By Elena Luo
Geumhyang Shin held her breath when she heard the shuffle of approaching footsteps. She knew that if these patrolmen caught her, she would die.
Luckily, Shin went undetected. Shin’s father helped her and her 5-year-old sister wade across the Tumen river, which separates North Korea from China. Once on the Chinese side, Shin’s father won a smuggler’s guarantee that his two daughters would be taken to safety. Shin then watched as her father waded back across the Tumen and into North Korea. As Shin watched his silhouette fade into the distance, she wondered if she would ever see him again.
Shin’s story represents the two Koreas’ struggle to reunite. Some Koreans think the price of reunification is too steep, in terms of both money and lives. They worry North Koreans will take jobs from the South, which is already suffering from high unemployment. Others fear the high cost of rebuilding the North, with its dilapidated roadways, rail lines, and ports. But still believes rebuilding the North is worth the high cost. It will create one, larger economy that will eventually make Korea stronger and more competitive on the world stage.
“Short-term, it seems like a lot of disadvantages,” said Woo-Chang Lee, a junior electrical engineering major at Dongguk University in South Korea. “But in a long-term, it will bring more advantages to us,” Lee added. “North and South Korea are one nation, we can help each other and be a stronger country,” said student Hongmei Cui. She currently attends Nehemiah Korea Daum School, which helps North Korean refugees to pursue a college education in South Korea.
Some in the South fear uniting with the North will drive an already high unemployment rate even higher. In 2018, South Korea’s unemployment rate reached its highest level in 17 years. Its monthly unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, which is 0.4 percent higher than the previous year. “Fifteen percent of young students graduate from high-level schools can’t find jobs,” said Young-Dall Lee, CEO of Korea Institute of Entrepreneurship and Technology.
A tight job market has not deterred North Koreans from coming south. About 1,000 people still defect every year. As of June 2018, a total of 31,827 North Korean defectors have entered South Korea, according to the Ministry of Unification. For those defectors, however, finding jobs in the South is among their foremost challenges.
For one, “they have limited access to information due to lack of knowledge, working experience and social networks in South Korea,” said Teodora Gyupchanova, the director of the Database Center for North Korean Human rights. Most North Korean defectors are unqualified for jobs, which require a college education or technical skills. That means most of them can only compete for low wage jobs. That has increased competition in South among taxi drivers, cashiers.
Secondly, defectors have suffered debilitating physical and psychological hardship while living in North Korea and escaping to the South. Take the mother of Hongmei Cui’s, for example, who refused to give her name in order to protect her family members in North Korea. She escaped twice from the North. Cui’s mother first defected to China in the 1960s, and married a Chinese man. But her new life didn’t go well. Chinese neighbors reported her illegal residency and she was caught and imprisoned in North Korea. Cui was only a month old at the time. Her mother was held in prison for three years. In prison, she was physically and emotionally abused and suffered a lot of scars on her body. The desire to see her child, however, gave Cui’s mother the courage to escape again from North Korea. She succeeded and reunited with her daughter in South Korea. “But because of the scar, my mom can’t find any jobs in South Korea,” said Cui.
Even employed, defectors struggle. For one, they speak a dialect difficult for southerners to understand. Which, in turn, makes them reluctant to speak. Defectors also feel that they are looked down on by southerners. They often tell a white lie, explaining to southerners they are “Joseon-jok”(Chinese person of Korean descent) said Gyupchanova.
Many young South Koreans view the idea of reunification as far-fetched. They believe the economic and cultural gap between the two Koreas has grown too wide. Worse, young South Koreans fear the economic burden of modernizing the North. They don’t want to pay higher taxes to resettle defectors or rebuild the North’s infrastructure. “We have to pay more taxes if we unify, which will cause an economic burden on South Koreans,” said Jae-Yeob Song, a senior English literature major at Dongguk University.
So far, the South Korean government has provided some humanitarian assistance to North Korean defectors, focusing on young children and pregnant women. Such assistance includes vaccines, essential medicines, and nutritious meals. The government also assists with settlement adjustment, offering 12 weeks of social adaptation training and housing subsidies.
Despite all the potential problems, South Korea is moving ahead, if only tentatively so far, in reuniting the Koreas. Young-Dall Lee, the Korean economic expert, explained why. He says the advantages of reunification can outweigh its disadvantages. If the two countries reunify, South Korea will have the opportunity to use North’s raw materials and inexpensive labor. Together, these two resources will boost the international competitiveness of Korean companies.
Shin, too, hopes the Koreas can reunite. She says, “Too many families were separated. I have heard enough tragic stories. I hope North and South Korea can reunify and end the separation.”