The number of North Korean defectors in the South has rapidly grown in recent years and is now approaching a landmark 30,000, but their quality of life seems to be getting worse due mainly to inefficient settlement support programs.
Defectors here easily slip to the fringes of South Korean society due to continuing unemployment and the consequent temptation to commit crimes, while the local government's settlement support policies fail to help their assimilation into the new system.
While the number of North Korean defectors settling in the South has already exceeded 24,000, high unemployment rates and frequent clashes with the law are still raising alarm bells.
According to a survey of 8,229 defectors by the North Korean Refugees Foundation, a support group, more than 30 percent of them have a monthly income of less than 1 million won (US$894.9), much smaller than what indigenous South Koreans earn.
The jobless rate among North Koreans in the South has reached 12.1 percent, more than three times the average 3.7 percent among indigenous southerners.
Scarce job opportunities and meager salaries often lead defectors here to commit crimes ranging from petty theft to murders and robberies, with a report by the Korean National Police University saying 899 North Korean defectors committed serious crimes including muggings or homicides from 1998 to 2007.
That figure accounted for nearly 10 percent of the total of 8,885 North Koreans living in the South during the same period, the report showed.
In a bid to help defectors from the socialist country successfully assimilate to the South's capitalist system, the Seoul government enacted a law in 1997 with a view to supporting their assimilation, with more than 120 billion won of the state budget earmarked for the settlement support plan yearly.
North Korean defectors, scholars and support group officials, however, say the state support programs have been widely inefficient, inconsistent and unrealistic.
North Korean defectors, after being allowed into the South, undergo 420 hours of re-socialization programs in the Hanawon center, a settlement center for North Koreans in Anseong, about 77 kilometers south of Seoul.
Nearly half of the lengthy compulsory program is assigned for vocational training and consulting, with defectors taking field trips or receiving brief training mostly in manual sectors, such as sewing for females or welding or auto repairs training for males.
Analysts say the program, indiscriminately applicable to all defectors, fails to properly cater to an increasingly diversified population of North Korean settlers here.
"The education given in the Hanawon center is only rudimentary ... and it should be completely renovated to suit the needs of individual defectors," said Kim Soo-am, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. The program is insufficient to meet the increasingly varied age or education levels of North Korean defectors, he said.
"The center operates different education programs for seven types of defector groups based on age or gender, but they are in fact insufficient to cater to all the defectors due to some limitations," said an official of the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean issues as well as settlement of defectors.
The government's subsidy aimed to encourage defectors' employment has also been called into question, with analysts pointing out it is not designed to encourage long-term employment.
The government currently pays half of the salary paid to new defector employees by local firms, but legal loopholes are causing employers to lay off defectors after the subsidies phase out, leading to a high rate of job changes among them, analysts said.
The average defector on a subsidy plan stays in the same job for only 10 months, another report showed, indicating high employment instability among the group.
Redundancy and inefficiency in the government's use of the settlement support budget also require tight scrutiny, experts added.
Defector groups and North Korean watchers complain the bulk of the billions of won intended for defector assistance often ends up being used for redundant research projects or in the hands of defector assistance agents.
"The Unification Ministry's supervision of (defector) support agencies seems insufficient," an official at one of the aid groups said, calling for a revamp in the use of the state budget as well as the management of defector support agencies.