Resettling NK Defectors in USA

Special Report by S. Yee

For a long while now, I have been keenly interested in what happens to North Koreans who have resettled in the USA via a third country. This is partly because I have been involved with Life Funds for North Korean Refugees in protecting and helping North Korean defectors in Southeast Asia. I wondered if there was anything I could do to help those who were headed for America, so when I had the opportunity in April and May to visit the US, I decided to find out how they are doing.

The North Koreans I met on this trip were living in New York, Chicago, Washington, Virginia, Kentucky and California. I met several who were among the first North Koreans to reach the United States. They had come via Thailand, Russia, and Cambodia.

Ten NGOs registered with the State Department and designated to deal with refugee intake allocate the areas in which refugees settle, and assist them with their resettlement. North Korean defectors, like any other refugees, are sent to a variety of regions. In the two months that I spent there, around five people arrived; among them were a single female who went to California; a mother and daughter who went to Arizona; and two men who went to Kentucky.

Kentucky the default destination

These people escaped from North Korea and passed secretly from China into Thailand, where they applied for refugee status at the American embassy.

Since June, five more people have arrived, a family of four coming from Laos who settled in California, and a single female who came from Thailand and resettled in Kentucky.

Apparently, if the defectors have no particular family ties in the US, they are generally sent to Kentucky. When new North Koreans arrive, they get in contact with refugees already settled in the area so they can live together. A great deal of financial resettlement assistance is available in larger centres, and it seems that a large proportion is routed to places like Kentucky.

The first North Koreans to settle in Kentucky were former loggers from North Korean-run logging operations in Siberia. When they first arrived, there were no other North Koreans there, so they lived with four Iraqis. Living communally is economical and therefore quite common.

Living together to save money

In order to save money, they continued to live with the Iraqis; however, around the end of March they heard that some new refugees from North Korea would be arriving, so they moved out of the place they had been sharing with the Iraqis.

Since the new arrivals were completely new to American life and were somewhat isolated, living with North Koreans who were complete strangers would have been something of a psychological strain. Although living together looked impossible, they managed it in order to cut down on expenses. In May, another fellow North Korean joined them, and that further eased the financial burden on all of them.

Although the amount of the resettlement benefits appears to vary slightly from week to week, it does not vary significantly. Each refugee is given eight months’ worth of rent and food stamps; the food stamps are in the form of a card which is debited each time it is used.

Independence through English, job training

In some cases, refugees are encouraged to sign up for voluntary English classes and job training at the refugee resettlement centres; in other cases, to take pre-existing courses. They can also take, for example, driver’s education in order to obtain a driver’s license; in short, they obtain the training they need to help them live independent lives. And if they find employment while receiving resettlement benefits, only the amount of their salary is deducted from the amount of the benefits.

Assistance from Korean churches

Korean Christian congregations are particularly eager to assist their North Korean brothers. One reason is that some North Korean defectors make contact with Korean churches while in China or a third country, and become members of the congregation, making it easy for them to stay in contact. Korean churches provide North Korean defectors with a great deal of assistance. In addition, the Korean churches in the areas where defectors live sponsor seminars and the like to raise awareness about North Korea.

Invitation from the South Korean embassy

I participated in the events held during North Korean Freedom Week in April. It was great to get a feel for what was happening during this Human Rights Week, and something unexpected happened as well.

For the first time ever, the South Korean embassy in Washington invited the North Korean defectors participating in the events of North Korea Freedom Week to participate in a roundtable discussion. This was a surprise for Koreans who have been involved in North Korea Freedom Week for a long time.

When I have attended North Korean human rights seminars in Thailand, the Japanese embassy has invited attendees from Japan to dinner functions at the embassy. In contrast, the South Korean embassy, far from acknowledging the efforts of South Korean participants, completely ignored them. For this reason the events of Freedom Week hold special significance. The embassy’s expression of interest raised new expectations among those invited.

Number of Refugees admitted since the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act

Since the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act in the U.S. in October 2004, a mere 86 refugees from North Korea have been admitted to date. According to 2002 statistics, Germany had admitted 225 people, but we can also consider that this figure includes North Korean expatriates and students who, at the time of German reunification, defected rather than returning to North Korea. Britain accepted 147, but in 2007 alone granted 130 people refugee status, for a total of 280 people.

There are an estimated 200 defectors from North Korea living in Japan. As of February, Canada had accepted 14. And in the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Ireland, the number of North Korean defectors granted refugee status ranges from 5 to 15.

There appears to be a great deal of debate about these numbers in various institutions in America; however, there does not seem to be any movement to increase the numbers of North Koreans accepted. It does not seem likely that these numbers will be increased.

Three years in Thailand, eight months in Laos for U.S.-bound defectors

For defectors in Thailand, from the instant they express a desire to go to the United States to the time they actually arrive normally takes 2-3 years. The defector who has been waiting the longest is a woman who expressed her wish to go to the U.S. in December 2006 and is still waiting in the Immigration Detention Centre in Thailand.

Last year, she applied through a Washington NGO in order to speed up her application; however, she has been left waiting for more than a year without any response whatsoever, and is just idly passing time while she waits.

Who can help this woman? Her situation is very difficult, and she feels nothing but regret.

A recent arrival from Laos was admitted to the U.S within 6-8 months. Cambodia also takes approximately the same time as Laos. Why does it take so long from Thailand? I do not know what the problem is.

North Koreans have their own country. But because it has become impossible for them to survive there, they have fled. The world would surely be a better place if more countries could take them in and help them to build new lives.