desperate voice that they are locked behind glass walls. He claims that this is the reason why North Korean defectors have a suicide rate many times higher than that of the Korean population, which itself has the highest number of suicides per ten thousand people of all OECD member countries.
“North Korean defectors live in confines behind glass walls. We are locked in glass walls in which we cannot breathe. We are put behind the glass walls of discrimination and even if we break one and get out, another wall is there waiting for us.”
What does he mean by glass walls? These refer to the constant surveillance by the NIS, exclusion from general society, and extends to the Divided Regime itself.
The data regarding suicide rate proves the desperation that North Korean defectors have experienced. The data indicates that at one point, the suicide rate of North Korean defectors reached 15.2% of the total North Korean defectors deaths in the first half of 2015, which saw one of the highest number of deaths. (Won Hye-young, Data from the Ministry of Unification)
③ Society stigmatizes people, the government watches people
North Korean defectors are reluctant to admit they are from the North. When they do, people tend to look down on them or react with pity; sometimes both. Choi Seung-chul, who now lives in the UK, said that when he was in self-doubt because his business failed, he decided to go to the UK after his friend said “It doesn’t matter what you do here (South Korea), you will always be seen as a North Korean defector. The UK is different.” A female defector agreed with him, saying that no matter how hard North Korean defectors emulate South Koreans, they will never be like other South Koreans.
North Korean defectors experience an indescribable pain due to the constant surveillance by the NIS even after settling in Korean society. A defector wished that they would no longer be labeled as defectors after a certain “security period.” It is like a shadow that is always lurking behind them and there is no clarity on the length of the “security period”. Many North Korean defectors say that police or Defense Security Commanders frequently call and check on them for years or even decades after their arrival. One North Korean who had been a soldier, and later left for Europe, confessed that the factor for leaving South Korea was that he received attention that was bordering on surveillance level.
“That really is surveillance. We are to report where we are going and what we are doing. They say it’s for our protection. That’s what they say. But it’s actually surveillance.”
According to security police, the official reason for these “check-ins” is to protect them from retribution from the North, or other dangers. However, one female defector saw through the nature of this protection; this is surveillance, not protection.
“There is nothing they do to provide actual protection or assistance to our real lives.”
The power of the Government was like Janus to North Korean defectors. It provides material compensation, a bit higher than what is offered to the socially and financially disadvantaged class of Korea, but they are not without a price. Upon arrival, North Korean defectors face situation where the NIS tries to seek out spies, which could result in being legally detained for up to six months, and this can be worse than being prisoners of war. Some of the North Korean defectors have been fabricated as spies. Over the past ten years, they have been mobilized by the government for illegal and anti-democratic activities such as posting comments which were ordered by the NIS and participating in protests against families of Sewol victims. Even after being released from their three-month re-education at Hanawon, a group training facility, they remain under surveillance on the pretext of protection.
3. Beyond Marginal Man, solidarity and integration of the two Koreas
The Ministry of Unification announced on April 2018 a new direction to the 2018 to 2020 policy supporting to settle North Korean defectors. However, it gave disappointment as they simply recited the same policies/projects from the previous Park administration in order to transition to a peace regime. The Moon administration, the so-called candlelight government, does not yet seem to be moving ahead with reforming the North Korean defectors policy; which remains as stiff as the Divided Regime.
How much longer will the government of the Divided Regime isolate and manipulate North Korean defectors under the justification of “supporting” and “protecting” them? These defectors had to undergo six months of collaborative interrogation by the NIS (shortened to three months as of 2018), three months of education for adaptation at Hanawon, and other trainings including occupational training at the Second Hanawon. Each facility has their own administrative system and employment support system, with all sorts of unique training sessions. This separation retrogresses integration. It is time for a fundamental review of the purpose for this system of separation and division.
A Liberal person once asked me, “Why do we have to pay so much attention to the minority when there are only 32,000 of them? Aren’t 40 million people more important to us? Haven’t they already received a lot from the Park administration?” However, these questions are wrong. The reason we must pay attention is not for their own good, but for us and our society. As Kim Dong Choon said, “Unification of Korea is not just an issue of combining two countries; it is about including the victims of a violent system into society. That being said, it should start from integration and peace within South Korea.” If there are people in our society who are kept under surveillance for decades by the police or the NIS in the name of protection, then we cannot become free citizens either. We also cannot be free if we remain silent, even though the NIS's habitat exists in our society. If there are people who are legally held in solitary confinement for half a year to be picked out as spies and confess to being spies, we cannot say that the Republic of Korea is a democratic society that has human rights. These people are North Korean defectors.
We must create a society which does not ask North Korean defectors which side they will take, and does not separate them from the society. We must let them live freely and peacefully as any other citizen. We must build a peaceful world, not the Divided Regime. We must make a society that does not stigmatize, isolate, separate, place them under surveillance, nor fabricate them to be spies just because they are North Koreans. We must create a society that respects labor. The Peace Regime should not only focus on the majority in our society, but also construct an embracing society that recognizes and integrates minorities into our society.
The appearance of new citizens called ‘North Korean defectors’ posed a new question to the Korean civil society: what kind of country is the Republic of Korea? North Korean defectors are mirrors of South Korean society. Through them we recognize the violence exercised by the power of government, the lack of civic consciousness, and the arrogance of South Korean citizens who look down on our brothers and sisters of the North just because they are poor. The South Korean government and society has chased many North Korean defectors out of both Koreas, by branding them as spies, watching them, excluding them, and treating them as second-class citizens. If Korean civil society is able to make these things right, it will serve as the first step towards true solidarity and integration of the people living in the two Koreas.
* This essay is the fifth essay written for the 2018 Peace Report Project of the Civil Peace Forum, under the sponsorship of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Korea Office.
* Peace Report [See/Download]