By Jack Kim
The following is a response to “Why North Koreans Should Be Allowed Asylum Beyond South Korea“, an article by Markus Bell that appeared on these pages last week.
Let me preface this response to Markus Bell’s passionate article this way: it’s hard to collect any hard data on North Koreans who re-migrate. Many of the following things that I describe are simply a byproduct of working on the North Korean human rights and refugee issue in Canada. However, after interacting with these re-migrating North Koreans for the past seven years, I cannot but disagree with one of the fundamental premises of Markus’ piece: giving re-migrating North Koreans from South Korea (or “SorKs”, as some of us in Canada like to call them) blanket refugee status.
First of all, the number of re-migrating North Koreans we are talking about is hardly the majority. No one is at the gate at Incheon Airport in Seoul clicking away every time a North Korean passes through; but even if we liberally assume that two thousand, or even three thousand have re-migrated to other countries, that is only 10-12% of the 24,000 strong North Korean refugee population in the ROK. This means that 85-90% of North Koreans choose to stay in the ROK despite the opportunity to travel visa free to countries such as Canada, or the UK, and the systemic discrimination Markus describes in his piece.
This of course also assumes that the 500 North Koreans who arrived in the UK, or the 1,000 who are supposedly in Canada, or the 1500 who are scattered across the European Union, are all the sum of unique individuals. The word on the street amongst North Koreans here in Canada is that a substantial portion of SorKs in Canada are actually re-migrants from the United Kingdom – one North Korean suggested that up to 40% of the 1,000 fall into this category. The evidence, at least anecdotally, suggests that simply tallying up North Korean refugee claimants in various countries is far from an accurate count of the number of SorKs outside of the ROK.
So why do they stay in South Korea? The chief reason directly contradicts one of Markus’ chief assumptions: that the South Korean government, and South Korean society in general, discriminates to the extent that this discrimination is “both institutionalized and ingrained at every level of society.” At least from a governmental level, this seems quite strange to me. The abundance of pecuniary benefits that are given to SorKs when they first arrive is well documented elsewhere. Yet there are other benefits of the non-pecuniary sort that some are unaware of. For instance, SorKs are eligible for full tuition rebates if they can manage to get through at least the undergraduate level of university within a five year period. They are exempt from military service. In 2010, the North Korean Refugees Foundation was set up for the very purpose of assisting SorKs integrate into South Korean society.
If this is the type of governmental discrimination that North Koreans face in South Korea, I may be tempted to sign up for such discrimination.
Markus’ point of societal discrimination, given my own experiences in South Korea, is a tad more persuasive, but the concrete evidence regarding these attitudes still remain unclear. Do South Koreans as a whole discriminate against North Koreans? The North Koreans I’ve talked to remain divided upon that issue. Some prominent North Koreans I’ve spoken to, such as Shin Dong Hyuk, have questioned whether discrimination is of a societal nature, but individuals such as Shin have benefited the most out of coming to South Korea. On the other hand, the SorKs here in Canada are unequivocal about their mistreatment in South Korea, but then again, they may not be representative of the entire sample size of North Koreans as well. There are certain segments of South Korean society that are overwhelmingly sympathetic to North Korean refugees, such as Evangelical Christians; there are certain segments of South Korean society, such as those on the far-left, who see SorKs as traitors.
The situation that many North Koreans face regarding their sustainable livelihood in South Korea may also be confused with discrimination. For instance, many North Koreans have trouble finding gainful employment; but on the other hand, most North Koreans come to South Korea with out-dated or few portable skills. Many are relegated to working in “DDD” professions: dangerous, dirty and demeaning. The frustration that may understandably emanate from the lack of ability to find meaningful employment may be translated into a subjective perception of discrimination.
Yet not all North Koreans fall into this cycle of despair. There are others who have succeeded, or at the very least are trying to. An increasing number of North Koreans are taking advantage of the government’s generous subsidies and going to university. They are getting jobs in the public service. They are daring to write the notorious difficult Korean bar exam. They are even invited to speak at TED talks. Amongst those who have interacted heavily with North Koreans in South Korea, there is a talk of a “second wave” of North Koreans who came after the “first wave” of the famine, less starry-eyed about prospects in the South and with an actual plan on how to survive in the South.
There is also the danger of equating apathy with discrimination. There is no disagreement on this part: most South Koreans simply do not care about North Korea. Shin Dong Hyuk, for instance, often comments on the fact that he sees no hope in South Korea, as in his opinion the level of South Korean apathy is insurmountable. For instance, in most elections, North Korean issues are rarely on top of the list. Why is this the case? Although there may be competing theories that place the blame on everything between desensitization to capitalism, South Koreans simply do not care. North Korea and North Koreans generally do not keep South Koreans awake at night.
