This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Canada has deported 242 North Korean escapees since 2018, and is in the process of sending home 512 more, after finding that many had gained South Korean citizenship before coming to Canada, RFA has learned from two Canadian government agencies.
Most of the deportees are sent back to South Korea, where they initially landed after escaping from the North – usually a harrowing journey through China where they must avoid capture and forced repatriation. And because Seoul claims sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula, escapees are granted citizenship upon arrival.
But some then go on to Canada, after having a hard time adjusting to life in the South – and that’s where the problem arises in obtaining refugee status.
Typically, to be granted refugee status, an asylum seeker must present evidence of being persecuted in their home country. But because the North Korean escapees found refuge in the South, and were granted citizenship there, they could be excluded from refugee protection, the government agency that provides protection to refugees, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), told RFA.
Essentially, if the asylum-seekers had gone directly to Canada, they would have a better chance of gaining refugee status and be allowed to stay in the country.
The IRCC said that while there may still be instances in which a North Korean requires protection, many asylum petitions have been turned down due to applicants’ South Korean citizenship.
The statistics on deported North Korean escapees were compiled by the Canada Border Services Agency, which is responsible for border control, immigration enforcement and customs services.
“The Canada Border Services Agency places the highest priority on removal cases involving national security, organized crime, crimes against humanity, and criminals – regardless of country of origin,” the agency told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Removals of failed refugees and individuals with other immigration violations are also necessary to maintain the integrity of Canada’s immigration system,” it said.
More than 33,000 North Koreans have found their way to the South and resettled over the years, most of them having arrived after the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed as many as 2 million people by some estimates, and pushed the country to the brink of collapse.
They risked their lives to escape, most having traveled more than 3,000 miles through China, all the while avoiding capture and forced repatriation and dealing with shady brokers and traffickers. From there they navigated through several southeast Asian countries in the hope of one day boarding a plane headed for Seoul’s Incheon International Airport.
The South welcomes such escapees. They are sent to government-funded orientation programs and given startup money and a living stipend as they settle into their new lives.
But for many escapees, the South is not the land of milk and honey they expected.
The fast-paced life of South Korea seems too hectic, and the people speak Korean peppered with unfamiliar loan words from the English language. Job skills the escapees may have had in the North might not translate into an equivalent position in the South Korean workforce.
And while they may physically blend in, many are made to feel that they are on the lower end of the social hierarchy in the South, due to discrimination and a resulting lack of opportunity to make their situation better.
Almost half of all North Korean refugees that settle in the South said they experienced discrimination in a 2017 poll by the South Korean government-backed National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
“Discrimination against North Korean defectors [in South Korea] is a very serious problem,” Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal Analyst at the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group, told RFA’s Korean Service.
Shin used the politically charged colloquial term “defector” which describes both defectors, who were part of the military or government at the time of their escape, and refugees, civilians who flee starvation or North Korea’s depressed economic situation. The term can, in some contexts, carry a negative connotation.
International Rights groups prefer to differentiate between defectors and refugees, depending on the circumstances of their escape.
“Of course, going abroad does not mean that there is no discrimination, but there is no such thing as being branded as a defector [outside of South Korea],” he said.
Hundreds therefore made the decision to move on from South Korea to Canada, where under the Resettlement Assistance Program they can get benefits that may include a household startup allowance and monthly income support.
Hiding immigration history
Since having a Republic of Korea passport is grounds to immediately reject an asylum application, many of the North Korean asylum-seekers in Canada try to hide evidence that they ever naturalized in South Korea.
According to a Canadian federal court document published Sept. 16, a North Korean refugee surnamed Kim, her husband with the family name Shin and their children were deprived of their refugee status in 2018 for concealing their South Korean citizenship. The document said deportation proceedings were to start.
Another refugee, surnamed Kang, was on the verge of being deported after it was discovered that he resided in South Korea in 2019.
Once the deportation order goes out, the refugees have a few options if they wish to remain in Canada.
According to a 2019 RFA report, over an 18-month period starting in January 2018, some 352 North Korean refugees in Canada lost their refugee status as the government at that time began revoking it in cases where they had lived in South Korea in 2013 or later.
The Canada Border Services Agency explained that a removal decision by an immigration officer can be subject to judicial and administrative review, during which the individuals involved in the case may seek leave to remain in the country.
Additionally, many of the refugees can apply for the Humanitarian and compassionate considerations program, said Sean Chung, the executive director of HanVoice, a Toronto-based nonprofit organization that assists North Koreans with settling in Canada.
Successful applicants to the program can obtain permanent residency in Canada if they are an exceptional case, such as when they have lived in Canada for a long period of time, or if there are special reasons that prevent someone from returning to their home country, he told RFA.