Refugees, Defectors or Economic Migrants?

June 10th, 2012
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In a 2002 paper published on the growing numbers of North Korean refugees arriving in South Korea, Suh Jae-jean, now a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, wrote that the time was right for a change in the names used to refer to people coming from North Korea to South Korea.  Suh explained that:

Changes in the reasons for, and the methods of defection have led to the issue of what to call North Korean defectors. North Korean defector (1962), brave North Korean defector (1978), deserted North Korean brethren (1993) or other various names were used, and since 1997 “Bukhan Yital Jumin” (defecting North Korean residents) is the official expression used to refer to the defectors. However, the word Yital (defecting) in Korean connotes “traitor” or “reactionary” thus North Korean defectors abhor that label. Moreover, it does not distinguish between defectors who entered South Korea and those who live in China or other countries

(Suh. East Asian Review . Vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn 2002, pp. 67-86).

The existing epithets at that time, argued Suh, were inadequate to explain the unique nature of many North Koreans who chose to leave their country and make their way, through China, to South Korea.  Furthermore, the Chinese characters that made up the most common terms used to refer to North Korean refugees at that time–– “Talbukja” (탈북자) and “Yital” (이탈) –– connoted betrayal.  No one likes to be referred to as a betrayer, and complaints from North Koreans in South Korea put pressure on the government to reconsider these terms.  Instead of these politically charged labels Suh proposed the terms “Saeteomin” and “displaced North Koreans” be employed.

As it was, the term “Saeteomin” was adopted by the government in 2005 and employed in official discourse.  Saeteomin, transliterated from Korean means, “New Settlers” or “People of New Land.”  The new term proved popular, newspaper and government reports discussed the plight of Saeteomin with renewed vigor while whole academic conferences were organized around the “Saeteomin Question.”

Sometime after 2008, however, complaints began to be voiced by the Saeteomin community regarding the use of the “Saeteomin” label.  Many North Korean refugees felt that it lumped them in the same categoryas the growing number of migrant workers and Southeast Asia women working and living in South Korea.  These claims were based on the fact that the South Korean government openly stated that all North Koreans were South Korean citizens.  Claims to “A shared ethnicity, culture and language” meant that North Koreans were not migrants at all, rather brothers who had simply found themselves on the wrong side of the 38th parallel at the wrong time.

And this has continued to be the irritation burrowing its way into the growing volumes of writing on people who make it out of North Korea and choose to move to the South.  If we cast our eye back to before the advent of hostilities in 1950, shortly after the formation of both the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, respectively, we see that the first migrants South were referred to as “Pinanmin”(피난민) meaning “Refugee” or “Evacuee.”  For a while, in fact until shortly after the Korean War, Pinanmin was the accepted term.

It was not long, however, until it was felt “Pinanmin”  did not strongly enough emphasize the political nature inherent in the act of leaving North Korea for its mortal enemy in the South.  As it was, until the 1990s virtually all of those who did so were indeed leaving for political reasons and so this logic could be justified.  New terms were therefore coined which focused on the political: “North Korean defector,” “Patriotic defector,” “Defector of the same ethnic group” (Talbuk Dongpo) and others along a similar line.  Indeed, the trend was, until the early 2000s, to highlight the choices these individuals had made in rejecting the North Korean system and embracing their brothers in the bosom of true Korean-ness–– the Republic of Korea.

And this is where we find ourselves almost 65 years after the first people decided they would rather live south of the dividing line. The United Nations refers to people who have left North Korea as “North Korean asylum seekers,” while the Anglophone press continues to oscillate between “North Korean escapee,” “North Korean defector” and “North Korean refugee.” The Korean press seems to have reverted back to the “North Korean defector” epithet rejected in the early 1990s, and academia seems unable to decide between “North Korean defector,” “North Korean refugee” and “Defecting North Korean residents” (Bukhanitaljumin).

Why should we care? What does it matter how we refer to these people, as long as we are making headway on the human rights issues and improving their living conditions here in South Korea?  To answer this question it is important to consider both the situation of North Koreans in China and the significance of a unified voice on North Korean refugee issues.

The basis for the continued repatriation of North Korean refugees from China to North Korea, as claimed by the Chinese government, is that those individuals who cross the border are not refugees at all, but “Economic migrants” arriving in China to work.  Because they are economic migrants, they are rounded up by Chinese security as border violators and sent back to North Korea where they face an uncertain but likely unpleasant fate at the hands of the North Korean authorities.  The label “Economic migrant” has never been employed by any other sources than China and, possibly, North Korea.  The use of this term continues to allow China to shirk their responsibilities in regards to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which it is a signatory.  I believe that one of the reasons China can continue to claim that North Korean refugees are “Economic migrants” is that there is still no unified voice on this issue.

To put it simply, with so many different labels used to refer to these people, why is it a stretch to throw in one more?  If they are defectors, patriots, deserters, refugees, internally displaced, externally displaced and stateless, could they possibly not also be economic migrants as well?  To put it in a more complicated fashion, those advocates for North Korean human rights, writers on North Korean issues and policy makers in South Korea are speaking the same language but using a different vocabulary, and this has contributed to a fragmented discourse.  It weakens the calls for the world to sit up and take notice, it dilutes cries for justice and it confuses those of us who simply want to write about one of the most important human rights issues currently developing in Asia.

My opinion is this:  let ususe the term “North Korean refugee” across the board–– this is it, this is the label which has the power to change lives and send a clear message to North Korea and China about what the world thinks.  From the United Nations to the foreign and domestic press, to academics preparing talks in South Korea and abroad, a single term for a unified voice can be the most powerful weapon we have for change in the situation of North Korean refugees in Northeast Asia.

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About the Author

Markus Bell

Markus Bell  has lived in South Korea for six years, during which time he completed a masters in anthropology at Seoul National University, focusing on the lives of North Korean refugees in South Korea. He is currently a PhD candidate in the anthropology department atThe Australian National University, where he continues to move back and forth between Australia, China and Korea, carrying out research on transnationalism, identity, gender and nationalism as these concepts relate to North Koreans in China and South Korea.

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