Defectors reveal hard road to Korea reunification
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING - For more than a decade, Jeon Woo-taek has been a "sought-after" figure by the media, including CNN, to comment on North Korean issues related to unification and refugees. He was also invited as a speaker to numerous international forums, including one in which German and South Korean scholars brainstormed their ideas for unification. Jeon is not a political strategist. Nor is he a researcher with a think-tank. He is a shrink.
The psychiatrist at Yonsei University Medical School in Seoul has pioneered the study of North Korean defectors' mental health for 15 years. He has studied as many as 600 North Koreans now living in South Korea, and has become a strong advocate for the "unification of hearts" as the prerequisite for political and geographical unification of the two Koreas.
North and South Koreans "think that they know each other very well. It's their mistake," Jeon said in a telephone interview with Asia Times Online.
Even though the Korean people had lived as a single nation state for more than 1,300 years before they were divided into two countries at the end of World War II, Jeon believes the difference created during the ensuing 60 years is significant and damaging enough to require serious attention and concern.
To get to the bottom of the North Korean psyche, Jeon had to ask them questions. But how? North Korean settlers in the South were usually reluctant to talk about their stories to others - much less to a psychiatrist - as they feared that they were under suspicion and surveillance by the South Korean government. It is a mentality and old habits they transferred from North Korea. Some defectors frequently change their phone numbers to avoid contacts with other people.
"This is one reason why questionnaires and superficial interviews had little success," Jeon said, implicitly panning some of the approaches by non-governmental organizations.
In fact, one of the most striking characteristics of the defectors, Jeon said, is their suspicious attitude toward people. And that caused a particular problem for him. Understandably, all defectors interviewed by him were reluctant to sign the consent paper and equally reluctant to be recorded or filmed. So Jeon and his team had to make an extra effort to build rapport and earn their trust first. The researchers also assured them they were not government agents.
Only then was Jeon's team able to proceed with the interviews. But the results were striking. For example, in one study, Jeon found close to half (48%) of the North Korean settlers in South Korea responded "no" to the question: Do you think North and South Koreans will easily understand each other and get along well after unification?
That's a very important result, and something that Jeon said the South Korean government should heed, because the North Korean defectors are regarded as a "litmus test" for a unified Korea. Defectors are also seen as a window to the North. The ways they behave and think are seen as general examples of how South Koreans believe all of their Northern counterparts act.
For their part, the North Koreans cited such significant problems for unification as the South Koreans' "different way of thinking" and "individualistic behavior" (65.6%) and the economic disparity between the North and South (25%), while 13% mentioned the lack of mutual understanding and prejudice as barriers.
Interestingly, however, they pointed out that cultural differences (42%) were a bigger problem than political differences (11%).
During the interviews, Jeon's team also found that some well-meaning South Korean sponsors only make the situation worse by taking well-meaning but ultimately wrong-headed approaches toward integrating North Koreans into Southern society. For example, most sponsors for the North Korean refugees in South Korea come from religious organizations, but because they don't understand the official atheistic policy of Pyongyang, they encourage the defectors to begin attending church regularly.
"Taught in the North that religion is evil and exploitative, the North Koreans felt that they were being forced to attend church and were reminded of the ideological indoctrination sessions in the North. This put considerable strain on the relationship between the North Koreans and their Southern sponsors," Jeon said in a report.
In the report, North Korean settlers also displayed an ambivalent attitude toward capitalism's ultimate symbol - money. Taught that money is the instrument of slavery in a capitalist society and a symbol of selfishness and evil, as many as 78% of Jeon's interviewees revealed an ambivalent attitude toward wealth.
As one defector put it: "I do not want to be a slave to money. But at the same time, I desperately need money to live in this society. At first, when I received money after my first anti-communism lecture in South Korea, I felt insulted, because in North Korea a lecture is not regarded as labor, and I did that from my heart. But if I take money, it looks like I am only speaking for financial gain."
Jeon's research also revealed the serious depth of post-traumatic experiences the North Korean refugees had endured. As many as 87% of defectors had personally seen public executions in North Korea; 81% saw their family members or relatives starving to death; 83% said they felt their own life was in danger because of their fear of being caught by Chinese authorities as they fled.
Jeon's team also discovered that 69% of the North Korean settlers in the South suffer from persistent anxiety, 47% experience clinical depression, 34% insomnia, 28% excessive drinking and 22% recurrent nightmares.
The most pervasive issue for North Korean defectors across the board, however, was loneliness (65%). This is understandable, because 69% of Jeon's study subjects defected without their families; 44% of them could not even inform their families of their intention to defect. Once in the South, it was difficult for them to get close to South Korean people because of their low economic status, cultural differences, and a lack of assurance whether they would be accepted.
Surprisingly, 34% of them also said it was difficult for them to make friends with other defectors. Because of mistrust and suspicion, some said they believed that fellow defectors might actually be North Korean agents.
All these figures illustrate how far people of the same ethnicity have drifted away from each other during the past 60 years, and as such, Jeon said he believes it is important that both North and South Koreans to increase their mutual "cultural literacy".
"We need to learn more about each other. South Koreans need to know more about how North Koreans think and why they behave the way they do and vice versa. Only then, our understanding will get deeper and we will be able to embrace each other," Jeon said. Seoul is extremely self-conscious of how North Koreans fare in the South. It's not only because of international attention, but also because North Koreans who are thinking about defecting to the South are very sensitive to rumors about how defectors are treated by the South Korean government and how they adjust to their new lives. The lives and adaptation of the defectors may influence the attitude of North Korean people toward South Korea and, ultimately, also affect their desire for unification.
Since Jeon is publicly known as the "psychiatrist who deals with North Korean mental problems", he has become increasingly cautious about the media, as well. He fears that his publicity might have negative repercussions on people's perception of defectors.
For example, although he deals with the mental-health issues of North Koreans, he said it doesn't mean that all defectors suffer from mental illness. Although his research includes defectors' accounts of traumatic experiences, such as rape or human trafficking, he said it doesn't mean every defector suffered such horrors.
"Mental illness is a very subjective matter until it develops to show objective symptoms. We should be careful not to give the impression that all [North Koreans] have some sort of mental problems," Jeon said.
The total number of North Korean refugees in the South passed the 10,000 mark in April 2006, according to data from South Korea's Ministry of Unification. Most of these defectors literally risked their lives to go there. For them, South Korea meant a land of hope and economic prosperity. But once in the South, things were not always hopeful, as Jeon's research has revealed.
Jeon said it would take two or three generations for the two Koreans to achieve the "unification of hearts".
"We should be ready for a long stretch. Eventually, we need a new generation who grow up in a unified Korea. We shouldn't be too anxious about the slow progress. Look at Germany. It's been 20 years since unification, but they still have some problems. Likewise, we should take a 'long-breath' approach," he said.
Sunny Lee is a journalist based in Beijing, where he has lived for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
I think that you will also find the links below interesting:
The YouTUBE video is interesting but the comments exchange below that is also enlightening.
And finally, the link immediately below contains elements similar to the story above but with some mroe detail:
....and one last thing: Jeon Woo-taek's similar report from 2000: