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Fewer North Korean defectors reach South Korea, and questions grow about unification

North Korean defectors take a computer class inside Anseong Hanawon, Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, in Anseong, South Korea, July 10.
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images
North Korean defectors take a computer class inside Anseong Hanawon, Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, in Anseong, South Korea, July 10.

ANSEONG, South Korea — Nine women sit in a classroom, each with a computer screen in front of them. Following the instructor's lead, they drag the cursor across a paragraph on a word processor program and look for an icon to copy and then paste the text. They're learning to use the copy-paste function, and text they are working with is South Korea's national anthem lyrics.

The women are all from North Korea. And this computer lesson is a part of a 12-week resettlement and integration training program at Hanawon, a government-run center for newly arrived female defectors. A separate center caters to male defectors.

This secure facility, which operates under the auspices of South Korea's Unification Ministry, recently opened its doors to foreign journalists, including from NPR, for the first time since 2016.

Once defectors make it to South Korea, often after a perilous journey across multiple countries, they go through interrogation by the government intelligence agency. Then women are sent to the main Hanawon complex in Anseong, 40 miles southeast of Seoul, to prepare for their new lives in the South.

The facility offers medical and psychiatric care. It teaches defectors about South Korean society and gender equality, and provides occupational training and counseling for skills including cooking, baking, nail art, skin care, clothes-making and mending, and long-term caregiving.

After completing the three-month program, defectors receive subsidies and housing benefits, as well as continued support from local centers to help them assimilate during their early years living in South Korea.

This place is — as Seo Jeong-bae, the chief of Hanawon, puts it — a symbol of the South's will to "welcome and embrace defectors and all North Korean people" and to pursue unification, as reflected in its name: "hana" means "one."

It also reflects the tension between the reality of a divided peninsula and the idea — as stated in South Korea's constitution — that South Korea's territory spans it entirely. Meanwhile, new tensions have emerged over the role of the ministry charged with overseeing Korean unification efforts.

North Korean defectors get automatic citizenship in the South, but face challenges

The South and North simultaneously became United Nations member states in 1991, against the backdrop of Cold War detente. But the two governments do not recognize each other.

In an agreementreached later that same year, Seoul and Pyongyang established their relationship not as "between states," but as "a special interim relationship stemming from the process toward reunification."

Based on this unique political situation, defectors coming to South Korea are subject to a law for protection and settlement support that's separate from the country's immigration or refugee laws. They automatically receive South Korean citizenship.

But that doesn't mean life is easy for them.

Asked what worries her about life after Hanawon, one defector, whom NPR is not naming to protect her and her family's safety, said, "I'm walking this path with so much help for my resettlement, like this education program, from South Korean citizens' tax money. I'm worried about how I will be able to make a lot of money here and pay a lot of taxes."

The number of defectors reaching South Korea has plummeted in recent years

A North Korean defector (in red shirt) receives dental treatment at the Hanawon Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees in Ansong, South Korea, July 10.
/ Jeon Heon-Kyun/Pool via Reuters
Jeon Heon-Kyun/Pool via Reuters
A North Korean defector (in red shirt) receives dental treatment at the Hanawon Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees in Ansong, South Korea, July 10.

In recent years, Hanawon has seen fewer students as the number of North Korean defectors has plummeted, mostly due to the pandemic and tightened border restrictions. Pyongyang shut its borders during the pandemic and only recently reopened. Travel inside China, where most defectors stay before they reach the South, was restricted.

Nearly 3,000 defectors arrived in South Korea in 2009 and the annual number remained above 1,000 for more than a decade thereafter. But starting in 2021, it fell to double digits. Just 67 arrived last year.

Hanawon started redirecting resources — including a new building for vocational education that opened in June 2020 — to defectors who'd already completed its programs, inviting them back for additional occupational training and providing outreach services.

During this period of quiet in Hanawon, dialogue and exchange between the two Koreas also ground to a halt.

A brief window of possibility for the North's denuclearization closed when the 2019 summit between Kim Jong Un and former U.S. President Donald Trump ended with no agreement. North Korea has since ramped up provocations and hostility toward the South and the U.S.

North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office building, north of the Demilitarized Zone, in 2020 and ceased routine communications with the South. Last year, the country test-fired a record number of missiles, sent drones across the inter-Korean border and declared it could use its nuclear weapons preemptively. It is now attempting to put a spy satellite into orbit.

In the meantime, South Korea has also become more hawkish under conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May 2022. Reversing his liberal predecessor's more conciliatory tone, Yoon has stressed "peace through strength," highlighted North Korea's human rights abuses and stepped up the South's response to North Korean provocations.

Yoon has sought to boost security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan, while North Korea is pursuing tighter relationships with China and Russia.

The Unification Ministry has a new, more hawkish leader

In June, Yoon named a conservative scholar to head South Korea's Unification Ministry, which he said "has played the role of a North Korea aid ministry, but it shouldn't. It's time for the Unification Ministry to change."

His nominee, Kim Yung-ho, said at his confirmation hearing in July that the ministry "should contribute to resolving the nuclear issue. And it should also improve the North Korean people's human rights situation."

