Public favors female refugees for government aid: South Korean study

Last modified January 16, 2021. Published January 11, 2021.
South Koreans favor offering public assistance to female refugees from the north more than male refugees. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Koreans favor offering public assistance to female refugees from the north more than male refugees. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Koreans are more likely to favor providing public assistance to women who flee North Korea than they do men, a new survey found, amid a growing influx of refugees and reduced government funding for resettlement.

Support for resettlement programs dropped at least 11% among South Korean men and women when asked specifically about male refugees, according to the study, which was published online in late December in Political Science. The vast majority of new refugees from the north have tended to be women.

This discrepancy may be explained in part by the country’s cultural gender norms and enduring misperceptions that male refugees from the north are either spies or violent, said Timothy Rich, lead author and associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University.

“South Koreans view North Korean male and female refugees differently,” Rich told The Academic Times. “I expected some difference, perhaps because of traditional gender roles or greater sympathy for female refugees, but the distinction was much starker than I expected.”

The inflow of such refugees, whether fleeing due to ideological or economic reasons, has been growing steadily in recent years, to more than 31,000 in June 2017 from just 10,000 a decade earlier, according to the paper.

Prior research on this trend has uncovered that South Koreans with high levels of ethnic identity are likely to be less supportive of North Korean resettlement, though no previous study has honed in on the impact of gender dynamics.

Currently, programs aimed at integrating North Koreans into South Korean society are “underfunded and not expansive enough to meet” their goals, Rich said, highlighting the difficulty in swaying South Koreans to have more sympathy for the arrivals.

In March 2019, Rich and his colleagues at Western Kentucky and Queen’s University in Canada surveyed 739 South Koreans using quota sampling by gender and geographic region via Macromill Embrain, a Seoul-based market research company.

The respondents were randomly assigned one of three questions probing their support for potentially increasing funds for North Korean resettlement with no mention of gender, and with regard to North Korean men and women.

In addition to a significant variation based on the arrival’s gender, the researchers also observed even lower support for both male and female resettlement among South Korean women.

About 53.8% of men expressed support for increased North Korean resettlement funding without mention of gender versus just 37.4% of women, they wrote. Roughly 42% of men and 23% of women backed increased support for North Korean men, while 53% of men and 37.5% of women did so in favor of North Korean women.

The authors ran four logistic regression models, which are used to interpret binary variables, and found a “strong negative influence on support for aid” for respondents who were given the question about male refugees.

Rich, whose work specializes in Asian countries such as the Koreas, explained that these variations track with trends related to resettlement elsewhere like in the U.S., where women and children refugees are generally perceived more positively than men.

“For South Korea, I think part of it is expected gender roles. Men are supposed to be breadwinners, yet unemployment is very high among North Korean male refugees,” he said. “There are some beliefs that North Korean men are more violent or potentially spies.”

The lower level of support for male resettlement among South Korean women may be influenced by their already low support for unification immigration in general, and the role of male military conscription in South Korean society, Rich added.

By contrast, South Koreans may have more sympathies for North Korean women, many of whom encounter sex trafficking during their trek through routes such as China, Rich said. But it’s uncertain which of these two likely factors is the main driver for the gulf in public opinion.

The paper did not directly ask its respondents why they view North Koreans differently by gender, which the authors suggested as a potential area for future research. Scholars could also dissect which types of aid programs yield the most public support, as well as ways in which the government frames resettlement in the public discourse, they said.

In a separate part of the study, the authors generated a word cloud by asking respondents an open-ended question about their impressions of North Korean arrivals. 

While sentiments such as “sympathy” (불쌍하다) and sharing a national identity (동포) were among the most common themes, so too were negative and indifferent attitudes about North Korean refugees, they found, suggesting there’s hardly any national consensus on resettlement.

The lack of consensus in recent years has led to a scaling-back of government funding for resettlement programs. In 2018, President Moon Jae-In proposed a budget that slashed financial grants to North Korean immigrants by about two-thirds, the authors note.

Based on his earlier research, Rich suggested that public support for resettlement may be fragmented in large part due to South Koreans’ general lack of awareness and exposure to North Koreans’ plight outside persistent media narratives.

“Awareness campaigns could go a long way,” he said. “South Koreans know more North Koreans have arrived in the last 20 years, but they often don’t know their challenges since they rarely interact.”

“For example, the languages have changed considerably, to the point that North Korean refugees often struggle to understand everyday language,” in South Korea, he added. “Their skill sets rarely transfer, either. If you were a factory worker in North Korea, that job has likely been done by a machine for decades in South Korea.”

Public perception for resettlement may also serve as an early indicator of how South Koreans may swing on the prospect of the reunification of the two Koreas, which a little more than half of all South Koreans support.

“If South Korea wants eventual reunification to occur, it should learn how to handle the challenges of integrating North Korean refugees now, instead of when it’s millions that have to be integrated into a democratic society,” he said.

The paper “South Korean perceptions of North Korean immigration: evidence from an experimental survey,” was published online Dec. 21, 2020. It was written by Timothy Rich, associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University; Isabel Eliassen, an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University; Andi Dahmer, a Harry S. Truman Scholar and recent graduate of Western Kentucky University; and Alexandria Knipp, a recent graduate of Queen’s University’s Masters in Global Development Studies program in Ontario, Canada. The research was supported by the Academy of Korean Studies.

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