The Psychology Behind Discrimination Against North Korean Defectors in South Korea

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Jung Hyun Lee

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Jung Hyun Lee is a senior double majoring in psychology and international studies. After graduation, she will be attending law school.


What is your research topic, in a nutshell?

My research topic is the psychology behind the discrimination against North Korean defectors in South Korea.


How did you come to your research topic?

I had worked at a South Korean NGO aiding North Korean defectors in South Korea the summer of 2016. I realized last quarter that the concepts I was learning in my “Identity and Motivation” class could be applied to help explain and potentially improve the experiences of the North Korean defectors and thus decided to pursue the topic.

Where do you see the future direction of this work leading?

Future researchers could further investigate the discrimination against North Korean defectors living in South Korea to help tackle this issue and improve their socioeconomic and psychological conditions. Researchers could also study ways to strengthen the Hanawon Resettlement Program by building upon the psychological groundwork laid out in my paper.

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“[We] are treated like cigarette ashes thrown away on the streets,” laments Kim Ryon-hu, a North Korean defector in South Korea (Haas, 2018). Another North Korean defector in South Korea, Kwon Chol-nam, infamously protested with a sign reading: “I am a citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I want to go home” (Choe, 2017). The South Korean government, however, prohibits travel of both South Koreans and North Korean defectors to North Korea.

There are now more than 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, many of whom feel alienated in South Korean society. South Korea is the second most homogenous nation in the world, after North Korea (Ministry of Unification, 2017). Perhaps it is not as surprising, then, that foreigners may be especially “otherized” in South Korea. However, it is alarming that there are a few defectors like Kim and Kwon who wish to return to arguably the most oppressive regime and one of the poorest economies in the world. This makes one question the severity of the living conditions of North Korean defectors in South Korea, a democracy that boasts its 11th global GDP ranking and exceptional economic and political freedoms in comparison to North Korea (Haas, 2018; Forbes, 2017; International Monetary Fund, 2018).

When North Korean defectors first arrive in South Korea, usually through an initial escape to China, they undergo an investigation by intelligence services. They then participate for three months in the Hanawon Resettlement Program, an immersive support center (Lee, Kim, & Osaki, 2018). At the Hanawon, defectors learn the South Korean version of history and politics, as well as basic life skills for living in South Korea, including use of computers and ATMs, training in the South Korean dialect, and basic English skills (Lee, Kim, & Osaki, 2018; Kim & Jang, 2007). However, the Hanawon is still an insufficient buffer for the cultural shock the defectors face, many of whom are not used to the overwhelming choices available to them in a capitalist country. North Korean defectors need to make significant adjustments in their lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes in order to assimilate to South Korean society, which often lead to stress (Han, Kim, Kin, Park, & Youn, 2016). Of course, some of the distress is the result of the trauma from the defectors’ time in North Korea as well as their harrowing escape, as suggested by their high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, my research paper argues that the stress of acclimating to South Korean society is mostly due to the discrimination they face, including cultural differences and the economic barriers that impede their successful integration.

As North and South Koreans are of one ethnicity split by war into two drastically different politicized entities, this unique issue merits a new, more psychological application to gain a more informed understanding of the mental health conditions of North Korean defectors in South Korea and their interactions with South Koreans. This research paper will thus be surveying the literature on psychological concepts regarding social identity and group processes as well as the literature on the economic and mental health conditions of North Korean defectors in South Korea in order to draw a connection between the two. This fills a gap in the existing scholarship, examining how psychological processes of both South Koreans and North Korean defectors may be leading to issues for North Korean defectors, thus preventing their successful integration into South Korean society. Furthermore, this research serves to advance further the study on ways to overcome stereotyping and discrimination and help improve the lives of defectors.

This research paper accomplishes these goals by first laying out a conceptual framework, specifically the psychological concepts of social identity, in-group and out-group biases, minimal group paradigm and self-enhancement biases. This conceptual framework draws on the psychology literature, especially on identity and motivation. Therefore, this paper will conduct a literature review of the economic and social barriers marginalizing North Korean defectors in South Korea. A literature review was chosen as the primary method for this research, as there is considerable scholarship on the conditions of North Korean defectors in South Korea. This will be followed by an application of the conceptual framework to this body of evidence, to form a deeper, psychological understanding of the discrimination North Korean defectors face in South Korea and complicate the traditional understandings of concepts in identity and motivation. Finally, the significance of this literature review, implications for future research, and policy recommendations are considered.

