SEOUL, Dec. 1 (Korea Bizwire) – For many North Korean defectors in South Korea, arriving here in one piece is one thing, but finding a job to support themselves in the capitalist society is another mission.
Lee Hye-young, 39, still remembers the first few months into her job at a company that makes filters for car air conditioners when she was constantly fazed by the amount of English words used at work.
“My boss asked me if I could hand him some labels. It’s a very simple word used in the manufacturing industry, actually in any workplace. But I had no clue,” said Lee, who hails from the North Korean city of Wonsan.
“Of course, that was just the beginning. Adjusting to South Korea’s corporate culture was a whole new process that took about a year,” Lee told Yonhap News Agency on the sidelines of a job fair organized by the unification ministry.
Kim Seung-hee, 57, also went through language issues.
“When my colleagues heard me speaking, they would immediately ask where I am from,” said Kim, who has worked various stints since she arrived in South Korea 10 years ago.
“I responded that my accent doesn’t matter since we all use Korean. But some people just have this misconception about North Korean defectors,” she said.
The divided Koreas use the same alphabet, known as Hangeul. However, decades of division — capitalist South and communist North — following the 1950-53 Korean War have resulted in dialectical differences and deviations in the meaning of words. Many South Koreans incorporate numerous English words into their daily lives, causing communication challenges between South and North Koreans.
Like Lee and Kim, many North Korean defectors still face numerous hurdles when looking for jobs in South Korea.
While indicators of their employment — such as employment rate, salary and retention period — have overall improved in the past three years, the figures still tend to lag behind the nation’s average.
The jobless rate of North Korean defectors in South Korea reached 6 percent in 2022, more than twofold of the 3 percent for all South Koreans, while their average retention period came in at 35.3 months, less than half of 72 months for all South Koreans, according to government data.
Data also showed that 26 percent of North Korean defectors picked misperception against them as the biggest hurdle in finding jobs, followed by 19.2 percent and 17.6 percent who picked lack of relevant experience and information on job hiring.
To better support defectors in the job market, the unification ministry held a job fair featuring 141 companies and government agencies hoping to hire new recruits.
More than 1,000 North Korean defectors, including Lee and Kim, attended the job fair in search of better job opportunities.
Among the companies were those seeking to fill jobs shunned by South Koreans due to irregular working hours and tough working conditions.
“Demand for new hires has surged in our company since the end of the pandemic but we’ve had difficulties in filling those jobs as they require working outdoors on graveyard shifts,” said Jeon Hyun-woo, a hiring specialist at Swissport Korea, which provides various services to airlines at Incheon International Airport.
“We didn’t consider hiring defectors, assuming it would be difficult to conduct security checks for their airport access, but it seemed like a great opportunity as the job fair is organized by the government,” Jeon said.
For the local duty-free unit of cosmetics giant Estee Lauders Companies Inc., the job fair appeared to be a chance to hire airport sales specialists who are fluent in Chinese, given that a large number of defectors arrive in South Korea via China.
“Most second-generation defectors born in third countries came from China and are fluent in the language,” said Lee Jin-hee, the principal of Hangyeore Middle and High School, a government-funded education organization for North Korean defectors.
“It will be a great opportunity for them to make use of their skills if they work in service industry jobs in global companies,” Lee said.
The unification ministry said strengthening support for the resettlement of North Korean defectors is a policy priority that would help them identify themselves as members of South Korea.
“North Korean defectors who have gone through various difficulties to come to our society in pursuit of freedom and human rights are talented people who have a notable spirit of challenge and are full of energy,” Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho said.
Despite the challenges in finding the right job, some North Korean defectors said the freedom to choose their occupation is a new-found opportunity in itself.
“In North Korea, you have to work where the regime tells you to go. That becomes your life,” said a 52-year-old defector from North Hamgyong Province, who declined to identified.
“Here, I have the option to make a choice for myself. This is something that I learned. It’s an opportunity.”