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North Korean Defectors Tell of Hardships and Hope, Part 4


South Korean soldiers look at a poster of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, painted by North Korean defector Sun Moo, at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010.

South Korean soldiers look at a poster of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, painted by North Korean defector Sun Moo, at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010.

"North Korean people have disdain for the Kim Jong Il regime. Nobody wants the regime to prolong. And the regime itself has hit limits economically and politically."

North Koreans are fleeing their homeland at a steady rate of between 2,000 and 3,000 people a year. In making an escape from oppression and poverty, many must still endure years of hardship as they seek freedom and a stable, healthy life. An estimated 18,000 defectors live in South Korea, and perhaps will see a time when the Korean peninsula will have a single government.

Katy Oh, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, spent a year in Germany studying the process and issues of that nation's reunification 20 years ago. She says South Koreans should learn from that example as well as the dramatic change in South Africa a few years later.

Views on Korean Reunification

Kim Kwang-jin

  • Forcing internal change will lead to a better climate for reunification with the South
  • The best way to reunification is to have a proper governance in North Korea, and rebuild North Korea and close the gap between the North and the South
  • Part of the transition to a unified Korea will include more opportunities for North Koreans to first come to the United States and be prepared for the reconstruction of North Korea in the future.


Kang Cheol-hwan

  • The North Korean regime itself has hit limits economically and politically, and there is going to be unification within five years
  • It is important to educate and prepare South Koreans and even Korean Americans for the inevitability of a unified Korea
  • Efforts to prepare need to be made at a brisk pace because time is running short ahead of reunification.

"For South Korea, many people are thinking 'Oh, North Koreans came from a very strange and bizarre state and society and we do not really trust them.' I think this kind of thing can be done through more education and some kind of government active role to perpetuate some of the ideas that embracement is better than neglecting them. And I think South Koreans can also learn the lessons from the post-Apartheid South African situation, how that Nelson Mandela even accepted the white people (minority)," she said.

Kim Kwang-jin defected in 2003 and says only about 100 North Korean defectors currently reside in the United States. He hopes part of the transition to a unified Korea will include more opportunities for North Koreans to first come to the United States. "I think the United States is the first country which passed the North Korean human rights act, human rights bill. So I think there will be more possibilities for North Koreans to come to the U.S. and settle here and be prepared for the reconstruction of North Korea in the future. I think they should be given more opportunities and possibilities for that," he said.

North Korean defector Kang Cheol-hwan says efforts to prepare need to be made at a brisk pace because he feels time is running short ahead of reunification. "North Korean people have disdain for the Kim Jong Il regime. Nobody wants the regime to prolong. And the regime itself has hit limits economically and politically. I think there is going to be unification within five years," he said.

Opinion surveys show that South Koreans fear their country of 46 million citizens would be overrun by 23 million North Koreans scrambling for food and shelter should the regime collapse. Katy Oh says that fear should make preparation in the South that much more urgent. "It is a strategic option for them. There is no luxury saying that we can be living in a divided country forever. And I think the more that they prepare for the future, it will be better," she said.

Oh says Korean unification is perhaps the greatest national task for South Korea. When cultures meet, they often clash. North and South Korean cultures have been diverging for over half a century. She believes it likely will take much time for them to blend back together.

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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

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