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Conceptual Framework

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The psychological concepts of social identity, in-group and out-group biases, minimal group paradigm, and self-enhancement biases can shed light on the processes underlying the experiences of North Korean defectors in South Korea. Their applications to the issue will be elaborated upon in a later section of this paper.

  1. Social Identity

Groups provide individuals with an identity and ways of making sense of themselves in relation to the world around them (Leary, Hogg, & Tangney, 2014). Social identity refers to “the individual’s knowledge that he belongs to certain social groups together with some emotional and value significance to him of his group membership” (Leary, Hogg, & Tangney, 2014, p. 502). It highlights one’s perception of the social standing of one’s own group as well as the emotional attachment to the group (Leary, Hogg, & Tangney, 2014). This identity in relation to one’s group serves important purposes such as reducing uncertainty regarding individuals’ own social standing and helping satisfy the fundamental need to belong (Oyserman, Bybee, & Terry, 2006). In addition, it provides people with a means of categorization, affecting group behaviors such as stereotyping, social influence, collective action, intergroup discrimination, conformity, ethnocentrism, in-group bias, and depersonalization (Leary, Hogg, & Tangney, 2014).

2. In-group and Out-group Biases

In-group refers to the group one associates with, usually sharing a quality with the other group members (Whitbourne, 2010). In-group bias is defined as a form of favoritism towards and privileging of one’s own group, while out-group bias is the emotional, cognitive, or behavioral response to another group that devalues or disadvantages the out-group (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2010). In-group and out-group biases are greater when group distinctions are made more salient (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2010). High-status groups have a tendency to display more in-group and out-group biases on qualities relevant to the group status distinctions, whether they be real differences or stereotypes (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2010).

3. Minimal Group Paradigm

The minimal group paradigm illustrates that even when people are explicitly split arbitrarily into minimal groups, they will display in-group and out-group biases. Examples of minimal groups include red vs. blue, patterned vs. solid shirts, heads vs. tails, and in this case, being from above or below the 38th parallel. The minimal group paradigm also includes the accentuation effect, characterized by accentuating stereotypical differences between the in-group and out-group as larger than they truly are, remembering faces in one’s in-group better, allocating more rewards to one’s in-group, and stereotyping of the out-group (Leary, Hogg, & Tangney, 2014).

4. Self-enhancement Bias

Self-enhancement bias refers to the tendency for people to believe that they are better than they truly are (Leary, Hogg, & Tangney, 2014). Leary (2007) includes implicit egotism, better-than-average effect, self-serving attribution and bias blind spot as four main categories of the self-enhancement bias. Implicit egotism refers to people unconsciously believing that they have special or unique qualities. The better-than-average effect occurs when people believe that they are better than the average person and rate themselves more positively than they evaluate the average person. Self-serving attributions refer to people attributing their successes to their own personal characteristics and abilities, while attributing their failures to events beyond their control. The bias blind spot is the tendency for people to think that they are not as biased as most other people. This is an ironic tendency, considering the fact that self-enhancement is leading people to believe that they are not self-enhancing. These processes of self-enhancement bias can protect people’s self-esteem, but also contribute to in-group favoritism and perception of the out-group’s attributes as more negative (Leary, 2007; Stangor, 2011).

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The Economic and Psychological Conditions of North Korean Defectors in South Korea

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Kim Ryon-hu, the aforementioned North Korean defector in South Korea, argues that defectors like him are “forever strangers in this country, classified as second-class citizens” (Haas, 2018). Kwon Chol Nam, another North Korean defector in South Korea, explained that “money is not crucial if personality is disrespected,” citing how South Korean companies withheld from paying him his full due salary, and that more importantly, North Koreans “are not even treated as human beings” in South Korea (Choe, 2017).

A literature review of issues North Korean defectors face in South Korea reveal that they face a significant amount of discrimination as well as economic and psychological problems. According to a survey by National Human Rights Commission of Korea, almost 50 percent of North Korean defectors living in South Korea report having suffered discrimination because they are from North Korea (Lee, 2017). The defectors’ bosses was the second most often cited source of discrimination (17.9 percent), with the first being pedestrians on the street (20.6 percent), and third being their co-workers (16.5 percent) (Lee, 2017).

This high level of discrimination, especially at work, may help explain the North Korean defectors’ lower levels of income. Compared to the 1.39 million Korean won (around $1,482) average monthly income per capita of South Koreans in 2005, 77 percent of surveyed North Korean defectors reported that their income, including wages and financial aid, was still less than one million Korean won (around $1,066) (Kim & Jang, 2007). In addition, defectors cite economic difficulties as the most difficult obstacle in their life in South Korea. A staggering 27.5 percent of surveyed defectors consider themselves to be living in abject poverty, illustrating the severity of discrimination and economic disparity affecting their lives (Kim & Jang, 2007).

