North Koreans in America

Not many North Koreans make it to America. I know that there have been a few; “six” is the number that first comes to mind as a result of my research last summer. I don’t think six is accurate. But it comes to mind.

The vast majority of North Korean refugees are in China (some 300,000), and then there are many in South Korea (well over 20,000) and a few in scattered countries like Thailand or Australia. But the U.S. gets peculiarly few.

The distance is a clear factor; the U.S. is 7,000 miles and the world’s largest ocean away from North Korea, so a refugee requires particular resolve to make it all the way to the United States. Most refugees probably don’t have the U.S. in mind as an end point; South Korea is the standard destination, as it shares North Korean language and culture. Still, the U.S. has admitted some North Korean refugees since the 2004 passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA).

My “six” that I had in mind was not the right number, but it was a right number: a group of six refugees in 2006 were first ever to be admitted to the U.S. under the auspices of the NKHRA. The right number—the total number of North Korean refugees in the U.S.— is higher, but not by much.

In 2010, the New York Times reported that there were 99 North Korean refugees in the United States. That’s so few as to be almost none. The article noted that federal officials weren’t even allowed to say the exact number of how many refugees there are in any particular city, claiming that if North Korean representatives knew exactly how many individuals to look for, they could track them down.

Those ninety-nine do not include North Koreans here with a visa but no refugee status—that number may be in the thousands, the article said, and the number of undocumented North Koreans in-country is probably higher.

The U.S. government supports incoming refugees, contracting with agencies such as the International Rescue Committee provide food, housing, clothing, employment training, medical care, English language classes, and counseling for the first 90 days of resettlement. This is a much-needed help, as refugees come with very few resources. Still, government support alone is inadequate.

It’s tough to find information on individual North Koreans in the United States; they tend to lead low-profile lives, for good reason, and there simply aren’t that many of them. Earlier this year, though, Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh profiled the difficulties faced by North Koreans in America. There is a pervasive sense of hardship and isolation; professional advancement is blocked to them, and cultural and language barriers make connecting with other Americans especially difficult for older refugees. The Korean church is a powerful networking organization, but opportunities remain limited.

In many ways, refugees face the same situation wherever they go, whether it’s America or Korea: the cultural, technological, educational differences between refugee and country of refuge make a sense of belonging very difficult to come by. Even someone with a degree from a North Korean university will often be reduced to low-wage labor, since their outdated education and training are largely unvalued by American employers.

Immigrant life in the U.S. is rarely easy, and it’s especially tough for North Koreans due to the cultural gap between the two countries. But it hasn’t been long since North Korean refugees were first admitted to the U.S., and their numbers are rapidly growing since those first six in 2006. As their ranks increase, support systems need to grow beyond what the government offers. Genuine assimilation requires widespread and sustained commitment at the community level, and such support requires awareness to grow.



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