Posts Tagged ‘After the Escape’

In rehearsal the other day, it was asked why more North Koreans did not resettle in the United States.  In researching this question, a whole host of others presented themselves:  What factors are preventing North Korean refugees from becoming US citizens after the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was passed?  What are some of the services in place to assist North Koreans in their resettlement to America?  And what is the procedure for a North Korean seeing asylum and resettlement in the United States?

While not every question is answered, a fantastic overview of the problems can be found at the 38north.org, a website “devoted to analysis of North Korea.”

The below are just pertinent excerpts that pertain to the question “why don’t more North Koreans seek resettlement in the United States?”  [Note:  The entire article, a fascinating read, can be found at the following LINK.)

The first obstacle to North Koreans’ gaining refugee admission to the United States is attitude, namely the view that they belong in South Korea. North Koreans share a common ethnicity, language and culture with those in the South and receive generous benefits upon arrival. The Department of State reflected this view in pointing out that South Korea is “the resettlement country of choice in virtually all cases.”[v]

[…]

A second but equally formidable obstacle is a legal one. Under South Korea’s Constitution, North Koreans have the right to citizenship in the South. For many years, the U.S. interpreted this to mean that just about all departing North Koreans were ineligible for U.S. refugee status because they could enjoy the protection of the Republic of Korea. But as the U.S. Government Accounting Office pointed out, this was an “erroneous opinion” since not all North Koreans “are able or willing to relocate in South Korea.”[viii] As a result, the NKHRA asserted that North Koreans could apply for refugee status or asylum in the United States unless they avail themselves of their right to citizenship in South Korea. It made a distinction between having a legal right to citizenship and availing oneself of that right.

[…]

Most North Koreans prefer to go to the South, but some would like to go to the U.S. because of its varied economic and educational opportunities. Others may wish to get away from the discrimination regularly reported in the South where some North Koreans, to fit in, even hide their identity.[x] Still other North Koreans fear that in South Korea information about them could more easily reach the North and harm their families, friends, and professional associates.[xi]

[…]

A third obstacle to North Koreans’ admission as refugees is the long delay the U.S. takes to process North Korean claims. The State Department over the past few years has added staff time and resources to process North Korean cases, pressed Southeast Asian governments to provide exit visas more quickly, and expedited its own security checks.[xvii] But the process can still take from 6 months to a year and in a small number of cases even two years.[xviii] As a result, many North Koreans have withdrawn their applications out of discouragement and frustration. From October 2004 to March 2010, 107 of 238 refugee applicants withdrew their applications,[xix] heading instead to South Korea, which can receive them in a matter of weeks (the most a month or two) and provide far more generous resettlement aid than the United States.[xx]

Again, this is just a small sampling of the wealth of legal and political information contained within the above article.  I think the knowledge contained within this article makes our characters of Minjee and Junhee all the more miraculous due to the fact that there are so many barriers preventing North Korean refugees from entering America.

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Fresh off the press in time for the Company 1 first read of You For Me For You…

Courtesy of Yonhap News:

SEOUL, Oct. 28 (Yonhap) — The annual number of North Koreans defecting to the South is expected to hit the lowest level in seven years this year due to the communist country’s tightened border control under its new leadership, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Sunday.

The number of North Koreans fleeing to the South reached 1,086 during the January-September period, with women refugees accounting for 783 of them, according to the ministry.

By the year’s end, the total number of new North Korean refugees is expected to hit 1,440 for 2012, the first annual figure below the 2,000 level in seven years.

The annual number of North Korean refugees coming to the South reached only several hundred before the year 2000, but it first exceeded the 1,000 level the next year under the Kim Dae-jung administration, known widely for its engagement policy toward the communist North.

Since then, the annual number steadily grew to hit the 2,000 level in 2006 and stayed in the upper range of the 2,000 level for the next five years till last year, according to the ministry data.

The yearly number stood at 2,553 for 2007, 2,804 for 2008, 2,914 for 2009, 2,401 for 2010 and 2,706 for 2011.

The estimated 2012 figure is on par with the level registered in 2005 when the number of North refugees reached 1,382.

This year’s decrease is mainly attributable to the North’s tightened grip on the areas bordering China, the main defection route, government officials said.

The death of leader Kim Jong-il last December has affected the country’s political stability, causing the communist country to tighten its border control, they said. China’s internationally-denounced repatriation of North Korean refugees back to the oppressive country has also resulted in both China and the North strengthening their border security, they also noted.