Discrimination also has detrimental effects on the North Korean defectors’ mental health. The rate of North Korean defectors in South Korea with depressive disorders is twice that of South Koreans’ (Chi, Kim, Kim, Palinkas, & Um, 2015). This study found that more depressive symptoms among North Korean defectors are most strongly associated with poor sociocultural adaptation. Defectors less adapted to South Korean society had more depressive symptoms than those better adapted to South Korean society. Sociocultural adaptation for the defectors involves developing a firm knowledge of the South Korean language, as well as an understanding of the attitudes and behaviors of South Koreans and concepts such as capitalism and liberal democracy. Depressive symptoms among North Korean defectors are also associated with the perception of being discriminated against by South Koreans (Chi, Kim, Kim, Palinkas, & Um, 2015). This may be because perceived discrimination often leads to diminished self-esteem and a sense of helpless social exclusion that might prevent the defectors from seeking the mental health services available (Chi, Kim, Kim, Palinkas, & Um, 2015).

North Korean defectors not only have high rates of depression, but also suffer from high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Han, Hong, Jeon, Kim, Lee, & Min, 2005). Twenty nine and a half percent of studied North Korean defectors had PTSD, with an even higher rate for North Korean women (Han, Hong, Jeon, Kim, Lee, & Min, 2005). Of course, this high rate of PTSD can be explained by starvation and oppression in North Korea, as well as the treacherous escape from North Korea (Byeon, Hwang, Kang, Lee, Shin, Song, & Yoo, 2011). Regardless of the source of PTSD, however, defectors with PTSD are significantly more likely to have social adjustment problems in South Korean society, suggesting the need for greater, more long-term mental health services for the sake of their mental health and integration into South Korean society (Byeon, Hwang, Kang, Lee, Shin, Song, & Yoo, 2011).

That being said, one study does indicate progress in the mental health of North Korean defectors. “A 7Year FollowUp Study on the Mental Health of North Korean Defectors in South Korea” indicates that the severity of PTSD has significantly decreased among North Korean defectors who arrived in South Korea in 2002 (Eom, Jeon, & Min, 2013). Some may contend that North Korean defectors in South Korea are faring better than those in other countries or other refugees. For instance, North Korean defectors in Japan score much higher on the Beck Depression Inventory than those in South Korea, as “sociocultural insecurities, including poor fluency in Japanese, unclear nationality, and the limited support system, may contribute to the poor mental health of NK defectors living in Japan” (Jeon, Eom, & Min, 2013, p. 162). Furthermore, studies have found the continuance of high PTSD rates among Cambodian refugees in the United States after the Cambodian Civil War and Vietnamese refugees in the United States after Vietnam War, which contrasts with the decline in PTSD rates among North Korean defectors in South Korea (Eom, Jeon, & Min, 2013). Eom, Jeon and Min (2013) concluded that the current state of North Korean defectors’ mental health is most significantly correlated to their current culture-related stress, not from the trauma of their time in and escape from North Korea.

Nonetheless, it is important to investigate the overall mental health of the North Korean defectors, rather than focus on the decrease in rates of PTSD. North Korean defectors still tend to have higher levels of mental illness than South Koreans, scoring higher in mania, depression, schizophrenia, paranoia, suicidal ideation and PTSD (Cho, Eom, Jeon, & Yu, 2008; Lee, Park, & Shin, 2016). Another alarming finding is that a longer duration of time since defecting to South Korea is significantly correlated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. This illustrates that, overall, North Korean defectors in South Korea are faring worse on most measures of mental health. This can also be attributed to the severity of the discrimination North Korean defectors face, feelings of inferiority, and their difficulties adapting to such a drastically new environment (Lee, Park, & Shin, 2016).

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Applications of Psychological Concepts to the Experiences of North Korean Defectors

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1) Social identity

Social identity is relevant to the conditions of North Korean defectors in South Korea, not only because of the formation of their own social identity, but also because of the pre-existing social identity that South Koreans tend to have. South Koreans have a strong notion of ethnicized citizenship that is not merely based on a Korean ethnicity, but on a distinct South Korean ethnicity that is built on shared practices, a shared political and economic system, and a sense of social belonging (Chung, 2008). This means that the legal South Korean citizenship North Korean defectors gain upon completion of the Hanawon does not provide them with the South Korean social identity, at least in the eyes of most South Koreans. Because social identity involves both membership in a group as well as an emotional attachment to the group, most South Koreans hold an ethnic nationalism, but one that is limited to South Koreans.

