Implications of the North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012 and Tasks Ahead

A child looks out of a kindergarten in the North Korean city of Hyangsan.

  On January 1, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a new legislation regarding the protection of “stateless” North Korean children. In the subsequent weeks, the unanimously consented bill, named as the “North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012,” has taken effect after President Obama signed off on it.

“North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012,” requires the U.S. Secretary of State to “advocate for the best interests of North Korean children and children of one North Korean parent, including, when possible, facilitating immediate protection for those living outside North Korea through family reunification or, if appropriate and eligible in individual cases, domestic or international adoption.”[1]

In order to avoid provoking the country of concern, China, terms of the bill have been modified and protection measures have been extended to welfare aid. American government will promote family reunification or adoption for North Korean defector children and children of one North Korean parent. Department of State will appoint a representative in charge of briefing the congress on the current conditions, supportive measures, and adoption strategies of children who have defected from North Korea and also North Korean defector women’s children who were born outside of North Korea.

According to the research studies conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2010[2], the number of defectors has decreased due to tightened border security, while the number of China-born children of North Korean defector women has risen. Some of these children end up becoming “stateless” because extreme poverty and unstable status of their mothers prevent registration of these children as Chinese citizens However, the figures of children without nationality presented by NGOs are somewhat inaccurate because they tend to overlook the complexity of the situation in efforts to promote awareness of the issue.

Legally, a child of North Korean defector woman born in China can acquire Chinese nationality, following his or her father; or North Korean or South Korean nationality, following his or her mother. Obtaining a DPRK nationality is not likely. However, once the mother enters South Korea, the child is protected as a ROK citizen after family relationship registration. Under these circumstances, many China-born children of North Korean defector women have been accompanying their mothers or coming into South Korea after their mother’s arrival. Problems incur when these children are brought into South Korea without the consent of the Chinese father, in which the conflict of parental rights may rise. Since the South Korean government is aware of these practices, China may hold the ROK government accountable for tolerating such practices in the administrative process.

Ratification of the North Korean Child Welfare Act is expected to spread interest in activities related to North Korean defector children and China-born children of North Korean defector women among numerous NGOs, specifically Korean American citizen or North Korean defector groups. During this process, it is highly likely that many Korean-descent Chinese children will pose as children of North Korean defectors in order to become a South Korean citizen, because there is difficulty in distinguishing the two. For the successful implementation of the bill, the U.S. Department of State must continue to work with the Ministry of Unification and researchers who have conducted the studies in China, and ensure that policy discussions are based on objective analysis of the current situation.


[1] North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012, H.R. 1464, 112th Cong. (2012)

[2] Courtland Robinson, “North Korea: Migration Patterns and Prospects” (Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, 2010).

Photo Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-1300950/The-country-birthdays-banned-Its-people-brainwashed-dirt-poor-starving-Now-prize-winning-book-reveals-time-shocking-inside-story-North-Korea-NOTHING-TO-ENVY-BY-BARBARA-DEMICK.html

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