Kim has argued that unification will be possible only if the North Korean regime is toppled, though he walked that back during the confirmation hearing and said unification should be achieved "in a peaceful way."

He has also argued that South Korea was "played by North Korean propaganda" in reaching some past inter-Korean agreements. After his nomination, he told reporters that the agreements need to be "selectively reconsidered."

The Unification Ministry's role is now in doubt

Kwon Young-se, then South Korea's unification minister, speaks during a press conference at Anseong Hanawon Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, July 10.
/ SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kwon Young-se, then South Korea's unification minister, speaks during a press conference at Anseong Hanawon Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, July 10.

The Unification Ministry carried out a major organizational shakeup in April and announced another on Aug. 23, expanding the units for North Korea analysis and human rights issues and downgrading those for inter-Korean exchange and communication.

Once implementation is completed, the restructuring will leave the ministry with 13% less personnel.

The ongoing changes at the ministry raise questions about what its role is and should be.

Unlike the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose North Korea-related units coordinate with other countries and international organizations on issues like denuclearization, human rights and sanctions, the Unification Ministry has focused on engagement and acted as the South's representative in inter-Korean dialogues.

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says the more muscular direction in which the ministry is currently headed is not aligned with its mission, dictated by the South Korean lawas to "administer policies on unification, and dialogue, exchanges and cooperation between the South and North, education on unification, and other duties on unification."

North Korea's nuclear buildup can be part of the ministry's focus, Yang says, because it influences inter-Korean relations. But, he warns — referring to the minister's answer at the confirmation hearing that the ministry should contribute to denuclearization — "If the Unification Ministry explicitly declares denuclearization is its primary goal," he warns, "it will fail in both denuclearization and inter-Korean relations."

Yang says the ministry's role in serving the constitutional duty of promoting peaceful unification through dialogue and exchange should be maintained regardless of the government's ideological orientation or the advancement of North Korea's nuclear weapons. South Korea's constitution states the country "shall seek unification and shall formulate and carry out a policy of peaceful unification based on the basic free and democratic order."

But he is worried that President Yoon, who has used confrontational language against the North, may want to reduce the ministry's function even further.

South Koreans have grown less sympathetic to the Unification Ministry's original mission

Another challenge facing the ministry is that more and more South Koreans, not just the current conservative government, are unsympathetic to its mission.

In the latest annual survey conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank, preference for "peaceful division" exceeded the preference for unification for the first time.

Over half of all respondents said they favored a future in which the people of the two countries can freely visit each other. The percentage who said they wanted a unified Korea was the same – 17% – as that of those who said they are fine with the status quo.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people who disagree with the need for unification based on ethnic unity continues to grow.

Possible changes in attitude toward unification have also emerged in North Korea. In July, Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong and the North's defense minister made an extremely rare move of calling South Korea by its official name, "Republic of Korea," in statements published in state media.

Normally, North Korea refers to the South as "namchoson" or south Choson, using the name for the dynastic kingdom that ruled the entire peninsula before Japan colonized it in the early 20th century.

And when a South Korean businesswoman recently requested a visit, North Korea's denial of her request came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, which normally would have handled such a request. It is the counterpart of the South's Unification Ministry, but has not been active for years.

Will North Korea move away from the goal of unification?

Some experts raise the possibility that North Korea may be preparing to ditch the two Koreas' "special interim relationship" and formalize a state-to-state relationship with the South — a move away from pursuit of unification.

A North Korean defector at a nail art class at the Anseong Hanawon center, July 10.
/ SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A North Korean defector at a nail art class at the Anseong Hanawon center, July 10.

Others believe Pyongyang's intentions are not yet clear. Researchers Lee Sang-geun and Ahn Jeno of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank affiliated with the National Intelligence Service, South Korea's spy agency, analyze that Pyongyang may be trying to emphasize division with the South to strengthen its independent state identity and internal unity.

Whatever North Korea's intention, it has yet to publicly discard its official unification policy of two systems existing under one confederal country. But its interest in unification appears to have dwindled during the Kim Jong Un era, analysts believe. According to KINU's Suh Bo-hyuk, Kim has adhered to the unification policy established by his father and grandfather, but his priority has been regime stability through economic and nuclear development.

In the past decade's state media reports, Suh writes, "unification is referred to as a tool for realizing North Korea's policy goals or ideology like development, security, and self-reliance, rather than for its original meaning of reunion of the two Koreas or the Korean people."

And according to the Unification Ministry's analysis, North Korean expressions emphasizing Korean people's unity, such as uriminzokkiri ("by our nation itself"), stopped appearing in the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper in recent years.

In 1950, North Korea started the Korean War to unify the peninsula by force. After three years and millions of deaths, an armistice agreement was signed to "insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved."

This year marks its 70th anniversary, and the war has not formally ended. North Korea invited Chinese and Russian delegations and celebrated the 70th anniversary in July as "Victory Day" with a military parade.

South Korea invited veterans who fought on its side to a commemoration ceremony. In a speech, President Yoon thanked them for "protect[ing] freedom from communist totalitarian forces" and vowed solidarity with free and democratic countries.

He made no mention of North Korea or settlement of the armistice regime.

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Se Eun Gong
[Copyright 2024 NPR]