Building a New Elite for the Post-Kim World

Daily NK
Andrei Lankov

When considering the future of North and South Korea, we can see that the time has come to raise an alternative elite, the kind that meets the expectations of the modern world and has no relationship with the Kim Jong Il regime.

But since it is impossible to participate in any political activity or gain a great deal of knowledge while inside North Korea, this kind of elite can only be formed in South Korea. For North Korean intellectuals with a sense of the modern world, South Korea is a base from which they can go into action and even receive an education. The birthplace of the alternative elite is the defector community in South Korea.

In 2010, the number of defectors in South Korea reached 20,000. The number of defectors is growing, and their social backgrounds are very different from those who escaped in the 1990s and after. Most of the defectors who crossed over to South Korea in and after the 1990s were farmers, laborers and soldiers. Being realistic, it is difficult to view them as talented people who could have been converted into an alternative elite.

However, there are a growing number of exceptions now. First of all, there are intellectuals among the defectors. Secondly, there are quite a lot of people who are young, talented and eager to get educated. The number of juvenile defectors who need to be educated in South Korea has now reached 1,800.

We can view the North Korean intellectuals living in South Korea as an existing alternative elite, and they have a great deal of potential. In Eastern Europe, the activities of dissident writers contributed a lot to the changes in their society. For example, in the cases of Poland and Hungary between the 1960s and 1980s, many of the most popular artists were in exile or intentionally avoided cooperating with the government in their own countries.

Their literary pieces did not always directly criticize communism, but they challenged the outlook the government forced upon the people and honestly described its internal contradictions. From 1970, it became common sense that a writer who obeys his or her government cannot produce meaningful work.

Among the defectors in South Korea today are writers, poets, journalists and people working in the movie industry. But most of them find it difficult to continue their creative lifestyles. The experiences that are the themes in their work are, of course, close to the reality of North Korea. However, it is a matter of regret that South Korean mainstream society is indifferent to both North Koreans and their experiences. Under such conditions, works that deal with North Korean life are not marketable. This is why North Korean artists cannot make a living in creative activities without external support.

There are various ways to support them. Giving financial support to North Korean writers, supporting magazines and publishing companies that publish their work and promoting exhibitions by North Korean painters are just some of the examples. Broadcasting stations for North Korea such as Free North Korea Radio can act as a base of financial support for the alternative elite.

While it is important to help North Korean elites, however, it is more important to pursue the formation of a new North Korean elite group. Intellectuals who were educated in North Korea know well about the reality of the country, but they face a lot of obstacles in learning modern knowledge. On the contrary, young North Koreans can learn about world class technology and knowledge when educated in South Korea.

But I find a lot of problems when I listen to the experiences of defectors studying in South Korean universities. Most either quit school or are regularly absent. Of course some leave school because of a lack of ability, but for many of them the reason why they do not graduate does not have anything to do with their ability at all.

Instead, North Korean university students who are admitted to South Korean universities face too difficult a challenge. First of all, despite the fact that they went to middle school and high school, the facilities and education standards of North Korea are far behind those of South Korea, with the exception of a few privileged schools. Secondly, most of them couldn’t get access to any kind of education while they were in China after defecting. Thirdly, the social culture and school culture they are used to is different from that of South Korea.

However, the most important obstacle they face is the different content of the education. Most of what they learn in North Korea is lies, worthless in the modern world. For example North Korean students learn a lot about the Kim family, but such knowledge is not helpful in any way.

On the contrary, there is a lot of knowledge that North Korea does not teach, but is thought of as basic knowledge in the modern world. For example, most North Koreans cannot speak English or use a computer. Kim Chul Yong, the vice director of the movie “Crossing” said, “whatever you learned in North Korea, it is always better to learn it again in South Korea.” This is correct. So in order to adjust to school life, North Korean university students have to work much harder than South Korean students. Therefore, even if North Korean students are talented, it is difficult for them to excel in South Korean schools.

We can also see how difficult it is for North Korean students to study when we consider the economic status of defector families. The income of a North Korean family is about 50 percent of that of a South Korean family. This forces them to put more effort into making a living than studying hard, and those defectors who could serve as the future elite cannot focus on their studies because they have to support themselves.

This is why we should consider providing scholarships for defector students. Current scholarships support them only with tuition fees. However, considering the financial problems North Korean students suffer, that is far from enough. Not all the defector students should receive living expenses and scholarships. It is a better policy to provide opportunities to those students who are determined to perform the role of future elite.

This method is not only economic, but it also encourages them to study harder. 25 to 30 percent of the whole defector student community would benefit. Of course, in order to select nominees objectively, there should be well-organized evaluation standards with grades and an interview at their core.

It would be a good idea to provide those top students with a living expense subsidy of 400,000 won to 500,000 won a month and a scholarship for graduate school. This program is not a big pressure. Scholarships could be provided by the government, but there will be only about 100 students who deserve the scholarship in the whole country, so any foundation or social organization would be able to support them, too.

