South Korea has lots of problems with its refugees from the north, and one of the most worrisome problems is that many of them are spies. At least 21 refugees have been uncovered as North Korean spies pretending to be refugees. More are believed to have gotten through the screening process. Then there are the other problems with the refugees. Some develop mental illnesses because of all the stress of living in North Korea, getting out, and then facing culture shock in South Korea. That has led to at least 26 refugee suicides. Many more have been diagnosed and treated with mental problems, usually stress related.
Despite the espionage problem, the refugees also provide excellent intel on what is actually going on up north. While the refugees detail the growing decline in living standards up north, it’s also become clear that there is a very real generational shift in loyalties in the north. The generation who grew up during the 1990s famine (that killed about ten percent of the population and starved most of the rest for years) no longer believes in the North Korean dictatorship. Many who came of age before 1990 still do, but for most everyone under 30 the state is the enemy and self-reliance, and not a benevolent dictatorship, is the only way to survive. This has apparently made it easier to turn the North Korean spies trying to get into South Korea as refugees. Some of these spies are classified as hardcore believers in the northern government, but a growing number are found to be more flexible in their outlook. That growing knowledge of the outside world in the north also means more refugees coming south with a long-range plan that includes leaving South Korea as quickly as possible.
Because of all this, South Korea is having a harder time dealing with refugees. In the last 55 years over 25,000 North Koreans have made their way to South Korea. But recently more and more of them try to move on to other countries once they are settled in South Korea. Mostly it’s all about culture shock. North and South Korea are very different cultures divided by a common language and history (prior to 1945). The situation is made worse by the fact that the North Korean refugees can speak the language and understand what others say and think about them. This is often unpleasant. Northerners are regarded as damaged goods in the south and stand out by the way they walk (with a bit of fear in their step) and how they talk (the northern accent is easy to recognize and hard to lose). But the worst problem for northerners is living in a society where your every move is not dictated by some government official. That is how North Koreans have lived for several generations now. It's been very difficult for the refugees to overcome these cultural constraints and fit in, or even just get a job. The result is that many of the refugees are unemployed and basically living on the dole. In response to this, more and more North Korean refugees try to obtain refugee status somewhere else once they are in South Korea. Legally, South Korea cannot prevent these people from leaving, but it is painful to see so many of them use unpleasant experiences in South Korea as a basis for a claim of “persecution” in South Korea in order to gain refugee status somewhere else.
All this adds insult to injury as far as South Koreans are concerned. South Korea spends a lot of effort and money on helping northerners adapt. So this has become an embarrassing, as well as an expensive, problem. The North Korean refugees usually arrive via China and Thailand where they go to the South Korean embassy to claim refugee status. South Korea then flies the North Koreans to South Korea and begins an expensive integration process. It costs South Korea over $100,000 per refugee in resettlement expenses. This includes an initial payment of $6,000 and more later. This process is now complicated by criminal activities. Professional people smugglers in China have noted the needs of North Korean refugees and will get North Koreans from northeast China to the South Korean embassy in Thailand for $6,000 or more. You cannot stiff these snake heads (as they are affectionately called by their customers and next-of-kin) because they have operatives everywhere. If you don't pay, they can get to you, or kin in China or even North Korea. So, increasingly, that initial resettlement payment goes straight to the snake heads, leaving the refugee broke. South Korea will not supply more money, partly because spending nearly $300 million a year on North Korean refugees is not particularly popular in South Korea, where the government is trying to keep its promises to cut back on spending. But the South Koreans also know about the snake heads and believe that if the refugees are given more money the snake heads will just raise their prices. South Korea is also nervous about what is going on up north, and fear that there will be a flood of refugees if the communist government up there collapses. This would lead to some major problems.
Currently, there are over 20,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea. Over 70 percent of them are unemployed, through a combination of culture shock and lack of useful skills. North Korea is run like a prison, with initiative and innovation (essential skills in the South Korean market economy) considered criminal behavior. The South Koreans were appalled when they began to note how ill-prepared North Koreans were to cope with freedom and democracy. Apparently many North Koreans have gotten the word as well. While more North Koreans are reaching South Korea (until recently, nearly 3,000 a year, versus about 500 a year in the late 1980s), most of them are women. Two decades ago less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. But women are more adaptable and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, South Korean society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea. South Korea is scrambling to find solutions to all this, but as they discovered when they studied the experience of East and West Germany reuniting, the culture shock was a generational thing. Those who were teenagers and younger could easily adapt but the older ones, who had grown up in communist East Germany, never fully adapted to life in a free market democracy. Unfortunately for South Korea, most of the northern refugees are not kids, but adults who have been conditioned to live in a police state and have chronic difficultly adapting.