North Korean Defectors in the United States

Image representing face of refugees from Eritrea

Officially back on campus, I decided to get involved with Yale’s branch of THiNK, There’s Hope in North Korea, once again. Thinking back to my previous year as a volunteer for the organization, I remembered that we had been fortunate enough to hear the story of a North Korean defector now living in America. She had described how she had tried to defect from North Korea on more than one occasion. After the first attempt, she, her brother, and mother had been captured and sent to a detention center where they had been tortured. After she had one day escaped, she started a new life in the United States. Unfortunately, I do not remember enough of her story to form a narrative of her personal journey to America, whether or not she spent a lot of time in a third country or in South Korea before coming here. I only remember that she occasionally shares her experiences with others in the same way that she had for us undergraduate students.

Now I realize that, even though I have heard a little about the presence of North Korean defectors outside of East and Southeast Asia, I have never really looked into more information on groups from the United States that work with North Korean refugees. Because the process of assimilation and integration in South Korea is itself complicated, I expect the transition to a Western society for long-term residence must be equally if not more difficult considering a language barrier and a more defined cultural barrier. I wonder if they do not first spend time in South Korea before coming to the United States since I cannot imagine that they would directly come to the United States. And should they come to the United States having spent little time in South Korea, I would ask what support systems do we have in the United States for North Korean defectors.

In looking up statistics for the spread of refugees in countries outside of East Asia (China, Japan, and Mongolia) and Southeast Asia (Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam), a growing population of refugees has appeared in the United States and Canada. In the case of the United States, this growth in the community of defectors can be explained by the implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004 and its reauthorization in 2008. The North Korean Human Rights Act made the position of the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues to work with international organizations, bilateral partners of the United States, and Non-Governmental Organizations in identification of concrete ways to improve human rights conditions inside North Korea and in encouragement of the North Korean government to respect the rights of its citizens.

The current Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, Robert R. King, explains the State Department’s current actions in regards to North Korean human rights issues in his statement before the House Committee on foreign affairs in Washington, DC on 2nd of June of last year. In his address, King describes some of the key measures being taken by the U.S. State Department in cooperation with human rights organizations. Among some of the measures taken to ameliorate the situation, King informs the House Committee that the North Korea Human Rights Act has authorized funding to promote rule of law, protect human rights, increase freedom of the press and media, and build a civil society in North Korea while facilitating NGO and defector organizations within South Korea. Moreover, King informs us that the United States has resettled 120 North Korean refugee families since 2004 through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and that the U.S. has increased its commitment to receiving refugees from North Korea in particular. Though vague, King’s statement at least shows that a more sincere interest is being taken in the human rights issues of the DPRK.

However, despite King’s enthusiasm on the matter, in her article Admitting North Korean Refugees to the United States: Obstacles and Opportunities, Roberta Cohen argues that there are many barriers to the State Department’s commitment to increased reception of North Korean refugees. Although there has been a lot of progress, considering the United States has the largest refugee resettlement program worldwide and receives hundreds and thousands of refugees from other nations such as Iraq, Burma, Somalia, and Eritrea, one can argue that 120 refugees as of 2004 is not nearly enough. So what prevents North Koreans from gaining admission into the United States?

In her article, Cohen argues a variety of obstacles to North Koreans’ admission to the United States. First, America’s general attitude is that North Korean refugees should be going to South Korea because of their shared ethnicity, language, culture, and history. Second, there has been a misinterpretation of the South Korean Constitution that United States officials have rendered all defecting North Koreans as ineligible for refugee status in the United States. Third, there is a long delay taken for the United States to process North Korean applications for asylum; consequently, many North Koreans have withdrawn their applications and have sought resettlement in South Korea instead. Lastly, the attitude of other governments such as China also presents an obstacle because they are hesitant to let the United States establish refugee resettlement programs in their countries, which would flood these nations with refugees and potentially strain their delicate relations with the unpredictable Pyongyang.

Overall, most North Korean defectors do seek asylum and resettlement in South Korea. However, the United States is an enticing alternative because of the diversity of its educational and economic opportunities. Also, South Korea’s close proximity to North Korea causes unease about the safety of families left behind. Therefore, for the North Korean defectors who hope to find something new and to explore a different society, it will be important for the United States to continue its efforts in support of the North Korean Human Rights Act to increase resettlement of North Korean refugees in the United States.

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