Conflict & Justice

North Koreans in the south

The South Korean government allowed more than 2,000 North Korean refugees to settle in the south next year. The refugees receive all kinds of benefits, including thousands of dollars in financial benefits and housing subsidies and free college tuition. Advocates for the refugees say the realities are different. This student got out of North Korea when she was 14 and then spent eight years hiding in China. When she got to South Korea last year, she went straight to high school. The schoolwork is beyond her. She says back in the North, schoolwork was very different. The South Korean government recognizes that problem. This is one of the South Korean government's latest efforts to help refugees, a new school for North Korean refugees. The principal says these are kids with a daunting set of special needs. He says the students have emotional problem and suffer physically too from malnourishment. They're way behind South Korean kids in academics. The refugees spend six to 24 months here and then they're transferred into regular schools, ready or not. To understand South Korea's policy towards North Korean refugees you need to remember that cosmopolitan Seoul sits directly in the crosshairs of North Korean artillery guns. The point is the two Koreas are enemies but they're also family. Many people here still have family in the North. It's a paradox that makes the relationship to refugees complicated. Refugees must first answer lots of questions from South Korean intelligence agents to verify they're not spies. Next the refugees come to South Korea's resettlement support center, and offers a mandatory eight-week program for refugees, a crash course on life in South Korea. The goal is to help the North Koreans prepare for the culture shock of moving from North to South. Seoul has always been guarded in the way it welcomes people from the North. This expert says South Korea is keen to limit the amount of North Koreans they let it in because they want to keep North Korea stable. Until the mid-90s the South welcomed people from the North with open arms, even fanfare. But the refugees were fewer in number and tended to be North Korean elites. Now there are more and most refugees come from poor and underdeveloped areas. The American ambassador to South Korea says the accusation that South Korea is failing these new refugees is unfair. New arrivals get about $20,000 each from South Korea and the resettlement center is being expanded to accommodate the new amount of refugees. But officials, including the US Ambassador, hope and expect that the South will do more. The new President has been forthright in his criticisms of how the North treats its people so he may be more willing to welcome refugees from the North.

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