03/04/2010, 00.00
KOREA
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More than 20,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea

by Joseph Yun Li-sun
According to South Korean authorities, North Koreans fleeing Kim Jong-il’s regime is greater every year. The Church is working for the integration of the ‘Saetomin”, the refugees who end up at the bottom of the social ladder.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – North Korean refugees in South Korea “are far from integrating. Their number, which has increased manifold from 947 in 1998 to 16,513 last year, keeps growing. It should reach 20,000 next year,” an official with Hanawon (United Korea), the government-run institution that helps defectors settle in South Korea, told AsiaNews.

According to the organisation, which operates in a highly sensitive area for the whole Korean Peninsula, 58.4 per cent of refugees still consider themselves North Koreans; only 6.3 per cent think of themselves as South Koreans. North Korea’s intense political indoctrination and problems associated with settling in a more modern and freer society like that of South Korea are the main causes.

The Catholic Church has addressed the issue. At the start of this year, it held three a three-day seminar on ‘Saetomin, agents of the Gospel’. Saetomin means ‘refugees, settlers’ in Korean and is the term South Koreans use for those who manage to get out of North Korea and settle in the South. Over time however, the word has become a derogatory term because of the exiles’ low level of integration.

For Prof Ko Kyeong-bin, a Catholic who teaches at the University of Seoul, “the distress of 20,000 Saetomin living here is of great concern. [. . .] they are only the mirror of the 20 million North Koreans who would come to us after the reunification of two Koreas. We have a long way to go before being ready to welcome them in the right way.”

The South Korean government agrees. Through Hanawon, it helps refugees with language, home care, housing, and jobs. However, for some NGOs “that is too little and misdirected.”

“If we want a united peninsula, we must follow a cultural path that recognises that we are brothers divided by a strip of land.”

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