Many North Korean defectors face a social identity crisis in South Korea. They come from diverse regions and possess various occupational backgrounds. When they first arrive in South Korea, they must all start anew, unsure of how their previous cultural capital and social standing will be translated to South Korean society. Many of the defectors, especially those from lower-class backgrounds, hold a hope that they will become middle-class citizens. In fact, they even learn middle-class norms and values at the Hanawon, implanting in them a conception of the ideal life in South Korea, a “Korean Dream” that is rarely fulfilled in reality (Chung, 2008).

2) In-group and Out-Group Biases

Ha and Jang (2016) found that South Koreans high on ethnic identity are more likely to have negative attitudes toward North Korean defectors. Specifically, South Koreans with high levels of ethnic identity are less likely to feel close to North Korean defectors, less likely to support policies helping defectors, more likely to believe reunification of the two Koreas is unnecessary, and more likely to believe that the government should not allow more defectors to live in South Korea (Ha & Jang, 2016). This supports the notion that North Koreans in South Korea tend to be considered part of an out-group that is devalued in comparison to the South Korean in-group. For instance, due partially to out-group biases, North Koreans are stereotyped as belligerent, desperate, Communist, backward, and to be feared (Lee, 2018). Despite the shared Korean ethnicity between North and South Koreans, these stereotypes are easily activated because the North Korean dialect and accent easily mark defectors as part of the out-group. This is especially problematic because the more salient the group differences, the greater the in-group and out-group biases, energizing such stereotypes (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2010; Ha & Jang, 2016).

There are several detrimental effects of out-group biases on minorities. For one, biases against the North Korean out-group and the resulting discrimination help explain the lower levels of adaptation and mental health among North Korean defectors. Furthermore, North Korean defectors can even come to believe that they are more disadvantaged and discriminated against than they truly are. They would “thus feel diminished personal motivation to act,” which can lead not only to a sense of helplessness, but also a self-fulfilling prophecy of fitting into the aforementioned stereotypes of North Koreans (Leary, Hogg, & Tangney, 2014, p. 508). Furthermore, a study by Chi, Kim, Kim, Palinkas, and Um (2015) showed that the more North Koreans feel part of a distinct out-group from the rest of South Korean society, the more depressive symptoms they are likely to have. Perception of discrimination from South Koreans was also significantly correlated with more depressive symptoms, perhaps due to a diminished self-esteem resulting from the perceived discrimination (Chi, Kim, Kim, Palinkas, & Um, 2015).

3) Minimal Group Paradigm

The two Koreas were divided along the 38th parallel based on the arbitrary criteria used by U.S. and Soviet forces, forming minimal groups. These two groups competed against each other and developed in-group biases and strong out-group hostility (Moghaddam, 2018).

In Van Bavel and Cunningham’s study (2012), participants in their arbitrarily assigned minimal groups (lion vs. tiger groups) had better memory of in-group members’ faces than of the out-group members’ faces, an effect that was even stronger than memory of white participants for white participants’ faces and memory of black participants for black participants’ faces. This suggests that the influence of contextual group identity can be even stronger than the categorizations of race. The results of this study can help account for the radicalization of North Koreans as a result of the formation of minimal groups and the split into two different nations, despite the fact that North and South Koreans are of the same Korean ethnicity.

This stereotyping was largely imposed by the outside world, along Cold War political and ideological divisions. Even before the Cold War, the Japanese occupation “created deep divisions in Korean society when, in 1945, they were finally pushed out of Korea by incoming Soviet and U.S. forces” (Moghaddam, 2018, p. 125). This forced split created initially minimal groups along the 38th parallel, but the accentuation effect came into play, and both North and South Korea accentuated their stereotyped differences and radicalized each other, “demonstrating… how humans can ascribe meaning to things that in other contexts have little or no significance” (Moghaddam, 2018, p. 123). Although today North and South Korea do indeed have starkly opposing economic, cultural and political spheres, their history of “mutual radicalization” illustrates how the minimal group paradigm can be used to better understand the hostile, antagonistic climate towards North Koreans in South Korea (Moghaddam, 2018, p. 124).

