Employment Challenges Persist for North Korean Defectors in South Korea

SEOUL - Despite successfully escaping North Korea, many defectors in South Korea find securing employment in their new environment a challenging mission. The transition to a capitalist society, along with cultural and linguistic barriers, presents various hurdles for these individuals as they strive to integrate into the South Korean workforce.

According to Yonhap News Agency, a 39-year-old defector from Wonsan, North Korea, adapting to the workplace in South Korea involved overcoming language barriers, especially with the prevalent use of English words in everyday corporate communication. Lee, who spoke to Yonhap News Agency at a job fair organized by the unification ministry, recalled her initial difficulties in understanding simple industry terms and adjusting to South Korea's corporate culture, a process that took her about a year.

Kim Seung-hee, 57, another defector, faced similar challenges due to her accent, which often led her colleagues to inquire about her origins. Despite using the same Korean language, decades of separation between the capitalist South and communist North have resulted in noticeable dialectical differences and deviations in word meanings, further compounded by South Koreans' frequent incorporation of English words into their conversations.

Many North Korean defectors like Lee and Kim continue to encounter difficulties in the South Korean job market. Government data indicates that the employment situation for North Korean defectors, including employment rate, salary, and retention period, has improved in recent years but still falls short of the national average. In 2022, the jobless rate for North Korean defectors was 6 percent, double the 3 percent rate for all South Koreans. Their average job retention period was 35.3 months, less than half of the 72 months for South Koreans. About 26 percent of defectors identified misperceptions about them as the biggest barrier to employment, followed by lack of relevant experience and information on job opportunities.

To assist North Korean defectors in finding employment, the unification ministry held a job fair featuring 141 companies and government agencies. The event attracted over 1,000 defectors, including Lee and Kim, offering them a chance to explore various job opportunities. Some companies at the fair were looking to fill positions typically avoided by South Koreans due to demanding working conditions or irregular hours.

Jeon Hyun-woo, a hiring specialist at Swissport Korea, shared that the company, which provides services at Incheon International Airport, initially hesitated to hire defectors due to perceived security check difficulties. However, the government-organized job fair provided a new avenue to consider defectors for positions that require working outdoors during night shifts.

The duty-free unit of Estee Lauder Companies Inc. also saw the job fair as an opportunity to recruit airport sales specialists fluent in Chinese, a skill many second-generation defectors possess due to their time in China.

Lee Jin-hee, principal of Hangyeore Middle and High School, an education organization for North Korean defectors, emphasized the potential of these defectors, especially those fluent in Chinese, in service industry roles within global companies.

Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho stressed the importance of supporting North Korean defectors' resettlement as a policy priority, recognizing their resilience and energy. For many defectors, the freedom to choose their occupation in South Korea represents a significant change from the dictated employment paths in North Korea. A 52-year-old defector from North Hamgyong Province highlighted this newfound opportunity, contrasting it with the regimented work assignments in their home country.

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