The 2012 decrease also reflects more North Korean refugees deciding to settle down in China rather than in the South, experts said.

The total number of North Korean defectors who had settled in the South stood at 24,193 as of the end of September, according to the ministry handling inter-Korean issues.

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From the Los Angeles Times on January 10, 2012…

Wary of notice and trying to fit in

In the shadows of Koreatown, dozens of North Korean defectors work to blend in with the larger South Korean culture, fearful of what would happen to relatives they left behind if they are discovered.

Once a month, in an office building with a grimy glass facade on the outskirts of Koreatown, about a dozen Koreans gather over takeout dinners to talk about life and a homeland to which they cannot return.

Their skin is a little darker and they are maybe a little shorter than the average Korean, from having known hunger and hardship more intimately than most. They are wary of strangers and sparing with personal details. As they chat, the accent they suppress in daily life comes out little by little — indistinguishable to foreign ears but a dead giveaway to any Korean speaker.

They are North Koreans who have fled one of the world’s last communist strongholds. They make up a small but budding community forming in the shadows of L.A.’s vast Koreatown.

Although recent South Korean immigrants to the U.S. are increasingly wealthy well-educated professionals who come in search of economic opportunities, the few North Koreans are mostly refugees who illegally crossed the border into China with little other than the clothes on their backs. And in L.A., where their southern counterparts have marked their territory with garish neon signs, high-rises and billboards, the North Koreans choose to remain inconspicuous and speak little of where they come from, out of concern for the families they’ve left behind and the discrimination they can face from fellow Koreans.

“The difficulties in settling down, the culture shock all immigrants go through, North Koreans experience about two, three times as much of it,” said Dong Jin Kim, a South Korean-born pastor who serves as director of the Assn. of North Koreans in America, the group that organizes the monthly gatherings. “The Korean community here doesn’t really understand them.”

In this nascent community, news of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s death resonated far differently than in the rest of Koreatown. Across dinner tables and over bottles of soju, they worried about what was next for loved ones in North Korea; reminisced about the conditions that drove them to flee; and wondered if his passing meant that they may one day be able to return to a free homeland.

North Koreans in the Southland number in the several dozens, according to immigrant rights organizers. About a third, Kim estimates, are refugees admitted under the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 — a total of 126 have entered the country since its implementation, according to the State Department. Many others come on a variety of visas from South Korea after having had difficulty adjusting to life there.

Although census figures don’t specify how many of the estimated 1 million Korean immigrants in the U.S. are from the North, fewer than 1% listed North Korea as their birth place in the 2000 census, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Their ranks are also difficult to determine because many carry South Korean passports after having first settled there.

Many are of uncertain legal status, with pending asylum petitions that take years to resolve. A number of families have packed up and left — back to South Korea, or to Britain, Canada or Germany.

Those who remain make a living however they can, while trying to blend in among the numerous Korean immigrants who have carved out enclaves from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley.

There is the aging security guard with a stiff edge that hints at his years in the North Korean army. The massage therapist who learned the trade in China but says little of her time there. The grocery clerk who grows tearful at the sight of mothers with daughters but doesn’t speak of her own.

One 32-year-old, who now calls herself Julie, found that her English class was full of questions she didn’t want to answer: Where are you from? What was your childhood like?

She improvised a made-up answer to each, masking the fact that she was from the North Korean border city of Hoeryong, from which she fled by bribing a border guard and scurrying across a frozen river into China in January. To explain her accent to Korean classmates, she said she was from a rural part of South Korea near the border with the North.

“When people ask questions, it reminds me of the past, things that are painful to remember,” said Julie, who asked to be identified only by her chosen name out of fear of safety for her brothers back home.

Among other Koreans and even with fellow defectors, most are careful with personal details out of concern for family in North Korea. If it became known to authorities there that they were in the U.S. — a nation they were taught to think of as an imperialist enemy invader — there is no knowing what punishment would be levied against remaining family members.

So Hanna Choe, 49, once she set foot on U.S. soil, adopted a new name and seldom talked of her husband and daughter. She came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2007 with the help of a pastor she met in China. After a few months in Seattle, where the language barrier felt insurmountable, she headed for L.A.

Once here, she saw an ad for a seamstress at a Korean-run fashion district business. At the interview, she said little but showed them she could sew — she began sewing as a 19-year-old in North Korea.

They told her to begin work the next day but asked her to fill out a resume. She stared at the blank page at a loss, before going to the employer and telling him that in fact, she was from the North. He was initially skeptical, but decided to give her a chance.