4) Self-enhancement Bias

Self-enhancement biases are core motivations of people, affecting how they perceive themselves as well as others in comparison (Leary, 2007). Implicit egotism and the better-than-average effect are relevant because South Koreans tend to believe that they hold superior qualities to the North Korean defectors, such as technical expertise or grasp of the South Korean language, English language, and a cosmopolitan, capitalist culture. The self-serving attributions also explain how South Koreans may attribute their own or their people’s own drive to the dramatic economic success of South Korea, believing that South Koreans hold superior qualities such as a hard work ethic, as well as superior political and economic institutions. The bias blind spot strengthens these tendencies by encouraging South Koreans to not acknowledge or even be oblivious to the biases they hold regarding beliefs in their own social superiority. Considering the fact that a longer time spent in South Korea for the defectors is significantly associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, it is likely that South Koreans’ self-enhancement biases impact their attitudes toward North Korean defectors and thus the defectors’ mental health and socioeconomic advancement opportunities (Lee, Park, & Shin, 2016).

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Overall, my findings shed a new light on the experiences of North Korean defectors in South Korea through the lens of psychological processes. This conceptually-informed understanding can help improve the socioeconomic conditions of the defectors. The reviewed evidence indicates that North Koreans are perceived just as, if not, worse than other non-Korean ethnicities, an alarming finding, especially in the case of future reunification between North and South Korea. Further study is thus warranted to investigate how to combat this discrimination and change South Koreans’ social identity to include North Korean defectors as well.

One limitation of the study, however, could include generalizability, the applicability of the findings to the experiences of all the North Korean defectors in South Korea. Indeed, North Korean defectors come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, some from elite families, and others from starving households in North Korea. Another potential limitation is that social identity, minimal group paradigm, in-group and out-group biases, and self-enhancement biases are only few of the many factors affecting South Koreans’ perceptions of North Koreans. South Korean individuals may have biases toward people of lower socioeconomic class or those who work in unskilled labor, or shift their attitudes based on political events constantly altering the relationship between North and South Korea. For instance, North Korean defectors tend to be in less skilled labor, which suggests that South Koreans’ attitudes toward the defectors may actually reflect prejudice against those in less-skilled labor and lower socioeconomic status, rather than against North Korean people (Ha & Jang, 2016). Nonetheless, it is likely that the discrimination against North Korean defectors are not merely due to their socioeconomic status and occupation, but because of their origins as North Korean, especially due to the aforementioned stereotypes regarding North Koreans specifically (Lee, 2018).

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This research paper fills in the gap between the literature on psychological concepts, specifically regarding identity and motivation, and the empirically-focused literature regarding the economic and mental health conditions of the defectors. The application of psychological concepts to this issue revealed that South Koreans’ social identity is based on a distinct ethnicized South Korean cultural citizenship that can alienate North Korean defectors. Furthermore, South Koreans higher on ethnic identity were more likely to have negative attitudes towards North Korean defectors, suggesting that in-group and out-group biases can partially explain South Korean attitudes towards the defectors. The minimal group paradigm helps account for the radicalization of North Korea and North Korean defectors after the arbitrary split along the 38th Parallel. South Koreans’ self-enhancement bias and belief that they are higher on the social hierarchy compared to North Korean defectors also shed light on the prejudice against the defectors. All in all, through a literature review of the conditions of the defectors and an application of psychology concepts, this research paper provides a more informed understanding of the socioeconomic and psychological issues North Korean defectors face in South Korea.

The results of this research paper suggest that South Korean policies should be greatly improved to mitigate the discrimination against North Korean defectors. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (United Nations Refugee Agency, 1951, p. 3). It seems evident that this definition should include North Korean defectors, as they are likely to be detained at detention centers in North Korea should they be caught attempting to escape North Korea or to return. However, the defectors are not labelled refugees, but are provided South Korean citizenship by the South Korean government upon completion of the Hanawon Resettlement Program (Ha & Jang, 2016). This is because the Constitution of South Korea declares that the Korean peninsula and its surrounding islands are all South Korean territory and does not recognize North Korea as an independent state. Granting citizenship to the defectors is an initially helpful solution, but it may come at the cost of ignoring their unique situation of escape from an oppressive regime and political marginalization. Thus, other than merely providing financial assistance to the defectors, at an institutional level, they should be considered refugees and offered longer-term versions of the Hanawon Resettlement Program. For example, long-term psychiatric therapy and English language classes can help improve the defectors’ mental health and sociocultural adaptation into South Korean society.

North Korean defectors represent one of the only human bridges connecting South and North Korea, other than highly publicized political meetings between the two nations. An understanding and successful integration of North Korean defectors into South Korean society could thus facilitate and ease a future reunification of the Korean peninsula in the long-run. Therefore, a deeper understanding of the discrimination against North Korean defectors and an improvement in their socioeconomic and psychological conditions are all the more essential.

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