Webcast Recap

North Koreans living abroad face more than the usual difficulties of expatriate individuals and communities. What are the special circumstances and challenges to integration that North Koreans living in South Korea face? How have refugees from the political oppression and starvation of the North fared when they have fled across the border to China? What is the status of North Korean associations in Japan? Do any or all of these groups have any broader significance for the societies in which they now reside? On February 15, the Asia Program, in association with the North Korea International Documentation Project and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, hosted an event to examine these questions.

Apichai Shipper, visiting scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, outlined the history and the identity politics of North Korean organizations in Japan. Many Koreans migrated to Japan, either voluntarily or by force, after Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and subsequently instituted mobilization and conscription policies. At the end of the Second World War there were some 2 million Koreans in Japan. Partly because the Japanese Communist Party was effective in organizing Korean residents, 500,000 of the 620,000 who chose to stay in Japan after the 1945-1952 Allied Occupation identified themselves as zainichi chosenjin – North Koreans in Japan. For the most part, their ancestors have discarded this affiliation and naturalized as Japanese citizens often as a consequence of marriage to other Japanese. However, roughly 200,000, most of whom were born and raised in Japan, comprise the zainichi chosenjin in Japan today.

Chongryun, the highly centralized organization claiming to represent the zainichi chosenjin, maintains schools, a university, and a credit union, and offers forms of social welfare, employment, and competitive home loans. It also acts as the institutionalized "voice," and even as the unofficial embassy, for North Korea (DPRK), and its actions are tightly controlled from Pyongyang. According to Shipper, its function is to create a sense of long-distance attachment to the North Korean "homeland." Indeed, many ordinary Japanese, not to mention conservative Japanese politicians, view its members as a type of fifth column organization. Shipper noted that Chongryun represents not so much the concerns of North Korean people in Japan, but of the North Korean state. Because it has therefore not attempted to integrate North Koreans into Japanese society, Chongryun is a barrier to true multiculturalism in Japan.

South Korea has, somewhat counter-intuitively, had far less experience with North Koreans within its borders. In 1993, when Seoul changed its policy towards North Korean "migrants"—which Hazel Smith, professor at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, prefers as a politically neutral term that allows room for rational debate—there were only 34 such individuals in South Korea. Before that year, North Korean migrants were given financial rewards proportionate to the value of the intelligence they provided the South Korean government. However, because South Korean intelligence was consistently searching for North Korean threats, the rewards scheme created a moral hazard. While North Korean migrants would not necessarily lie about the conditions in their homeland, there were "structural incentives to make sure the complexities in their stories were ironed out" to emphasize North Korea's evilness and irrationality. This led to a law change, whereby instead of receiving funds for information, North Korean migrants were instead given set allowances.

The number of North Korean migrants in South Korea has risen dramatically since 1993, when famine wracked the DPRK. Now there are more than 20,000. Most face culture shock when they settle in the South, but this is often compounded by other problems. Migrants from the North are subject to a debriefing and 3-month resettlement program, and are expected to complete vocational training before they receive their full allowance. Nevertheless, most remain unemployed, and there are plenty of "second generation" issues as well. Most children of North Korean migrants do not do well at school in South Korea, and many are bullied and drop out. Migrants from the North also suffer significant mental anguish: in 2008 seven committed suicide in South Korea. In response to these problems, the South Korean government has recently established policies, such as a hotline and a stipulation that at least 1 percent of government employees must be North Korean migrants.

Part of the reason such migrants face mental anguish is that many are subject to a traumatic journey through China to the South. According to Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, the abusive treatment that North Korean refugees often receive in China is one of the "most avoidable human rights tragedies in the world today." In theory, China could simply send North Korean refugees to South Korea, where they are legally recognized as citizens. However, Beijing fears that such a policy might actually encourage destabilizing refugee flows. In 1986, China therefore agreed with the DPRK that it would classify North Koreans who had fled into China as "economic migrants" and send them back to the North, where torture and death at the hands of the Kim regime await them. China also jails its own citizens for helping North Korean refugees.

This has meant that even entry into China, let alone travel from there to a third country, is fraught with danger for North Korean refugees. Because North Korea has adopted a "military first" strategy where important resources are diverted to the (predominantly male) armed forces, there is a high ratio of women among those who choose to flee North Korea. Although they may want to travel on to South Korea, often they do not get further than China. Scholte stated as many as 80 percent of North Korean women in China are subject to human trafficking, often sold as wives to Chinese citizens or as commodities in the Internet pornography market. While there have been positive moves to protect the rights of North Koreans elsewhere, the effect of these efforts is limited without the cooperation of the Chinese government. For example, the North Korean Human Rights Act, passed by the United States in 2004, provides funding to help North Koreans, but such assistance cannot reach those most in need when China does not recognize the refugee status of North Koreans within its territory. Scholte believes that the international community needs to place pressure on China to protect the human rights of those who have fled the Kim regime.

By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program