Home News North Korea Advocates Say More Funds Needed to Help North Korean Refugees

Advocates Say More Funds Needed to Help North Korean Refugees

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Download The number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea continues to rise. 

The current number of defectors now stands at 22,000 and Seoul’s Ministry of Unification predicts many more will come by the end of this year. 

But some advocates say refugees aren’t getting enough help to fully adjust to their new homes. 

And it’s not only the government that’s not supporting these new arrivals.

From Daegu, reporter Jason Strother has more.


When all North Koreans first arrive in the South, they spend three months in a resettlement facility called Hanawon. That’s where they learn the ins and outs of living in a capitalist society, like how to use computers or Bank machines. 

And once they’re out of there, they still can get help at one of 30 smaller Hana Centers around the country, like this one in Daegu.

One of the center’s programs gives part time jobs to defectors, like packing microchips into crates before shipping them out to HD monitor and cell phone manufacturers.

That’s what 21 year old Kim Guk-cheol is doing. He’s lived in Daegu for two years.

“It was pretty hard at first to get used to living here, but I got a lot of help from the Hana Center here. Now I am planning to go to university and learn about business.”

But the part time job program and many of the other services offered to refugees here don’t come from the Unification Ministry, says Lee Young Seok, a Hana Center official.

He says the Daegu and other branches have to reach out to local governments, charities as well as other sources of funding to help North Koreans settle in.

“The Hana Centers only receive government funding to help refugees who have been here up to a year. And I do not think this is enough time to really help these people adjust. It would be better if the government increased their support for a longer period of time.” 

Lee says that’s because the kind of support many defectors need goes much deeper than just setting them up in new homes or finding them jobs. 

It’s more psychological. And his Hana Center is trying to compensate for that.

Inside a small classroom a group of newly arrived North Koreans is taking a communication skills lesson.

The teacher asks how they feel when speaking to new people.

One student says she feels uncomfortable.

Lee says because of their hard lives in North Korea and then getting preyed upon by human traffickers in China, many defectors are traumatized.

And he says no one should expect those troubles to disappear after only a year in South Korea.

“Once they arrive here it’s not easy. Many spend several months just feeling lost. Many are depressed or can’t control their anger. They lack the self-confidence to talk to people. They’re embarrassed about their past and would rather just shut themselves off to others.”

And as the number of defectors reaching the south increases, advocates like Lee say they’re concerned that North Koreans won’t get the support they need to overcome these problems in the long term. 

And that’s despite the government spending more money on assisting refugees when they first arrive.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification recently celebrated the groundbreaking of a new Hanawon resettlement complex northeast of Seoul.

Unification Minister Hyun In Taek told the crowd it’s the country’s obligation to help North Koreans.

“North Koreans should receive the same opportunities as South Koreans. Hanawon is a symbol that South Korea wants to ensure that defectors have comfortable and happy lives here.”

But many refugees and their supporters say while officially they are meant to feel welcomed in their new home, they in fact receive a cold reception from their South Korean neighbors.

Members of staff at the Daegu Hana Center say this too is a problem they are trying to resolve. They’ve begun programs that pair up newly arrived defectors with locals to help bridge the gap between the two Koreas.

Twenty-four year old Choi Juri works at the center but first started out as a volunteer there. That’s when she says her opinion about North Koreans completely changed.

“Before I started working here, I felt they were different than us, they were kind of like foreigners. But now I see that I see that we are all just one Korean people. It’s just prejudice that makes other South Koreans look down on people from the north.”

Some of the defectors I met in Daegu say thanks to the center they’ve come to know more South Koreans.

One 39 -year old refugee, who did not want to give her name, gives one possible explanation as to why many North and South Koreans have trouble understanding one another.

“Generally, I think South Koreans are very nice, but the feeling I get is that, compared to what we have been through, they have led a very comfortable life and we just don’t have the kind of leisure they’ve had.”

But she adds she’s hopeful that people from both sides of the peninsula will soon be able to put aside their differences and live more comfortably together.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 27 July 2011 09:17 )  

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