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Survey results showed that 18.5% of North Korean defectors expressed that they “regret” moving to South Korea.
Those who regret settling in the South reported experiencing difficulties due to cultural differences, psychological isolation, and economic issues.
On Monday, the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS) held a presentation at the Asia Center on the university’s Gwanak campus to announce the results of an analysis of a 10-year examination of North Korean defectors in the South.
In the presentation, the institute shared the findings of surveys conducted annually between 2011 and 2020 with defectors who had left North Korea the year before. These included findings on the topics of “perceptions among North Koreans during the 10 years of the Kim Jong-un regime” and “changes in North Korean society between 2012 and 2020.”
Based on her analysis of North Korean defectors’ adaptation to life in the South, IPUS senior researcher Choi Eun-young Christina explained that 18.59% of the 312 defectors surveyed who had left North Korea between 2017 and 2019 answered in the affirmative when asked whether they “regret coming to South Korea.”
Among those who reported regretting their decision, 84.48% complained about struggles with cultural differences, 70.69% with psychological isolation, and 65.52% with economic issues.
In particular, defectors who had recently arrived in the South were found to be struggling even more amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In an in-depth interview with researchers, a woman in her 30s who left North Korea in 2019 and arrived in the South in 2020 said, “With COVID-19, it’s like we’re prisoners. It’s frustrating that I can’t even attempt to do anything.”
“I have to send money to the North too, and I can’t go anywhere. My head is just spinning, and I can’t predict what the future holds,” she was quoted as saying.
“I don’t have my parents or relatives with me here. I’ve felt so frustrated and lonely, and that’s why I’ve been crying since I came here,” she also said.
Nearly 90% of respondents said they felt “close” with South Koreans, but a lower percentage answered affirmatively when asked whether South Koreans were “accepting.”
Of the 1,240 defectors surveyed who had left North Korea between 2010 and 2019 and had lived in South Korea for less than a year at the time of the survey, 89.92% answered positively (“close” or “very close”) when asked how close they have felt with South Koreans since living in the South.
But when asked how accepting they felt South Koreans were toward North Korean defectors, a smaller 75.18% answered either “accepting” or “very accepting.”
“In the case of one North Korean defector in their 20s, they said in their interview that South Koreans ‘are nice, but don’t seem to include you,’ and that South Koreans ‘act and speak in a friendly way while showing discrimination in their thoughts,’” the researchers wrote.
Choi explained, “Over 87% of all respondents said they were ‘satisfied’ with the support policies for North Korean defectors, although there has been a trend of declining satisfaction over the past 10 years.”
“Given that the suicide rate for defectors is over double that of South Koreans and there has been a recent rise in defectors leaving the South — including those returning to North Korea — we need to be looking more closely at the problems that defectors are experiencing in South Korea,” she suggested.
By Ko Byung-chan, staff reporter
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