An Open Letter to Park Geun-Hye
“North Koreans are Koreans, too. So why won’t you listen to us?”
To President Park Geun-hye,
Nine years ago, I wrote a poem called ‘Into the Future; Refugees, the First Unification’. My name is Jang Jin-sung. I am a North Korean refugee. I am writing this open letter to you, to discuss the matter of how refugees are, indeed, the first instance of unification on the Korean peninsula.
You have stated that “The successful arrival and settlement of North Korean refugees is important, for they give hope to the people of North Korea, who moan crushed under the weight of totalitarianism.” You are right; North Korean refugees are symbolic of hope not only for North Koreans, but for all Koreans that wish for the commencement of the unification’s brand new days.
But you must be aware of the reality of North Korean refugees, who, upon reception, do not undergo the unification experience, but experiences of discrimination, poverty, and frustration. You said that unification will be a jackpot; for us, it’s a crackpot, a dream as empty as a shell. Of course, it is true that refugees have to take responsibility for their own happiness. But being born under a fascist ‘socialist’ dictatorship is no fault of ours – and so, settling in South Korea has proven harder than we all thought.
The government must listen to the voice of its North Korean refugees. This is because the day of the so-called unification bonanza cannot be far away. Look at what is happening around us. Refugees are in the centre of a painful but stubborn process of trial-and-error aimed to observe what will contribute towards a successful unification, and what will cause its failure. Refugees are the training wheels for unification itself – experiences and opportunities that build the wealth of the unification jackpot future generations will inherit.
From people of a systematically oppressed republic, to people of a free world – how can we help make this transition a reality for North Korea? Whatever we do, it is imperative that it is a unification of the people, and the promotion of freedom. But the South Korean government seems to be hoping for, unfortunately, a unification of capital, of resources – an ineffective approach based on the overconfidence of a society of mass spending.
A prime example of this is the Korea Hana Foundation. 24,000,000,000 won is allocated to it support North Korean refugees, but 240 won might be a more accurate description of its true value. The highest paid members of the Foundation are paid more than a hundred million won, and its activities calculated to fit its budget, as well as other miscellaneous expenses including advertising and research, but to what end?
The Hana Foundation has also undergone a series of name changes, from ‘North Korean Escapee Support Foundation’, to ‘Conscience Escapee Support Foundation’, to ‘Network Support Foundation’. That the foundation is supposed to be for North Korean refugees is no longer evident in its title. The state’s budget allocation concentrates solely on the Hana Foundation and its various branches around the country, limiting the resources to which other pro-unification groups are also entitled to.
President Park, North Korean refugees are citizens of South Korea like any other. North Koreans want to assimilate in South Korean society, and for this to happen, resources need to be appropriately and fairly distributed among groups to empower North Koreans so that they can compete in South Korean society effectively.
If it is indeed true that the thirty thousand North Korean refugees living here are to be included in South Korea’s 50 million-strong population, and not sectioned off as some Unification Ministry-related group, then you should listen to them. Had you done so, what you would learn is that most refugees would like to see that 24,000,000,000 won to better use, even if it means the money merely falls into the nation tax scheme. However, our political engagement has been so far conveniently ignored.
Refugees find that there is a great deal of red tape limiting them when dealing with their most relevant bureau, The Ministry for Unification. But look closely, and you will find that the Ministry is bound and gagged in red tape preventing proper political engagement by North Korean refugees. A labour force of fifty people plus twelve board members make up the North Korean Human Rights Foundation – a body curiously similar to the Hana Foundation – but not one of them are refugees. This discriminative structure must be pulled apart and re-built to include North Korean refugees too. Otherwise, you can throw away these visions of hope and unification you so often speak about.
Who could be more familiar with the reality of North Korea than North Korean refugees themselves? Further, refugees lie in the centre of issues relating to settlement. In every decision and every dialogue, the viewpoint of the refugee is essential. There are many educated and skilled refugees who could be valuable assets in policymaking, but are not even given an opportunity to speak.
Of course, there are other avenues for political engagement for refugees. But North Korea academia and human rights activism is already plagued with outsiders trying to promote their vested interests in an already disadvantaged group. Where are refugees supposed to go to talk for themselves, and for themselves only?
To add, politics, the media, and NGOs treat North Koreans like a permanent ethnic minority. How will refugees ever be able to settle successfully in a society that treats them like foreign aliens?
President Park, I tell you this: you need to set the example by acting up to what you say. You say that North Koren refugees are the first steps of unification -then you must be the first to meet them, the first to listen to their concerns, and the first to hold their hand. And if you don’t, frustration will be the first response to settlement. Politics will be the first priority of the North Korean human rights dialogue. And chaos will ensue on the first day of nationwide unification.
You said that North Korean refugees were symbolic of hope. For us, you have been a symbol of hope through your words. We hope that the rest of your term is fruitful, that you are in good health, and that you can successfully fulfil the great responsibilities that come as President of the Republic of Korea.
Jang Jin-sung, founder of New Focus.
Read in Korean.