Yet social discrimination alone, even if it does exist, does not in a legal sense make a refugee. The government body in that particular jurisdiction must also be unwilling or unable to protect the rights of SorKs. As we have seen above, it would be hard pressed for any refugee lawyer to demonstrate that the South Korean government, with all the generous benefits it gives to SorKs upon arrival, is an accomplice to discrimination. After all, if North Koreans are to be given blanket refugee status because of (perceived) societal discrimination, the First Nations peoples of Canada, or Turks in Germany, or even ethnic Koreans in Japan have a case for refugee protection as well.
The biggest problem of giving SorKs blanket refugee protection is that as the anecdotal evidence suggests, this will do very little to stop illegal migration. As aforementioned, the North Korean population in Canada could very well be substantially made up of North Koreans who have already made claims, sometimes even successfully, in the UK. Even more troubling is that both refugee lawyers and North Koreans alike speak of a recent wave of North Koreans who were caught by Canadian immigration authorities as having made their way to Canada via the United States. According to sources within the North Korean community, these individuals are a mix of folks who were merely transiting through the United States to get to Canada, those who were in the United States illegally for some time, and even a couple who may have already received permanent residence within the United States. As the Canadian example alone attests to, “re-re-migration” is a very real issue.
Unfortunately, with illegal migration also comes the shadowy elements who facilitate. Most SorKs already have ties to brokers and people-traffickers: after all, for many recent arrivals, these are the very elements that assisted them in escaping North Korea in the first place. Many of these same brokers also assist North Koreans migrate to Canada. To pay for this process, some SorKs obtain massive loans and give brokers a percentage of the new found cash as a fee. Afterwards, these SorKs take minimal wage jobs but also use the loans to finance condos and luxury cars. If you don’t believe me, I wouldn’t blame you: I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. Other North Koreans either take out car leases or give brokers their banking information so that the brokers can take out car leases as a form of payment. Either way, these SorKs have a heavy disincentive to return to South Korea: since many of them have been away for a considerable amount of time, returning would mean for many, potential jail time. As long as re-re-migration remains a viable option, an option which could only become more live if more countries accepted SorKs unconditionally, brokers will always remain part of the game.
The issue of re-migration remains a dark and shadowy one. However, this does not mean that I disagree with Markus’ fundamental argument. I too agree that the international community should shoulder more of a responsibility to taking in North Koreans. Yet depending on flimsy evidence and shaky legal arguments that degrade the integrity of the international refugee acceptance system is not the way to do this. The starting point should not be allowing SorKs blanket refugee status; rather, the starting point should be in Thailand, where almost all North Korean refugees end up after escaping the DPRK. If countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany started extracting North Koreans from their arrival point in Thailand, countries can proverbially close the “back door” while opening the “front door.”
There are two issues of which Markus identified correctly: whether North Koreans will realize that other countries remain as options, and processing times. The first problem is the easier one to solve. With the increasing number of “chain defections” as well as the reverse flow of information back into the DPRK through brokers, remittances, radio, and other forms of media, once a government announces that they will start taking on North Koreans, I have no doubts that this will quickly filter back into the northern regions of the DPRK, where the vast majority of refugees hail from.
The second issue is more difficult: asking governments to deploy what in the age of austerity are already limited resources for North Koreans can be somewhat of a non-starter. However, there are various factors in play that can help solve this problem as well. The first is a legal issue: if the UNHCR began referring North Koreans in Thailand to governments, the time consuming issue of refugee determination could be sidestepped. Second, we are not talking about a large number of North Koreans who will choose other countries over South Korea: with the generous financial subsidies and common language and culture, one would expect that most North Koreans will choose South Korea, even with processing times at par. Further, if the number of North Koreans who chose to go to the United States since the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act is any indicator, we are most likely talking about a very small number of individuals. Third, if many countries come together as a consortium of sorts to process North Koreans, certain synergies can be reached during the process, perhaps instituting such resource saving moves such as pooling interpreters, background information, and security check processes.
In conclusion, the point where the international community should start receiving North Koreans is not after their migration to South Korea. Rather, the starting point should be in Thailand, before North Koreans arrive in South Korea. It would be advantageous to do so now, when numbers are relatively small. For we never know what may happen in the DPRK: whether it be famine, or collapse, or another unforeseen calamity, the numbers could explode at any moment.
Jack Kim is one of the founders of HanVoice, the largest Canadian organization dedicated to North Korean human rights and refugees. He is the Human Factor Editor at www.cankor.ca and a director of the North Korean Human Rights Film Festival Toronto. In his spare time, he practices immigration law at the Toronto office of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen, and Loewy LLP.
All views expressed in this article are my own, and do not reflect the views of HanVoice, CanKor, or the North Korean Human Rights Film Festival Toronto, or Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen, and Loewy LLP.
Picture: Flickr Creative Commons
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