The news out of Korea or, more appropriately, between North Korea and the United States continues to move apace. In recent days we have seen what my last two articles presaged, namely, the open recurrence of the same old fundamental fissures and hard lines, which, despite ongoing talks, always lay just beneath the surface of the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington.
Still, much is left wanting and speculative in the daily news cycle. Consequently, it is sometimes helpful to step back and look at how larger events are portrayed or interpreted by the different groups involved. Previously, I looked at the contentious domestic political divide within South Korea over North-South cooperation at the Winter Olympics, as well as the attitude of younger South Koreans toward inter-Korean talks and North Korea generally. Another important yet often under-represented group is North Korean defectors.
Although we have seen prominent or high-level defectors in the news lately, such as Ji Seon-ho at Trump’s State of the Union address or Thae Yong-ho expressing skepticism regarding North Korea’s willingness (or lack thereof) to denuclearize and reform, what do ordinary defectors think of what is going on?
I posed a couple of questions to two people who do extensive work with and research on the defector community. Sokeel Park is Director of Research & Strategy at Liberty in North Korea, an NGO that rescues and works side-by-side with North Korean refugees. Steven Denney is a graduate fellow at the Asian Institute at the University of Toronto (and formerly a blogger for The Diplomat’s Koreas section) and focuses on issues related to contemporary Korean national identity.
The Diplomat: Prominent defectors aside, we do not often hear about the views of ordinary defectors. Like any group, it would be inappropriate to overgeneralize, but what can you say about the spectrum of opinions among defectors regarding the ongoing inter-Korean talks and possible Kim-Trump talks?
Park: There have not been any surveys that I know of, and even if there were, methodologically speaking, it would be difficult to get a random sample of political views of North Korean defectors. Access is difficult, but to actually get methodically sound results would be a challenge as well.
But in regard to different views generally, there is a vocal minority that are very skeptical, maybe cynical even, of almost any kind of dealing with the North Korean government, and skeptical of any progressive government in South Korea and its efforts to negotiate with North Korea. They feel North Korea is always getting one over on the South. However, this is probably not the majority view. Ordinary defectors, particularly younger ones, are broadly quite positive. Within South Korea there has been a lot of interest regarding the inter-Korean summit and a lot of people saw Kim and President Moon meet and were quite positive about it. North Koreans obviously have a different perspective, but they are also part of South Korea society and culture, and are affected by the massive popularity of Moon Jae-in and the possibility of reduced tensions. Maybe some North Korean refugees are very hopeful, maybe even too hopeful. They watched the meeting between Moon and Kim and cried, feeling a mixture of hope and relief, thinking this could be the momentous start of reunification. But there is also a more middle-of-the-road position, that is not overly hopeful, wherein North Korea is probably not going to give up its nukes. Talks are maybe just a way to live with one another. Essentially they see room for improvement, but with skepticism.
Denney: Attitudes regarding inter-Korean relations are varied, but lean right. This should not come as a surprise though, given that these are people who defected from North Korea. Defectors are more critical of the regime they left and, to oversimplify things, their attitudes align more closely with a conservative view of Korean affairs. Although this, too, may change depending on the outcome of talks with North Korea, lead by liberal president Moon Jae-in.
The Diplomat: On a broader level, how might you characterize defectors’ attitudes (or the diversity thereof) toward the possibility (or desirability) of eventual reunification?
Park: The idea of reunification is a kind of catchall solution to a lot of the challenges defectors personally and their families back home face. Reunification for North Korean defectors is a stronger hope and ideal than for ordinary South Koreans. Compared to young South Koreans, the cost-benefit analysis for defectors is flipped. Young South Koreans are experiencing more of a decline in Korean ethno-nationalism than is the case for North Korean defectors, who possess a stronger version of ethno-nationalist, pan Korean identity. However, for both, the reduction of security concerns and tension is a shared interest.
The flip side to that, and this is my impression and anecdotal, is that there are some doubts or concerns amongst some defectors. They may see benefits to reunification but concerns about reintegration, including the social costs and possible second-class citizenship for North Koreans. For some DPRK defectors, this may come from difficulties and challenges faced in their own integration. Overall, though, integration has been positive for most defectors. So, reunification is not going to be the end of all problems and were it to occur integration would take time. So they are realistic in their expectations.
Denney: In my experience, surveying and interviewing North Korean migrants, there is an explicit or implied yearning for a homeland. North Korea is home and most would probably like to return one day, albeit under very different conditions. Absent the transformation of North Korea from a closed and oppressive society to something more open and free, unification is really the only viable scenario under which North Korean migrants could return home safely, and this is very clearly understood. Polling shows consistently high support for unification (90 percent-plus). This is much higher than unification support among the South Korean population, especially younger age cohorts. However, even if there is support for a unified Korea, polls of recently settled defectors indicate that attitudes aren’t bullish that it will actually happen anytime soon. Nevertheless, that may certainly change depending on how North-South and U.S.-DPRK talks go.