North Korean Refugees and the Challenges of Failed Assimilation

September 2nd, 2012

“The past always follows me, I will always be a North Korean, I will always be on the outside, and this is how I feel, like I am able to do things like interviews and documentaries, but I feel that it is hard to be on the inside, I feel that people and companies worry about hiring me because I am from North Korea”.

The above quote, taken from an interview with a North Korean man who has lived in South Korea for over five years, points to two prevailing factors amongst North Koreans residing in the South. Firstly, that North Korean refugees, for the most part, continue to feel ‘on the outside’ in South Korea; it can take years to develop a sense of belonging in their new home, if it happens at all. Secondly, that they feel more comfortable in the company of others who understand their experiences, that is, other individuals from North Korea. Concerned whispers regarding the inability of North Koreans to fit into South Korean society are nothing new, and perhaps it is time for South Korea to accept that assimilation is not going to occur as smoothly as planned and the time is ripe for other scenarios to be considered. 

The number of North Koreans in South Korea recently tipped the 24,000 mark, with more arriving every day. Government policies regarding North Koreans have tended to focus on assimilation and support in the form of financial settlement packages. As more and more have arrived, however, the focus has shifted towards encouraging North Koreans to pursue education and develop new skills with which to gain and retain employment. This has occurred concomitantly with various government subsidies being offered to South Korean employers who hire North Koreans and a loosening of the purse strings in the private sector for loan packages to North Koreans who wish to start their own business. These initiatives are generally considered as a means to offer North Koreans in the South a chance of competing in the labour market, while dampening calls from the South Korean citizenry to end the free ride for their Northern brethren.


North Korean refugees as a group are diverse, and yet several factors contribute to the emergence of commonalities. Firstly, due to government design, North Koreans who arrive in South Korea are usually settled in specific areas in Seoul and wider South Korea. In regards to those in Seoul, they are usually housed in lower socio-economic areas on the fringes of the city. Furthermore, on the whole, a large number of North Koreans entering South Korea in the last decade have been female, between the ages of 18-35 with no more than high school education, and from areas of the North East, close to the Chinese border. Given these broad, but notable similarities, it is hardly surprising to find that a large number of North Koreans find themselves experiencing similar difficulties upon their arrival in terms of education, work, and developing social networks. The fact that chain migration has also played a role undergirding the distinctive characteristics of the North Korean community is also significant in considering what kind of community is being created and why there might be less incentive for individuals to reach beyond their familial boundaries. With this in mind, it is quite clear to see that the development of a kind of ethnic enclave, albeit without the ethnic boundaries, is inevitable.

The reality of the situation is that the South Korean government is walking unfamiliar ground and tends to react to the needs of North Korean refugees, rather than preempt them. Changes in the social support offered to new arrivals have shown to be inherently flawed, creating opportunity for manipulation of the system by South Korean employers keen to employ, on a short term basis, one cut price North Korean after another, and leaving some North Koreans at the mercy of brokers hungry for repayment of the cost of their transportation debt.

In regards to government plans for assimilation, it seems unlikely that most North Korean refugees would want to give up their identity entirely and ‘become South Korean’. Many North Koreans report disappointment at their inability to fit in and with the exception of those young enough to be easily ‘inserted’ into the South Korean milieu, the lived experience of being an outsider in South Korea plays a stronger role in influencing the opinion of individual North Koreans than government policy.

So, if we are to offer an assessment, what kind of North Korean community can we see developing in South Korea over the next ten or so years? It seems likely that it will be distinctly ‘North-facing’, given that, among other reasons, the majority of individuals in South Korea have family across the border.  Yet, given that casting one’s eyes Northwards can often be rewarded with jail time, it is likely that this longing for home would be expressed in the idiom of reunification. Reunification seems to be an acceptable means, on both sides of the 38th parallel, of expressing a great many emotions which otherwise could be construed as a kind of sympathy for the devil. Secondly, given the overall lower socio-economic standing of North Koreans in South Korea, and their relatively weaker social networks, it is possible that inter-marriage and inter-community economic co-operation will also be a feature of North Koreans in the South. Thirdly, allowing for the large number of North Koreans skilled in Mandarin and who maintain familial ties in Northeast China, it is likely this community will be transnational in character, linked to both China and North Korea through trade and a continuous movement of people. Lastly, as the North Korean community grows in size, its political voice is likely to demand more of a hearing that it currently receives. Whether this voice continues to express extreme rightist views and general condemnation of the Northern regime is yet to be seen.

Taking into account the unlikelihood of success of the government’s assimilation project, and the stark reality that many North Koreans are faced with everyday, it seems that the formation of a North Korean enclave community in South Korea is inevitable. This community will be replete with its own character and concerns, distinct from the wider South Korean society. It will have its own history, its own cultural logic in terms of what is considered ‘Korean’ and its own vision for the future- this being a forward facing community looking towards reunification. What kind of relationship will develop between this enclave and the wider society will become clearer in the next few years. What does seem pertinent now, if the South Korean government is to pre-empt these developments, is that education will be needed for North Koreans and South Koreans alike, both to foster a sense of mutual understanding, and to prevent the Us/Them dichotomy prevalent in many societies that welcome refugees into their midst.

To conclude, I would like to leave you with the words of one young woman whom I believe expresses the feelings of many North Koreans residing in the South;

I don’t believe in the [South Korean government’s] policies of assimilation. It means I would have to completely change myself, this means that I would be disrespecting myself. I am not ashamed about coming from North Korea…if I was made to throw away who I am, I would lose myself, am I not a person? Am I stupid? I want to protect the North Korean me, she is important as well.

Recommended for You

Is Bill Clinton North Korea’s favorite president?

Is Bill Clinton North Korea’s favorite president?

Recent news reports on Hillary Clinton’s emails indicate that former President Bill Clinton sought permission from the State Department for a paid speaking engagement in North Korea while his spouse…

September 14th, 2015
'The North will rise again!': Anticipating Korea's post-unification attitudes

'The North will rise again!': Anticipating Korea's post-unification attitudes

“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions a…

September 10th, 2015

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.