North Korean Refugees

By Verity Kang

In light of the recent well-publicized and harrowing sprint of a defecting North Korean soldier across the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea, the world has been dramatically reminded of the humanitarian crises happening every day in North Korea.[1] The question, then, becomes: What are we doing about it?

The North Korean Rights Act of 2004 was enacted in the United States in an effort to increase humanitarian aid for North Koreans attempting to flee from their isolated home nation. Lindsay Lloyd, deputy director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, has estimated that approximately 225 North Korean refugees have been directly granted asylum in the United States since the act’s passing.[2] However, the number of North Korean refugees in the United States is a small percentage of the total number of refugees admitted into the country. For example, only 25 out of the 73,293 refugees brought into the United States in 2010 came from North Korea.[3] In comparison, thousands of refugees were admitted to the country from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Cuba, and other nations.[4]

As exemplified by the story of the defecting soldier’s sprint to freedom, North Korea is notorious for the incredible difficulty its citizens face in attempting to leave the country. It is illegal for the North Korean people to leave the country without the repressive regime’s permission, and the movements of North Koreans are restricted even within their own country.[5] North Koreans attempting to flee the nation to escape systematic human rights violations committed by the government face an arduous journey that some do not survive.[6] Attempted escapees who are caught or returned to the country are likely to be met by persecution, torture, and punishment as grave as death sentences.[7] Further, China has been cracking down on North Korean escapees who are attempting to move through China in order to seek protection in a third-party country.[8] North Koreans Humans Rights Watch has reported that among the 92 North Koreans caught and detained in China since June 2016 were 11 children, 4 elderly women, and a newborn baby.[9] Further, the North Koreans Humans Rights Watch believes that China has undermined the capability of networks helping North Koreans to pass through China to resettle safely in countries by arresting a number of local guides.[10] China has often designated North Korean refugees as illegal “economic immigrants” and thus has systematically returned North Korean escapees to potential death sentences in North Korea.[11] Thus, in light of this increasing risk for North Korean escapees, the United States must take more initiative in both pressuring China to reconsider its dangerous practices and facilitating the resettlement of North Koreans within our own country.

Though the North Korean Rights Act of 2004 was a step in the right direction, North Koreans face many obstacles in achieving refugee status in the United States. The difficulty that this particularly vulnerable population faces in receiving refugee status in the United States may be in part due to an expectation that South Korea is responsible for taking in the North Korean people.[12] North Koreans may obtain automatic citizenship in South Korea after a mandatory three-month admission process.[13] Further, North Koreans are granted a right to citizenship in South Korea under the South Korean constitution.[14] The North Korean Rights Act of 2004 asserted that North Koreans may apply for refugee status or asylum in the United States so long as they do not avail themselves of their legal right to citizenship in South Korea.[15] Though the majority of North Koreans prefer to resettle in South Korea, there are a variety of reasons that some wish to make a life in the United States. The United States offers unique educational and economic opportunities and greater physical distance from the horrors of the dictatorship these refugees have fled, and it has been reported that North Koreans are often subject to discrimination in South Korea.[16] The difficulty with the North Korean Rights Act’s requirement that North Koreans opt out of citizenship in South Korea is that it forces North Koreans to choose between South Korea and the United States under uniquely difficult circumstances. Koreans have been isolated and indoctrinated against the United States, and have faced a harrowing journey out of their home nation.[17] Further, there is a long delay in the processing of North Korean claims for refugee status in the United States that can last from six months to a year to even, in rare cases, two years.[18] In contrast, North Koreans may be resettled in South Korea within weeks.[19]

Though it is easy to assume that North Koreans should and will resettle in South Korea, the discrepancy in numbers between North Koreans admitted as refugees in the United States and other western countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany shows that North Koreans are looking outside of Asia to resettle and that there is more that may be done in the United States specifically.[20] By attempting to reduce the processing time of North Korean claims, considering special grounds for resettlement or even special immigrant visas for North Koreans, and reevaluating what it means to be “firmly resettled” under the North Korean Rights Act for North Koreans who have gained South Korean citizenship, the United States should recognize and reevaluate the legal obstacles that have limited North Korean refugee resettlement within this country.[21] In a time where North Korean leadership has shown increasing volatility and in the midst of an anti-humanitarian Chinese crackdown on North Korean escapees, North Koreans are truly in need of our attention. The United States must consider the young North Korean soldier, his desperate flight and the brutality from which he fled. For him and the countless like him, we can, and must, do more.

 

 

[1] Marwa Eltagouri, What we’ve learned about the North Korean soldier whose daring escape was caught on video, Washington Post (Nov. 24, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/11/24/what-weve-learned-about-the-north-korean-soldier-whose-daring-escape-was-caught-on-video/.

[2] Shachar Peled, North Korean defectors, resettled in the US, torn as tensions escalate, CNN (Sept. 17, 2017), http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/17/us/north-koreans-defectors-us/index.html.

[3] Roberta Cohen, Admitting North Korean Refugees to the United States: Obstacles and Opportunities, Brookings (Sept. 20, 2011), https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/admitting-north-korean-refugees-to-the-united-states-obstacles-and-opportunities/.

[4] Id.

[5] The People’s Challenges, Liberty in North Korea, https://www.libertyinnorthkorea.org/learn-nk-challenges/; Ana Fifield, Life Under Kim Jong-Un, Washington Post (Nov. 17, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/world/north-korea-defectors/.

[6] Phil Robertson, North Korean Refugees Trapped by China’s Expanding Dragnet, Human Rights Watch (Sept. 18, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/18/north-korean-refugees-trapped-chinas-expanding-dragnet.

[7] Id.; China: Don’t Force 8 Refugees Back to North Korea, Human Rights Watch (April 23, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/23/china-dont-force-8-refugees-back-north-korea.

[8] Robertson, supra note 5.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Cohen, supra note 2.

[13] Hollie McKay, How many defectors escape North Korea and why don’t we hear more from them?, Fox News (October 19, 2017), http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/10/19/how-many-defectors-escape-north-korea-and-why-dont-hear-more-from-them.html.

[14] Cohen, supra note 2.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

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