Seoul's center: N Korean defectors seek refuge with locals

A small group made up of North Korean defectors gathered in a seven-story Seoul building. They play the accordion and make ornaments. Some go out for coffee later.

Seoul's center: N Korean defectors seek refuge with locals

"South and North Koreans meet here to smile and chat. They exchange information about their lives. "Some (South Koreans), say that their parents originally came from North Korea," stated Ko Jeong Hee 60, a defector who teaches accordion in the Inter-Korean Cultural Integration Center. "The atmosphere here is great."

This center was opened in South Korea last year and is the first government-run facility that allows North Korean defectors to meet local residents. It offers cultural activities and fun. The center is designed to assist defectors in their often difficult resettlement in South Korea. It also studies the possibility of blending rival cultures should they unify.

Although unification is a popular part of the political rhetoric between the Koreas, the realities of creating a single Korea made up of the super-rich and successful South and the oppressive North make it difficult to realize such a plan.

It seems unlikely that Korea will unify in the near future. Despite decades of poverty and mistrust towards the outside world, the North is not politically unstable. There have also been no meaningful talks between the Koreas on unification.

In the midst of the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons accumulation, exchange programs between Koreas -- including basketball matches, singers, art groups and art troupes -- have been frozen. It is also unclear how effective the center will be and whether defectors who are in economic hardship will participate in events that have no chance of making a profit.

After fleeing poverty, political oppression and persecution at home, 34,000 North Koreans settled in South Korea. Most of them arrived in the past 20 years. This is about 0.6% of the 52 million South Koreans. Deportees receive citizenship, apartments, resettlement funds, three months of social orientation classes, and other benefits upon their arrival in South Korea.

They come from a highly repressive and nominally socialist country, whose nominal gross domestic product in 2019 was only one-54th that of South Korea. Many people are discriminated against in South Korea and have difficulty adapting to their brutally competitive, capitalistic lifestyles.

Official data last year showed that the average monthly wage of defectors was around 80% less than South Koreans. They stayed with their jobs for an average of 31.6 months, which is less than half the time South Koreans spend. Their school dropout rate was almost three times higher. Only 9.4% of South Korean respondents said they would allow defectors to marry into their families, according to a 2019 survey.

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