This was on assignment from the Ministry of Unification’s Resettlement Support Division, the department that looks after North Korean refugees during their integration process. I looked into Chinese, South Korean, US, Australian, UK, and Canadian policies with respect to North Korean refugees—those are at least the countries with plentiful information available in English about their policies, and generally are also the ones with the greatest influx of North Korean refugees.
At first I slogged. I slogged through government reports offering general overviews of North Korea. Overviews of its refugees, and overviews of other countries’ policies. I also slogged through:
- Reports by NGOs
- Operational guidance documents for UK immigration control agents
- Australian court records reviewing asylum applications
- US, Korean, and pan-Asian newspaper articles
- Scholarly journal articles on international security
But soon I slogged no more. The stuff was fascinating! It is, in fact, very interesting to learn what refugees can expect after leaving one of the most isolated countries in the world, and especially interesting to stitch together those different pictures into an integrated view of what exactly is going on. Learning in detail about specific refugee cases, country policies, and the ways some countries’ policies affect the others. Decisions and the inquiry process and how the path of refugees is decided; the considerations that have to be weighed. And some of the sources provided such incredible detail! The Australian court cases, in particular. I’ll get to that in my next post.
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Most foreign governments treat North Koreans as refugees, and will offer either asylum, humanitarian protection, or transport to a country of first refuge. In the North Korean case, that country of first refuge is almost always South Korea, since all North Korean citizens have an automatic right to South Korean citizenship (the South Korean constitution recognizes all people born on the Korean peninsula as its citizens). South Korea is therefore the country of first refuge, and most countries treat international protection as a measure of last resort only.
The US is a major exception, and has one of the most progressive attitudes toward North Korean refugees of all the Anglophone countries, granting them support and asylum regardless of South Korea’s policy. The passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 (and its reauthorization in 2008) authorized admittance for North Korean refugees seeking asylum in the United States, and also set human rights as a priority for US foreign policy concerning North Korea.
Still, all of the North Korean refugees with legal status in the US (since it opened its doors in 2004) would easily fit inside the coffee shop I’m currently writing in. Some report that the US screens out two-thirds of asylum applicants. By comparison, over 20,000 North Korean refugees have been settled in South Korea.
Either way, the existence of a concrete settlement option for refugees outside of South Korea is significant. I give US international policy a pat on the back for that one.
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Throughout all of my readings, I kept coming back to one lynchpin: the funnel of refugees through China. Virtually all of the refugees leaving North Korea go through China, so Chinese policy has by far the greatest weight for refugees. Quoting my research:
“China is the only country with significant dealings with North Korea to not recognize its defectors as refugees. Due to its close ties with North Korea, its fears of larger tides of refugees, and its wariness of regional destabilization, China’s official policy is to treat defectors as “illegal economic migrants” and to deport them back to North Korea.
This deportation policy is the major human rights issue facing refugees, and effecting its change should be the cornerstone of all interested agents’ agendas with respect to improving the situation of North Korean refugees. China has shown that it is willing to bend on this policy: it allows refugees to leave when pressured by media interest, and grants ID cards in rural areas to North Korean women who marry Chinese men. This shows that China will act rationally when its interests (e.g. rural gender imbalance) are at stake, and that the Chinese state is susceptible to media pressure.
Even if outright policy change is infeasible, changing the de facto status of refugees is possible and necessary—and concerted action by news organizations, NGOs, the UN, and influential states has great potential to improve the lives of North Korean refugees.”
The conclusion: in this, as in other areas, China is the key!