Difficulties Integrating North Korean Defectors Suggest Challenges in Reunifying Korea

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During the height of the Cold War, North Korean defectors were celebrated as symbols of freedom and a direct indictment of a brutal North Korean regime. Yet over time, the meaning endowed upon North Korean defectors steadily changed. They became living monuments to the complex facets of the frozen conflict: the broken families, the increasing disparity between the North and South and, most importantly, the fragile dream of a unified Korean Peninsula. And now, with the tenuous prospect of an enduring peace, North Korean defectors offer a glimpse into the challenges of reintegrating the two countries. An understanding of the challenges of North Korean resettlement in the Republic of Korea (ROK) could bridge the gap between a policy of reunification and its successful realization.

According to the Ministry of Unification (MOU), by 2017, 30,805 North Korean defectors had entered the ROK. After an initial security screening by South Korean intelligence, the MOU offers North Korean defectors full citizenship, housing subsidies, vocational training, educational opportunities and a 3-month social adjustment course. In theory, the MOU’s Hanawon Resettlement Center serves as a seamless transition, where North Koreans learn the skills to be normal, productive citizens in their new home. However, theory is often rosier than reality.

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