Onward Migration: Why Do North Korean Migrants Leave South Korea?

By | February 26, 2018 | No Comments

“Houses of Parliament,” a series of oil paintings by Claude Monet (the one shown here is “Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard” or “Sunlight in the fog”), gives an impression of London in the distance. The UK, a preferred destination for many North Korean migrants, is also quite distant for those in Northeast Asia. | Image: Wikicommons

For North Koreans considering a new life in South Korea, there are two basic and competing narratives: South Korea is the land of milk and honey, or it is a place of capitalist exploitation and class-based inequality (Sino-NK has studied discourse on the latter). Neither is completely true, but there are kernels of truth in both narratives.

On the one hand, as a developing body of literature indicates, many North Korean migrants are successfully integrating into South Korea’s democratic society. However, not all of them integrate. Many seek onward migration and secondary asylum after arrival to South Korea. This phenomenon may seem puzzling at first, but the decision to forgo resettlement in South Korea has a clear rationale. Their decision to exit, or vote with their feet, underscores the very real struggle many North Korean migrants face. Reflecting upon several years worth of fieldwork in the United Kingdom, where many migrants chose to migrate, Dr. Jay Song (University of Melbourne) shares what she learned about North Korean migrants who leave South Korea. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

Onward Migration: Why Do North Korean Migrants Leave South Korea?

by Jay Song

Why do North Koreans leave South Korea? After all the difficulties endured in escaping political repression and hunger in North Korea, making their way through China, Thailand and Laos, and then re-settling in a country which provides relatively substantial resettlement support, they still chose to move onward. The number of North Korean secondary asylum seekers from South Korea has grown markedly in the last decade. Among top destinations, over a thousand applications for refugee status were submitted in the United Kingdom (UK) between 2000 and 2015 (see figure below). Starting in 2011, I conducted 6 years-worth of semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, and participatory observation of North Koreans in the UK in order to understand the motivations and methods of their journeys from South Korea. The findings from this study were recently published in Migration Studies.What I found was both saddening and surprising, as well as somewhat shameful as a South Korean researcher. Many North Koreans describe a glass ceiling in South Korea for Koreans born in the DPRK: discrimination based on their place of origin and lack of market-ready talent. My co-author, Markus Bell, has long seen social mobility for resettled North Korean migrants as limited in South Korea. These challenges were sufficient to motivation North Koreans to seek secondary asylum in a country where they cannot speak their native language freely. They sought opportunities for improved living, welfare, and educational conditions for their children in the UK. These are the push and pull factors that explain the transnational movement of North Koreans.

What’s more, I found that brokers play a crucial role in this onward migration process. After many years of trust-building, I managed to get access to them and their largely untold stories on how they recruited prospective asylum seekers wanting to resettle in the UK. They were not part of criminal gangs but ordinary people with dense social networks. They are intelligent, adventurous, and responsive to complex environments. They fed information through personal and professional networks and recruited North Koreans who were looking for better opportunities elsewhere, as equally adventurous and intelligent as the brokers themselves.

Laypeople, and many well-informed academics, tend to see North Koreans as helpless victims of Asiatic dictators in need of saviors. This is an unfortunate stereotype. Refugees are highly intelligent human beings with full agency to employ their multiple identities and to exercise their mobility whenever and wherever they can. North Koreans I met in the UK were indeed not poor in South Korea. They were better off than average North Koreans. They were subjectively happier (the suicide rate among North Koreans in South Korea is 3-4 times higher than the national average) and more entrepreneurial (unemployment and lack of employable skillsets are barriers for many North Koreans). They were well-connected, well-funded, and sufficiently educated. These traits enabled them to travel all the way to the UK to claim refugee status. They are true survivors. Ironically many who tell their story — academics and non-academics alike — do not like tales of survival. They prefer the story of North Koreans as poor and helpless victims.

North Korean life in the UK, however, comes with its own set of challenges. Language is an obvious obstacle for those newly arrived, but the second generation of resettled North Korean migrants pick up English very quickly. Some speak with perfect British accents. There are also co-ethnic or ideological frictions among North Korean themselves, with the Korean-Chinese, and with native-born South Koreans. The friction between North Koreans and the Korean-Chinese is especially high as they both compete for work with South Korean employers. More substantively, many North Koreans favor socialist systems over free-market capitalism. (With its greater social protections and market regulations, the UK is seen as a preferential destination, a few told me.) Lastly, maintaining a Korean identity was a concern for some North Korean parents whose children were born in South Korea, but raised in the UK.

It’s been a fascinating journey for myself as a researcher to see how my fellow Koreans from the North have survived beyond the Korean peninsula. Going forward, I intend to compare North Korean diaspora communities in the UK, Canada, and Australia, to see how their motivations and modes differ.

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