South Korean defense authorities suffered a serious loss of face at the beginning of the year when a young man crossed the high fences on the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone to escape to North Korea a little more than a year after he made a similar adventure in a reverse direction. The incident tarnished the finale of President Moon Jae-in’s five-year epic of inter-Korean reconciliation.
The Defense Ministry identified him as a Mr. X who had “defected” to the South from the North in November 2020 through the same section of the northeastern border. Army guards failed to detect the single traveler when he sneaked first southward and then northward through multiple obstacles, to expose loopholes in what is supposed to be a watertight surveillance/deterrence system.
The Demilitarized Zone, a four-kilometer-wide tape stretching 155 miles (250 km) across the waist of the Korean Peninsula, has served as the border between the two Koreas since the 1950-53 Korean War. South Koreans called people who dare crossing the border from the North through guard posts, mine fields, barbed-wire fences and now CCTV cameras “gwisunja” meaning defectors. In recent years, the new title of “talbukja” (escapee) has been used to indicate North Koreans who take refuge in South Korea via a third country.
As the two divided parts of Korea have remained hostile for the past seven decades, entry into the other side without special authorization constitutes a statutory crime. Yet, more than 33,000 North Korean refugees have managed to settle in the South since 1992 following South Korea’s diplomatic normalization with China, which is now accessible to the peoples of both Koreas.
It is taken for granted among South Koreans, from little schoolchildren to adults, that average North Koreans envy life in the South for freedom and affluence that are scarce in the North. That notion seemed to be proven true as the number of talbukja soared to over 2,500 a year between 2007 and 2011. A new word “Saeteomin,” meaning new settlers (in the South), was coined to clear the derogatory nuance of the term talbukja.
Upon arrival the North Korean refugees are admitted into the Hanawon Institute, jointly operated by the National Intelligence Service and the Unification Ministry, for a sort of debriefing and familiarization with the South Korean way of life. After about three months of accommodation at Hanawon, the Saeteomin are given Republic of Korea citizenship and a settlement aid fund of up to 50 million won ($42,110) per family.
Jobs are arranged for the refugees, not necessarily to their satisfaction. Still, quite a few have settled in the different social environment successfully and have managed to bring their relatives out of the North. Professionals, including former senior officials and diplomats, have offered their expertise for South Korean organizations which need them. Thae Yong-ho, former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, has been elected National Assemblyman from Seoul’s Gangnam district as a member of the main opposition party.
But, according to researchers of the Saeteomin life, the biggest problem they face in the South is how to “use” the unlimited freedom they are allowed under the economic limitations they meet. A research report reveals that the suicide rate among North Korean refugees is three times higher that of the current level of Korean society and the proportion of welfare recipients is five times the national average. Many of them feel that they have come to the wrong place where they are unwelcome, and try to move to a third country.
Mr. X, who was known to be a well-trained gymnast, which explains the ease with which he climbed over the three-meter-high fences, earned a living here as a night-time sweeper of an office building. He was heard complaining of his current situation to his acquaintances, but officials said there was no reason to speculate about the motive of his dangerous trip back to the North.
South Koreans, either official or private, seem much more alarmed by the episode of the defector’s U-turn to the North than by the news of the North’s test-firing of a mid-range hypersonic missile, which precisely hit a target 700 kilometers away last week to bolster its capability of mass destruction. Deplored is the faulty security system along the DMZ as exposed by the border incident but even harder to accept is the failure of society to adequately treat a young man who had sought a new life in the South.
North Korean arrivals in the South have remarkably declined over the last several years to the official tally of 229 in 2020, which of course was the result of restriction of movement under the coronavirus pandemic. The dwindling number of refugees from the North of late indicates that South Korean attraction has decreased even to North Korean dissidents while the Moon Jae-in administration has made so much effort endeavoring for a Korean détente.
President Moon met North Korean chief Kim Jong-un three times in 2018 in the truce village of Panmunjom and Pyongyang and played go-between for US president Trump’s talks with Kim in Singapore, Hanoi and Panmunjom. What has he earned in return? Absolutely no progress in the process for the denuclearization of North Korea, occasional insults from members of Kim’s inner circle and, worst of all, the destruction of the South-North Liaison Office building in the border town of Kaesong in June 2020 even without prior notice to the South.
In his last effort for an advancement in inter-Korean reconciliation, President Moon has of late tried to make an “end-of-war declaration” to the Korean War, which has been in a state of armistice for the past 69 years, along with North Korea, the US and China. The Beijing Winter Olympics in February could offer a diplomatic stage for this feat which would get Moon international recognition as a peacemaker. Unfortunately, coronavirus variants are preventing a get-together of government leaders and North Korea even decided not to participate in the event.
Regrettably, Moon Jae-in is closing his five-year presidency without leaving a historic monument in the relations between the two Koreas, except for some souvenir pictures taken with Kim Jong-un at Panmunjom, Pyongyang and Mountain Baekdu, the origin of the Korean nation.
Besides Mr. X, intelligence authorities have found more than a score of U-turn cases involving North Korean refugees, which could reflect a receding compassion on the part of the host people toward those courageous Saeteomin. Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org