South Korea: New Beacon for Refugees
Near South Korea’s main international airport, the national government is constructing a type of building never seen before in this country—a large complex capable of accommodating more than 1,000 refugee applicants.
As South Korea becomes more developed and better-known, with its TV shows and pop music appreciated around the world, the country is receiving more refugee applicants, and the government is still figuring out how to handle them. South Korea also receives many escapees from North Korea—more than 1,000 per year in the past, which complicates relations with Pyongyang and Beijing.
Between 1994 and 2003, South Korea received only 251 refugee applications from non-North Koreans. That number jumped to 1,143 in 2012—with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal being the three most common countries of origin. A fairly low portion of those applicants is being accepted: Between 1994 and 2003, 14 were accepted; 60 applications were successful in 2012. In contrast, fewer North Koreans are arriving in Seoul nowadays. After increasing steadily for years, the number of defectors went down sharply in 2012, the lowest level in seven years, believed to be because leader Kim Jong-un has tightened border security.
As a country that thinks of itself as ethnically homogeneous, South Korea doesn’t have a strong culture of welcoming outsiders, but as a developed power, it has signed international agreements and enacted its own law that promises fair treatment for refugees and acceptance of applicants deemed to be deserving.
South Korea became the first country in East Asia to enact its own refugee law when last year it passed its Refugee Act, which took effect July 1. The act details the process for refugee status application and processing, as well as criteria for acceptance. It stipulates the provision of assistance for applicants, including translation services. The law was enacted partly in response to pressure from civic groups who argued that refugee applicants did not have a fair chance to make their case for staying in South Korea, often lacking consultation on how to navigate the country’s legal system.
The new refugee center is in Yeongjong Island in Incheon, an out-of-the-way location far from public transit and much commercial activity, which will make it difficult for applicants to integrate into local life. Civic groups have argued that refugees should be allowed to live and work freely in South Korea while their cases are under consideration. As of now, they’re not permitted employment. No state funds are provided for basic living expenses, meaning applicants generally must rely on donations to survive.
South Korea is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees, but there’s no binding pressure on the government to adhere to the convention’s dictates. The refugee and genocide conventions are two UN human rights treaties that don’t have an independent monitoring committee or a court that assesses state compliance. Legal experts say this lack of oversight has hampered the treaties’ effectiveness.
North Korean refugees can also arrive in South Korea at Incheon International Airport, but upon arrival are taken to a more comfortable location. Technically, Seoul does not treat the North Koreans as refugees. Unlike refugees from anywhere else in the world, North Koreas are handled by the Ministry of Unification, while the Ministry of Justice handles immigration, including refugees from other countries, with wholly different procedures.
More than 25,000 North Koreans have left North Korea and settled in the South since the combat phase of the Korean War ended in 1953. Most come from the northeastern provinces of North Korea that share borders with China, making a risky trip by foot over mountains and across the Tumen River into China, where they try to blend in with a sizeable Korean minority before making their way via a third country to South Korea.
After an official interrogation to determine they aren’t spies or ethnic Korean Chinese nationals posing as refugees, North Koreans are taken to the Hanawon resettlement center, south of Seoul. At the center, the refugees undergo a three-month education and adaptation program with psychological counseling, job training and education on how to live in a modern, capitalist country. The refugees are then given citizenship and financial assistance in starting life in South Korea.
People who flee danger or poverty in other countries, however, aren’t entitled to the same benefits.
South Korea’s program for integrating and assisting North Korean refugees is the most generous program of its kind anywhere in the world, and some South Koreans see it as a drain on public resources. Others see it as necessary assistance for ethnic brethren who suffered under North Korea’s repressive regime.
The issue of North Korean refugees is a point of contention among North Korea, China and South Korea. China, also a signatory to the UN refugee convention, argues that the North Koreans who flee into its territory are not refugees on the move for humanitarian reasons, but economic migrants seeking work. It therefore argues that the Chinese state has no obligation to care for them and repatriates them to North Korea where they face harsh punishment, including death.
The case of nine young North Korean refugees apprehended in Laos in May of this year illustrates the complexity of refugee status. The nine had fled North Korea months earlier via China and were taken into custody by Laotian police for entering the country without documents. They were then held for a couple of weeks while South and North Korean authorities both made requests for them to be handed over to their diplomatic missions. Laotian authorities eventually transferred them to the North Korean Embassy for flight back to North Korea via China on the grounds that they were North Korean citizens. In June, the nine appeared on North Korean television, pledging allegiance to Kim Jong-un, expressing joy at being back in the North.
North Korea pursues its own refugees most energetically, as the refugees’ desperate wish to live elsewhere is a loss of face for the Pyongyang regime. South Korea was criticized domestically and internationally for making only what were seen as tepid diplomatic efforts to gain custody of the refugees. In response, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised to better coordinate with refugee rights groups and the governments of transit countries to prevent refugees from being handed over to North Korean authorities. Details of these new efforts were not provided, reportedly out of concern for protection of refugees and relations with transit countries.
The refugees’ plight is complicated by the fact that China, the only country with which North Korea has a traversable land border, has a history of alliance with North Korea, dating back to 1950. In addition to wanting to placate Pyongyang by repatriating North Korean refugees, part of China’s motivation is presumably to avoid attracting a larger number of refugees. If China was a safe destination, more North Koreans would likely flee.
South Korea’s policies on handling North Korean refugees and its own refugee act are exceptionally generous for a country that just decades ago was a developing country itself. Following through with these policies for citizens of other countries and providing refugees the room to make comfortable lives for themselves would reconfirm South Korea’s commitment to human rights. South Korea has emerged as a modern technology leader and a welcoming land for refugees, which adds to the nation’s status and may also encourage the arrival of technologists.
Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel among other publications. This first appeared in YaleGlobal, the publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.