Each of the dozens of pine trees has a label attached, stating the name of the person who planted it, their hometown in North Korea, and the relatives they left behind in the North.
At the centre of this park – which, when viewed from above, is shaped like the Korean peninsula – is a monument with a poem, the first line of which translates as “Our wish is unification”.
The park was built in 2012 and is the most conspicuous sign of what makes this otherwise typical community of flat blocks and commercial streets unique: with around 1,400 North Korea-born residents, it has the largest number of North Korean defectors of any South Korean district.
Defectors were initially drawn to this neighbourhood, called Nonhyeon, due to its proximity to jobs at nearby industrial complexes. Many have settled in its quiet, leafy residential blocks that have easy access to amenities, including public transport.
While there are no obvious signs of tensions in Nonhyeon, here and in other neighbourhoods with high numbers of defectors, South Korean media have reported cases of South Korea-born locals resenting defectors for the government benefits they are entitled to, and opposing the establishment of community facilities intended to assist defectors.
While many South Koreans have an emotional longing for the unification of the peninsula, there are also many who worry that formally reuniting with the North would be a drag on the economy, and that integrating millions of North Koreans would be a costly process that would disrupt life in the South.
That tension between the lofty goal of forming one nation and practical concerns of how to manage such a coming together is at the core of a debate playing out on a national level, as the left-wing administration of President Moon Jae-in is pushing for the legislature’s ratification of the agreement he signed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a summit earlier this year.
The agreement involves cooperative projects that South Korea would probably have to pay for, and the right-wing opposition is resisting, arguing that it could be too expensive to implement the terms of the agreement.
Park Hyun-joo, a Nonhyeon resident and an office worker in her 20s, has no family connection to North Korea, but comes through the park regularly to walk her dogs. “We’re all just neighbours,” she says of the defectors she lives alongside. “We all live together comfortably.”
Park added that she has no defector friends or colleagues – and according to recent research by Sang Sin Lee, a fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, her situation is not unique. Lee has conducted surveys on South Korean attitudes toward North Korea, and found that 83.7 per cent of South Koreans have never met a North Korean.
Few South Koreans are eager to associate with defectors, who are at times stereotyped as lazy or unsophisticated.
“South Koreans are accepting of North Korean defectors as an abstract concept, as long as they don’t interfere with their personal lives. I don’t think that’s because South Koreans are mean or anything, it’s because there isn’t enough interaction between the two groups,” Lee said.
“The older generation view North Korea as an enemy, which means North Korea and South Korea have equal status. But young people view North Korea as dependent or a country that can’t sustain itself, as beneath South Korea.”
The South Korean government makes efforts to distribute defectors roughly evenly around the country, thereby preventing the formation of neighbourhoods with large defector populations; when defectors complete their government-run programme meant to prepare them for life in South Korea, they receive money for housing and funds for living expenses to last them until they find employment.
The housing money comes with a string attached, in that defectors are not allowed free rein to choose where they will settle. “They are usually placed in housing in consideration of their preferences and the residences of family members who entered South Korea earlier, but their location may also be determined by lottery, depending on the availability of housing in the regions where they intend to settle,” says the White Paper published by the South’s Ministry of Unification, the body that handles North Korea matters.
In her memoir The Girl With Seven Names, North Korean defector Lee Hyeon-seo describes a tense ceremony where defectors’ areas of settlement are announced according to a lottery. Only a limited portion of them are granted residence in Seoul, South Korea’s capital and economic epicentre.
Once settled in neighbourhoods where they are often a tiny minority, many defectors report hiccups in forming bonds with their South Korea-born neighbours. A 2016 survey by the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper found that 62.7 per cent of defectors who responded said they had trouble communicating with South Koreans.
“South Koreans view us as people who don’t pay taxes and live lives of celebration off taxpayer money. But we pay taxes, we live under the same circumstances,” said one North Korea-born Nonhyeon resident who responded to that survey.
“There is a stereotype some South Koreans have of defectors as lacking an entrepreneurial, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps spirit, being from a socialist country and therefore relying on government benefits,” said Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for non-profit Liberty in North Korea. “In some neighbourhoods there could be a perception that North Koreans are receiving benefits that they don’t deserve, and that can lead to tensions.”
Other experts argue that in addition to preparing North Koreans for life in South Korea, it is necessary to teach South Koreans how to be more accepting of outsiders.
“It is more important to work on changing the South Korean majority than thinking about how to educate the North Korea-born minority. There is a need for education on how not to have an objectifying attitude about the people you live with, but there is no such education,” said Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Complicating the government’s efforts to boost cooperation with North Korea, and defectors’ integration on the ground, is the fact that the South’s economy is slowing, and citizens born here are finding it more difficult to get by amid a rising cost of living and declining number of stable, well-paid jobs.
While South Korean citizens and politicians differ on the best approach to dealing with North Korea and the question of possible unification, Lee says there is one matter on which nearly all – regardless of age, social class or political orientation – agree with: the need to prioritise the economy.
“If asked to choose between something that’s good for unification and something that’s good for the economy, virtually everyone will choose the economy,” Lee said.