After fleeing North Korea, the majority of refugees find themselves in neighboring China, a country that neither provides support or recognizes their refugee status. Many however manage to find third destinations where they are recognized as refugees and have been resettled, with roughly 28,000 remaining on the peninsula, residing in South Korea.
While they collectively face difficulties in employment, plus alienation and a difficult transition into a society at the opposite end of the political, economic and social spectrum, those in the South at least share a common language and long history, which can sometimes ease the disparities felt.
However, for those refugees who have resettled elsewhere, a lack of language and communication skills present formidable barriers to integration. Issues with employment, mental health and support are pervasive for the close to 1,000 refugees residing in Europe.
In light of these ongoing challenges, the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) have launched and are seeking fundraising for a set of new programs aimed at empowering and equipping refugees with the necessary skills to overcome these problems.
These include programs aimed at improving English language skills, applicable skills in new job markets and introducing mentoring for young North Koreans and support groups for North Korean women, who represent the majority of defectors and who have been subject to physical and sexual abuse in China, on their way to finding a new home.
NK News spoke to Jihyun Park, EAHRNK’s North Korean outreach and project officer, about the projects being launched, the issues faced by North Korean refugees settling abroad and how EAHRNK are aiming to address them.
Park, a North Korean defector herself, has personally witnessed and been through the issues commonly experienced by those aiming to flee the DPRK and find a new life overseas.
NK News: Many of the projects are geared towards enhancing skills for North Korean refugees. What areas do you think are most important to address and what gaps in necessary skills currently exist for North Korean refugees in Europe?
Park: I think the most important area to address is the language capabilities of many refugees. The majority of refugees arrive in Europe with no ability to speak the language of the country they arrive in.
Learning the language of their host country is important for North Korean refugees so that they can share their own personal experiences. In the United Kingdom, for example, there is such a small number of North Koreans who are able to speak English. This is important as it does not help their social advancement, or help them raise awareness. As a mother, the most important reason for me to learn English was for my children. Without being able to speak the language of their host country, many North Korean parents are not able to help their children.
With proper training, I aim to equip all defectors in Europe with the skills to express themselves and to eventually gain employment
How can a refugee seek healing when the appropriate medical staff don’t speak Korean and the refugees can’t speak the language of their new country? There are also some cultural differences, which make North Koreans reluctant to seek medical help for the issues they have faced.
With regards to our skills workshops, many North Korean refugees in Europe lack a complete education, so often do not have the technical skills to be able to get jobs or to raise awareness of their experiences in North Korea. With proper training, I aim to equip all defectors in Europe with the skills to express themselves and to eventually gain employment, but funding is required to do that.
NK News: How important is it for these refugees to have mentors in their resettled homes and have companies, individuals and businesses already committed to the projects in order to achieve this?
Park: It is extremely important for any refugee to have a wide-ranging support network, not only mentors. In the UK, there is a community network within the New Malden area, but this is lacking for refugees elsewhere in the UK or elsewhere in Europe.
Refugees do not, as a matter of rule, get placed in London or major capital cities throughout Europe – they get placed in smaller communities, removing any chance of them being able to easily settle. Our projects will try to mitigate that as best we can by, in the long run, having a strong web presence for resources for settlement and by offering some of the projects via the internet – we can, for instance, offer language classes via Skype.
Many refugees live in the UK, and everywhere we have found different refugee communities groups, they have been teaching driving … skills, computer skills , etc … but in the UK there still isn’t a North Korean teaching group, so this workshop is important to North Korean refugees.
NK News: You mention in your Phoenix program that the skills being learned in that project are “also important for creating leaders in different sectors for the future rebuilding of the North Korean state.” How important a role do you believe current North Korean refugees will have in the rebuilding of the country should the current status quo change?
Park: For older defectors, I believe they will play a large part in helping re-build North Korea in the short term, but the rebuilding of North Korea will not happen in a day. I am committed to supporting young North Koreans to provide them with the work experience and the skills to take the long-term lead in rebuilding the infrastructures of North Korea. Since the 1980s, North Koreans have managed to build an entire economy almost from scratch – imagine what we can do with the right education, training and mentorship! We need the public’s support to help our young North Koreans. Without support, we’ll struggle to properly assist them.
NK News: In your opinion, and having children yourself, how important is it to empower and educate the second generation of North Korean refugees living in Europe and around the world and what role do you help they can play in the future of the peninsula?
Park: I have great hopes for my children being successful in their lives, but refugees do face a struggle to achieve their potential. I hope our programs help them reach for the sky. If we reach our funding goal, I’m confident we can help these young people become successful.
In 2013 a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into North Korea human rights was conducted, but now in 2015 nothing has changed inside North Korea, our participants must build up North Korean human rights issues and also engagement inside the country, so we want to give them opportunity to learn how to work in human rights and also engagement.
NK News: The vast majority of North Korean refugees are women and many have suffered abuse and trafficking once they fled the country. Your final project is geared towards this issue. In your experience is it hard for these women to discuss these issues and to seek help to heal from their experiences following their resettlement?
Speaking as a woman and as a refugee in Europe, there isn’t much help available to help us heal
Park: Last year a (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) group published report about the situation on the North Korean women in China. Speaking as a woman and as a refugee in Europe, there isn’t much help available to help us heal. That’s partly because of the small number of North Korean refugees, but also because of the language barrier. Also there are problems as many women want to hide their painful memories and hope to start new lives, so North Korean women’s voices are still lacking.
Women’s rights are a critical indicator on where a country’s human rights stand.
By speaking in a closed-door environment, we can talk about the problems we have faced to heal some of the hurt, but also think about how we can be a strong voice for the North Korean people. If we are able to invite speakers to talk about women’s rights, we can learn to become more effective advocates for our people, but we need the public’s support to help us be better advocates.
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