The South Korean government is cutting state aid for North Korean refugees by as much as 50 percent due to increasing numbers of asylum seekers. Some of those are now using a new route to get to South Korea - fleeing into foreign embassies in China to claim asylum and ask for safe passage to Seoul. This is causing wider diplomatic concerns and focusing new attention on the issue.
To help North Korean refugees adjust to life in South Korea, Seoul has given them up to $26,000 annually for three years. But in late May the cabinet revised the policy, cutting financial aid to the refugees by up to half that amount.
Tim Peters is a human rights activist in Seoul who assists North Koreans fleeing political oppression and deplorable living conditions. He says the cabinet's move is based partly on the growing number of North Koreans escaping to the South. "It has to do with the sheer number of refugees that has already been growing, essentially doubling every year for the past three," he said. "I think the government naturally incorporates projections of similar large increases of the number of refugees coming, that they are having to take a hard look at their budget. I have to believe that underneath it all are just budgetary concerns."
The number of North Koreans refugees arriving in Seoul this year climbed to more than 300. Last year, a total of 580 defected to the South. The number has been rising steadily since 1999, when about 140 refugees arrived. That is partly due to severe food shortages in North Korea, the result of an outdated and mismanaged agricultural sector.
One activist for the refugees, C.K. Park, points out that the current government raised the subsidy dramatically from what the previous administration allotted. He says the decision received a mixed public response. "There are groups such as war veterans and other social welfare groups who have complained that the government gave defectors money and not enough to them," he said. "There has always been a strong voice against giving defectors too much money."
The funds are just one plank of a comprehensive government program to help North Koreans adjust to life in the fast-paced, capitalist South. They are given free housing and education for their children. They also receive vocational training that emphasizes computer skills, critical for finding employment on South Korea's technology-oriented job market.
But despite all of this, many North Koreans fail to adapt to the South. Human rights workers say the main problem is that North Korea's centrally-controlled economy does not give workers the chance to compete and develop as workers are expected to do in the South. As a result, few defectors have any experience with finding jobs and fostering their own professional development.
The government has braced itself for fierce criticism of its decision to trim subsidies. However, Mr. Park says that that it may encourage North Koreans to become more independent and will ultimately help them adjust to South Korea by forcing them to develop skills and seek jobs. "The subsidies to be provided to North Korean defectors are not the major element in deciding their fate in South Korea," he said. "It is their adaptability to a new world. Giving a little less money will not make an essential difference. If they are getting less, it is too bad but they can still manage."
Activists say the aid reduction could cut the number of refugees who are robbed by people smugglers. According to activists, some refugees used government handouts to pay Chinese people smugglers who promised to help other members of the refugee's family defect. Few of the smugglers, however, succeeded in bringing family members to South Korea, despite taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from refugees in recent years.
The issue of North Korean refugees has taken on a wider diplomatic focus in the last year. Aid workers estimate that up to 300,000 North Koreans have fled to Northeast China and are now in hiding. Many hope to eventually claim asylum and emigrate to South Korea.
But Chinese officials are said to be stepping up repatriation efforts following a series of incidents where North Koreans made their way into foreign diplomatic compounds and secured protection and safe passage to South Korea. This has put China in a difficult position as Beijing considers the North Koreans illegal economic migrants and has promised long-time ally Pyongyang that it would return them home.