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S. Korea to designate July 14 as day for N. Korean defectors

Defectors say it will improve their image, public perception of unification

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Feb. 21, 2024 - 15:21

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Korean flag seen through barbed wire at the DMZ, Panmunjeom, South Korea. (Getty Images Bank) Korean flag seen through barbed wire at the DMZ, Panmunjeom, South Korea. (Getty Images Bank)

The Yoon Suk Yeol government will officially designate July 14 as a day to commemorate North Korean defectors, symbolically coinciding with the day when the law ensuring support for their resettlement in South Korean society took effect in 1997.

South Korean Unification Minister Kim Young-ho announced the official designation on Wednesday while attending the inauguration ceremony of the Special Committee for Accompanying Residents with Backgrounds from North Korea established under the auspices of the Presidential Committee of National Cohesion.

The presidential committee also disclosed that it intentionally adopted the term "residents with backgrounds from North Korea" instead of previously used terms such as "defectors from North Korea" or "new settlers."

Speaking at the meeting, Kim said the government chose July 14 in light of the historical significance and symbolism of implementing the "North Korean Defectors Protection And Settlement Support Act."

This law, which formed the foundation for legal status and settlement support policies for North Korean defectors, was passed by the National Assembly with the consent of both main and opposition parties in December 1996. The law officially came into force on July 14, 1997.

The Unification Ministry outlined the Yoon government's objective of fostering a culture that embraces North Korean defectors and increasing public awareness of defectors in South Korean society by organizing various events on July 14.

"The government plans to organize cultural events not just as a day for North Korean defectors but also as an occasion for our citizens from the South and North with different backgrounds to come together and reintegrate through various cultural activities," said an official from the Unification Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity during a closed-door briefing.

"By doing so, we aim to foster a more inclusive culture in society towards North Korean defectors."

The official explained the ministry "anticipates that the integration of North Korean defectors will provide an occasion to enhance the national awareness of unification, as such integration inherently symbolizes integration with North Korean residents."

The ministry also plans to establish commemorative spaces, such as a monument and memorial park, to honor North Korean defectors who sacrificed their lives during the process of defection.

"Throughout our consultation process, numerous North Korean defectors have conveyed their heartfelt sentiments toward their fellow defectors who tragically lost their lives and made sacrifices during the defection journey," the official said.

"The government has been approached with requests to establish a space for remembrance or solace dedicated to those who faced unsuccessful defection attempts and made sacrifices along the way."

The Unification Ministry is currently surveying potential locations for the establishment of such a memorial.

The designation came around one month after President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered the Unification Ministry to establish such a commemorative day for North Korean defectors at a Cabinet meeting in mid-January.

Calling for the day's designation, Yoon said that the government would spare no efforts to provide attention and support to ensure the successful settlement of defectors from North Korea into South Korean society.

A total of 34,078 North Korean defectors had arrived in South Korean territory by the end of 2023, according to a database by the Unification Ministry.

Kim Il-hyeok, defector from North Korea, speaks during the Security Council meeting on the human rights situation in North Korea at UN Headquarters in New York in August 2023. (Getty Images) Kim Il-hyeok, defector from North Korea, speaks during the Security Council meeting on the human rights situation in North Korea at UN Headquarters in New York in August 2023. (Getty Images)

Defectors welcome

North Korean defectors welcomed the designation of the day, emphasizing that it would not only enhance the rights of North Korean defectors but also significantly improve the public perception of defectors and awareness of unification issues in South Korea.

Seo Jae-pyeong, president of the Association for North Korean Defectors, underscored that the day will also alter the perception of defectors among North Korean people. Seo pointed out that the North Korean regime has depicted defectors as incapable of living well and being "positioned as the lowest class" in South Korean society.

"The North Korean regime has been actively engaged in extensive and malicious denigration, propagating negative narratives about defectors who have resettled in South Korea," Seo told The Korea Herald.

"But when news of the designation of the day for North Korean defectors reaches North Korea, North Korean people will transform their perception of defectors. For North Korean defectors, the designation of the day becomes a great source of strength and courage."

North Korean defector and human rights activist Kim Il-hyeok, who testified about the human rights situation in North Korea at the UN Security Council in August last year, said, "The establishment of the day holds great significance."

Kim emphasized that the purpose of the day should extend beyond spotlighting defectors, however.

"It is necessary to commemorate this day not only to shed light on North Korean defectors but also to honor the people enduring hardships in North Korea," Kim told The Korea Herald.

"Furthermore, the consistent organization of events addressing unification, North Korean human rights, issues concerning individuals residing in North Korea, and defectors whenever the day is observed, will gradually improve public perception of the matters."