The Weight of an Applicant’s Spectacles

“There is great hardship in North Korea.” So runs the first line of a summary of an applicant’s claim for an Australian protection visa.

These court cases are fascinating. At times they are impersonal, filled with case numbers and legal abbreviations and impenetrable prose. But sometimes little details blink out like a star in a hole in the clouds, and it is refreshing.

RRT case number 1001549-843 concerned three refugees: a mother, and her two daughters. It was reviewed over the course of several months in late 2010 and resulted in the withdrawal of the application for protection visas as invalid. It is particularly rich with detail on the path out of North Korea, and the following is an overview of the applicant’s testimony.

The applicant left North Korea because she did not have enough money to support her family. She had tried to supplement her husband’s mine-supervisor income of a few dollars per month by making and selling some kind of beer at home, but she was caught. Alcohol is illegal in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because it diverts food staples. The police took away her equipment and questioned her several times. This is December 2008.

Her family unable to make ends meet, she resolved to leave in January. Her husband had arrived home from work early in the day, had drunk alcohol, and was resting. His wife and two daughters left while he was lying down—without his knowledge, and without saying goodbye. It was around 5:00 or 6:00pm. A military doctor drove her to the border, and a border guard helped her cross the river into China after the full moon was covered by clouds at 4:20am. She promised to pay him back later.

View of North Korea from across the river in China

Once in China she knocked on doors until she found an elderly lady who let her stay in an extra bedroom. She attended religious gatherings and got to know a priest, who eventually helped her on the 15-hour bus ride to Beijing and gave her fake passports and tickets to fly to Australia.

She knew that North Koreans are citizens of South Korea by the SK constitution, but was afraid of spies learning of her presence if she went. She also mistrusted the SK authorities. So Australia was her next best refuge.

No country offers easy refuge, and over the course of her application for protection we learn the details of Australia’s refusal. At one hearing, there seem to have been some questions on the veracity of the applicant’s story. She claimed to have left all identity papers and documents at home.

“At the Tribunal’s request, she attempted to recall and draw the features of her card. She did so with difficulty. She said that she had not studied it well, and could recall only vaguely that it included an emblem with a factory and rays of sunshine. She was unsure whether the ID number was recorded at the top or the bottom of the card, but settled for the bottom.”

Upon further questioning, the sketch of her life in North Korea fills in. She lived in Musan city. Her husband was a mine worker, a supervisor of some sort; her parents lived in the city as well, and her father grew beans and corn in the mountains outside the city to supplement their diet.

Her daughters were now high school age. They had gone to kindergarten for one year, elementary school for four, and then high school for six years. At least once they had stopped going to school because of a food shortage. They wore a uniform for high school, maybe blue, although she did not remember when they had started wearing it. She also remembered her children being measured for school shoes at the end of elementary school, but they never got the shoes. In the words of the court, the shoes “had not eventuated.”

“The Tribunal asked about badges and other insignia or paraphernalia. The applicant replied that parents had to buy a flag and badges, but she was very vague as to what these involved. The Tribunal expressed surprise that she did not recall these more easily. The applicant recalled, again with difficulty, that there was a decorative badge with a flame appearing on the top. She thought that it had the motto ‘[motto deleted: s.431(2)]’ on it. She drew this for the Tribunal. She commented that these were previously given out free, but parents had to buy them nowadays.”

The Tribunal grew more suspicious. Inquiring into details about her escape, she did not know the name of the priest who had helped her. Similarly, she was unable to provide details on her route out of China. “The Tribunal flagged that it did not believe that the applicants were trying very hard to assist. The applicant said that she had never travelled before, and simply did not notice her surroundings.”

The Tribunal wondered if the applicants were really North Korean refugees, as they claimed—or, if they were, if their escape was as recent as they claimed. Or they might be North Koreans who had already settled in South Korea. The applicants attempted to give a few more details, and the Tribunal questioned the daughters.

They were able to name songs they knew from North Korea, and gave the words of one devoted to Kim Jong Il. They recognized photographs of Kim Jong Il and Kim Song Il, and named their birthdays.

The Tribunal also observed that the second-named applicant wore spectacle frames that looked fashionable and perhaps expensive, and asked where these were from. She replied that they came from China and said, cautiously, that she had obtained them some months before leaving China.”

The Tribunal is skeptical. But, in the end, the Tribunal seems to accept the authenticity of the applicants’ claims, though it doubts how truthful they are being about the details since their escape. I think the spectacle frames in particular give it pause, and it also cites their unforthcomingness in the details of their journey. But it accepts them as North Korean citizens of one vein or another, and now must determine if it needs to offer them protection under the 1951 Refugees Convention.

In the end, the Tribunal finds the applicants to have dual nationality, the second being South Korean by virtue of South Korea’s constitution and legal practices regarding North Korean refugees. The Refugees Convention requires that refugees be possessed of a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their country of nationality; the Tribunal finds that the applicant’s fear of South Korea is not well-founded, and that the applicant must go there. The Tribunal very carefully considers South Korean legal practice on effective citizenship in South Korea, and spends ten pages discussing various sources of information on the matter. “Theoretical” citizenship is considered in relation to legal citizenship in relation to “effective” citizenship; rights are considered in the Hohlfedian sense, and I recognize that these may not be interesting to everyone, so I omit them here.

And so the protection visa is denied, and our view of the story concludes.

We assume that the applicant and her daughters were bundled off to South Korea, where they were almost certainly recognized as citizens, and screened by the government before going to Hanawon for a three-month orientation on South Korea. Maybe the daughters, of high school age, even went to Hangyeorae School to finish their schooling. Maybe I met them, or saw them in a corridor, when I taught there in August 2011. What if?!

The review itself of the court case makes for fascinating reading, and I highly recommend it for its matter-of-fact, courtly style, which gives an authority to its details that my summary cannot. All quotations above are from this document.

One thought on “The Weight of an Applicant’s Spectacles

  1. Pingback: The Weight Of An Applicant’s Spectacles « jay mcnair

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