Part 2: The Many Tasks of the New Elite (3/30/2010)

The subject North Korean students find most difficult to learn is English. Defector students never encountered English in North Korea, whereas Korean students who learn English in schools and academies have a lot of experience. It is almost impossible for defectors to catch up with them. Not having reached a reasonable proficiency, they cannot search in English textbooks and therefore find it difficult to get a job after graduating. Therefore, it is an important task to establish a special English institution for defectors that can provide them with appropriate English education. Financial problems could be taken care of with the support of foreign countries that are interested in defector issues.

Of course, studying abroad is the most efficient way of studying a foreign language. It may be difficult for defector students to support themselves, but there is a fairly economic way of supporting them. The United States or Australia would be unaffordable, but the Philippines is an economical and efficient country in which to study English. $6000 to $7000 per semester would be more than enough to study in the Philippines, including tuition fees, living expenses and plane tickets. Of course, talented and determined candidates should be selected. It would not be too much of a burden to pick 10 to 20 defector students who have done well in standardized tests such as TOEFL and send them to the Philippines.

Such a program could be sponsored by organizations and individuals if government support were impossible. It is only right and noble for high-income earners who have achieved a successful life after overcoming hardships to help those North Korean students who face the same challenge they faced in the past.

The obstacles defector students have to overcome are not just financial issues and English. Lack of knowledge about South Korean society also makes it difficult for defectors to build a successful career. They are not familiar with working procedures, so it is difficult for them to get a job. Also, it is difficult for them to find out what issues they have to focus on at school. This is another reason why getting a job is difficult for them. Providing defector students with a lot of opportunities for internships at corporations would be good.

The biggest problem defector students face when they are hired by a Korean corporation is adjusting themselves to the community. Through internships we can give them experience of what role they have to take and what kind of work they have to do, which will help them understand the cultural differences and adjust to them.

But what is the purpose of forming such an alternative elite? And what are they supposed to do in the future?

More than anything, as long as the Kim dictatorship survives without any significant changes, the alternative elite has a mission to exert influence on North Korean society and spread a critical social consciousness about the Kim dictatorship. Through various routes such as broadcasting stations for North Korea, they should let the North Korean people know their opinions from different places in the world.

Also, due to the spread of cell phone usage, most defectors maintain contact with their families and relatives in North Korea. Defector students who have received a good education and adjusted well to Korean society can explain that Korean society to their families in North Korea more accurately.

Secondly, if there is a sudden change in North Korea, they have the potential to perform various tasks. Defectors who took part in the North Korean democratization movement in South Korea are considered future politicians and high class administrative officers in the new North Korea. In a ‘post-Kim age,’ after the Kim regime, if there is a small number of or no such people at all, those with power will be former Workers’ Party authorities or South Koreans. Considering their backgrounds and values, they cannot lead North Korean society or gain the trust of the North Korean people. Therefore, it will be difficult for them to represent North Koreans and be their protecting power.

Alternative elite members who can apply the knowledge they learned in South Korea well in the North Korean reality could be doctors, technicians, CEOs and scholars of a post-Kim age. Re-education could cultivate specialists in the new North Korea. Despite the very low economic level, North Korea provides a fairly good basic education. Therefore, when carrying out the rehabilitation of North Korea, re-education based on the knowledge they already have is more reasonable than educating North Korean specialists such as technicians and doctors all over again from the start. An alternative elite which received a university education in South Korea and has experience of working in a modern environment with modern technologies is one which can accomplish the most in re-education.

Thirdly, there is a possibility that the North Korean regime might not break down for a long time. In this case, the alternative elites could perform an important social role in South Korea.

Regardless of the future of North Korea, there is no doubt that the number of defectors will constantly increase. 10 years from now, it is certain that the number of defectors in South Korea will exceed 50,000. Even 100,000 is possible. Therefore, issues of defectors adjusting to South Korean society will continuously be important.

Defector elite persons who graduated from prestigious universities in South Korea and succeeded will be role models to young defectors. Their experiences can prove that North Koreans do not necessarily have to be blue collar workers for good, and open a new path to future defectors.

Watching the movement of the North Korean authorities, it is certain that they are against reform and an open-door policy, and that they have decided to maintain the anachronistic Stalinist system. Such a strategy can delay the end of the Kim system, but at the same time it sharpens its crisis.

It is difficult to prepare for internal turmoil because we, as of now, cannot know specifically when and how the end of North Korean system will take place. However, no matter what happens to North Korea, an alternative elite who know about both North Korean and South Korean society and are not guilty of pro-Kim acts will be helpful in preparing for internal turmoil. In fact, there are not many means of preparing for internal turmoil which cannot be specifically predicted. But pursuing the formation of an alternative elites is one of the important means.

Such a program is cheap, but it needs to be installed over a long period of time in order to achieve any result. There seems to be no political will to systematically and continuously support such a program. Regrettably, just like other democratic countries, South Korean politicians are not interested in plans that do not seem to help them much in the next election.

So I am placing my hope in organizations and corporations rather than state institutions. But whether it is a state institution or a social organization, it is clear that the time has come to take such measures.


One Response to “Building a New Elite for the Post-Kim World”

  1. Jack says:

    This is actually something that I’ve been thinking about as well – there are literally tens of thousands of South Korean students who come to places like the US and Canada to learn English. For those of us in North America, sponsoring some of these students to study abroad seems like a comparative advantage.