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Why the Preference Towards Third Countries?

Ryu Kyung Ah


Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

As of December 2015, there were 28,795 North Korean defectors in South Korea. Although approximately 3000 defectors entered South Korea during 2009, there has been a gradual decrease, as less than 1300 defectors entered in 2015. North Korean defectors are granted citizenship and provided with the opportunity to settle in South Korea.

On the other hand, there has been an increase in the number of defectors relocating and applying for refugee status in “third countries”. There have been more defectors moving from countries used as a route out of North Korea such as China, Mongolia, and Thailand, into the USA, Canada, and the UK. According to last year’s parliamentary audit, out of 791 North Korean defectors who were classified as having an unknown residence after entering South Korea, 664 of them are reported to have left the country. The number of defectors who have officially applied to relocate in third countries has increased from 11 in 2013, 15 in 2014, to 22 in 2015. The number of defectors moving out of South Korea is estimated to increase to between 3000 and 4000. One in ten North Korean defectors is suggested to be leaving South Korea. Nevertheless, exact figures cannot be confirmed.

Although there has been a growing trend in the number of North Korean defectors approved of refugee status, the current situation has changed. According to the UNHCR in June 2015, there are 1079 cases where North Korean defectors have been approved as refugees, while 294 cases remain on hold. (Numbers are lower than previous reports as after a certain period of time, refugees granted permanent residency or citizenship are no longer classified as defectors). Since the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 in the USA, 194 defectors have been accepted as refugees. However, the ratio of defectors approved as refugees is decreasing. In Canada, starting from 2000, 64 defectors were granted refugee status in 2009, 115 people in 2011, and 222 in 2012. Then, in 2014, only one of the 642 cases received refugee status approval. In the past year, only two out of 86 cases were accepted. A similar trend has also developed in Europe. In the UK, 30 out of 40 defectors requesting refugee status in 2013, and 17 out of 23 applying in 2014, were rejected. There are approximately 700 defectors in the UK who have been approved as refugees. Only five out of 29 refugee applicants were rejected in the Netherlands during 2012, but 128 out of 140 cases were rejected in 2013. This phenomenon has also occurred in Belgium and France. There has been a growing number of defectors who, despite having already received citizenship in South Korea, have been seeking to relocate in third countries by posing as defectors. This has resulted in tougher standards for refugee eligibility.

North Korean defectors leaving South Korea are not necessarily those who have struggled to adjust to South Korean society. Instead, they tend to be people who were educated at good universities and dream of a more fulfilling life. There are various indicators suggesting life in South Korea is difficult to cope with. Although dropout rates for primary and secondary education in defectors has lowered significantly from 10.8% in 2008 to 2.5% in 2014, it remains higher than the percentage for ordinary South Korean students, which is just 0.9%. The unemployment rate for North Korean defectors has also experienced a major decline to 6.2% in 2014. According to a survey on North Korean defectors conducted by Korea Hana Foundation, the percentage of North Korean defectors identified as having a low socioeconomic status was 61.4% - above the rate for ordinary South Korean citizens from the 2015 survey for Korea National Statistical Office. Furthermore, the average monthly wage for defectors is 751,000 won less than the average for ordinary citizens. Quality of life for North Korean defectors has improved in comparison to what existed for them in North Korea. Yet disparities exist between defectors and ordinary South Korean citizens. Additionally, the fact that highly educated defectors are moving out of South Korea suggests that there are class gaps which cannot be overcome. Through conducting a range of studies on defectors leaving North Korea, the causes may be identified.

Ordinary citizens also choose to emigrate from South Korea for a variety of reasons. However, North Korean defectors’ struggles with settling in South Korea and deciding to move to a third country is particularly significant when considering the possibility of reunification in the Korean peninsula. Policymakers must deliberate on how we should live together post-reunification. Following the German reunification, citizens of East Germany faced psychological and economic marginalization as “second class citizens” (Burger zweiter Klasse). “Ossi-Wessi” and “Ostalgie” were terms reflecting this reality. The differences in skills, culture, and knowledge between South Korea and North Korea are increasingly vast. There will be more pain and hardships than there was in the German reunification. It has already been over 15 years since North Korean defectors began to officially enter South Korea in the late 1990s. There has been trial and error with various policies. The experiences of defectors should serve as a guideline for a reunified Korean society. Current limitations in social integration and social support policies should be acknowledged, as thorough preparation for reunification is necessary.

Translated by Hyunju Ban

***The views herein do not necessarily represent the views of North Korean Review, YINKS, or Yonsei University.

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