“They later told me, apparently they weren’t sure if a North Korean could do the job,” Choe said.

The women’s fashions she was charged with assembling were a wonder: plunging necklines, shirts with just one sleeve and wedding dresses, which she had never seen before. Even more incredible to her was the electricity available around the clock — a luxury unthinkable back home.

Among the South Koreans at work and at church, she quietly practiced saying things with their intonations and their words.

“I have to adapt to the South Korean community. I have no choice but to live among them,” she said.

Most others have a harder time adjusting to the capitalist economy. Unlike in South Korea, there are no subsidies or support services to help them settle.

Myung-nam Park vividly remembers landing at Los Angeles International Airport in 2003 with his wife and young son.

“I felt like I was dropped in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of a desert, by myself,” he said.

He got his start driving an unmarked illegal cab in Koreatown. Even though it had been a decade since he left North Korea, his accent still drew quizzical looks. When his cab was seized a couple years later, he made a pittance here and there making kimchi or dumplings and selling them to acquaintances at church.

About a year ago, he was at a basketball court with his son when a Korean pastor chatted him up. Park was suspicious, and when the pastor invited him to his home a few weeks later, he told the man that he wanted to be left alone and hung up.

Eventually, he felt guilty and called the pastor back and told him about his background — how he was trained as a chef in Pyongyang but ran afoul of the law when he was caught listening to South Korean music. The pastor, moved by his story, introduced him to a businessman who invited Park to open a North Korean restaurant at his strip mall in Cerritos.

Three months ago, Park, now 47, opened up Ok Ryu Gwan, where he serves up buckwheat noodles, mung bean pancakes and dumpling soup in the Northern style with less seasoning and clean flavors.

“I lived in the darkness for a long time, but the pastor drew me out,” he said.

Still, Park says, it’s with other North Koreans that he feels most at ease. They understand the dialect and laugh at the same jokes. They compare stories of going hungry in North Korea — sneaking a drink of milk from a goat in the field, stealing corn kernels that did little to satiate an empty stomach.

Because of a small plot of land her grandparents secretly cultivated in her hometown, Julie’s family never went as hungry as others did during North Korea’s harsh famine.

She decided to flee in 2004 after her younger sister left one evening and never returned. In her hometown, sitting on the border, it was understood that those who disappeared had crossed over into China. Her mother cried day and night, worried sick. Julie left to find her sister.

Once across, she fled brokers who sell women off to be married and narrowly dodged Chinese police, making her way to South Korea. In Seoul, she entered university, studying real estate with students a decade her junior.

Nine months ago, she decided to take time off and came to the U.S. on a student visa to take English classes. Her classmates are wealthy South Koreans who live lavishly off the money their parents send. They couldn’t possibly relate to her journey here.

She dreams of eventually acting as a liaison between a free North Korea and the rest of the world. When that day comes, perhaps she will introduce herself as North Korean without hesitation.

Until then, she figures, some things are better left unsaid.

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A truly moving and extraordinary piece of journalism by the PBS program Wide Angle that aired in July of 2009.  Crossing Heaven’s Border follows several actual North Korean refugees and a video crew that utilize the new “underground railroad” to escape from China to freedom in South Korea (they had already taken the first step and crossed into China from North Korea).

A fantastic glimpse into what making The Crossing to freedom is actually like.  Highly recommended.

Watch the full episode over at PBS.COM.

[Note:  The embedded video is just a trailer, click the above link to view the whole video.]

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The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was signed into law by George W. Bush on October 18, 2004.  The purpose of the law, (which you can read in its entirety HERE), is to…

(1) to promote respect for and protection of fundamental human rights in North Korea;
(2) to promote a more durable humanitarian solution to the plight of North Korean refugees;
(3) to promote increased monitoring, access, and transparency in the provision of humanitarian assistance inside North Korea;
(4) to promote the free flow of information into and out of North Korea; and
(5) to promote progress toward the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula under a democratic system of government.

However, despite this bill, the United States is far from the most popular destination for North Korean refugees, South Korea is.  As of early 2012, a mere 128 North Korean refugees have been legally granted citizenship in the United States (compared to the over 24,000 who have been accepted into South Korea).  The number of North Koreans in America account for about one half of one percent of the total number of Koreans who have fled the Kim regime.

The law was reauthorized in both 2008 and 2012 (which extends the law until 2017).

[A side-note:  This fact makes it unlikely, though certainly not impossible, that were Junhee an actual refugee, she would find residency in America.]

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