On 15 March 2017, Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies hosted a panel discussion titled “Resettlement of North Koreans in South Korea”. This event was co-sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Korea, Asian Institute, University of Toronto Department of Political Science, Arts & Science Student Union, University of Toronto Student’s Union, Contemporary Asian Studies Students’ Union, and Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, and held at the Cat’s Eye Student Pub and Lounge at Victoria College. The event featured five speakers: Austin BuHeung Hyon,an undergraduate at Columbia University; Christopher Green, former Manager of International Affairs for Daily NK and PhD candidate at Leiden university in the Netherlands; Steven Denny, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto; Jack Kim, the founder of HanVoice, Canada’s largest organization advocating for improved human rights in North Korea; and YoonKyung Lee, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. The panel was moderated by Daniel C. Park, the editor-in-chief of the Synergy Journal.
The event opened with keynote statements from each of the five speakers, each outlining their respective fields of expertise or life experiences. Professor Yoonkyung Lee opened the panel by describing the status of North Korean migrants. She raised the question of whether the international community recognizes North Korean migrants as refugees. She believed that if North Koreans present significant differences in identities while in South Korea, they wouldn’t be seen as refugees. Professor Lee explained that this difference is due to the international media holds bias against North Korea, and paints North Koreans as outsiders that share little similarities with the rest of the residents. As a result, North Koreans are excluded socially in South Korea.
Jack Kim spoke next about his experiences working with HanVoice, a non-profit organization helping North Koreans’ experience of resettling in Canada. He recalled the statistic that in 2006-2007, that only four North Korean refugees were allowed to enter Canada. Around 2009-2010, 5000 North Koreans migrated to Canada over the course of six months, when the government allowed these migrants to enter the country under a refugee status and without a visa. However, many migrants were deported in 2013 back to South Korea, leaving the current North Korean population with much uncertainty. Kim noted that North Korean refugees previously migrated due to the lack of sustenance, but now North Korean refugees emigrate from South Korea due to the cultural and linguistic dichotomy between the North and South Korean populations.
Austin BuHeung Hyeon’s statement provided a first-person narrative to the situation of North Korean migrants in South Korea. He described why North Koreans are leaving the country, attributing their departure to a lack of employment. Previously, in North Korea, the majority of the workforce was hired by the government. However, in the 1990s, the government of North Korea turned to the private sector, leading many unemployed North Koreans to flee to South Korea for better working conditions. Hyeon explained that although North Korean defectors flee, South Koreans discriminate against them in hiring processes. The speaker noted that North Koreans have high optimism for South Korean life, but they are quickly disappointed upon arrival. The culture in South Korea is highly homogenous, and therefore discriminatory against foreigners. Austin described differences in the schooling system between the two Koreas, notably how the South Korean workforce requires English proficiency, which is lacking in the North Korean schooling system. A recurring theme among the first three speakers was the social exclusion of North Korean migrants in South Korea.
Christopher Green and Steven Denney collectively discussed their research project on North Korean defectors. Green began by citing statistics to demonstrate an increase in academic interest in North Korea in recent years. He attributed this peak to an interest in a growing and diverse population of defectors. He finished his talk by placing emphasis on future development in academia by the future North Korean diaspora, and noted that the field of research on North Korean migrants is worth supporting.
The last speaker, Steven Denney, centred his presentation on the findings from his research project. In order to understand North Korean migrants in South Korean societies, Green and Denney conducted surveys to ask North Korean migrants to discuss their experiences in both Koreas. The research methods measured the degree of satisfaction by North Korean defectors in South Korea. They concluded that some North Koreans enjoyed their time in South Korea, but only if they were old enough to receive welfare by the South Korean government, or young enough to have the opportunity to be socialized into the South Korean system. Once socialized, young migrants feel less excluded from South Korean society. North Korean migrants between the ages of these two demographic groups reported high levels of dissatisfaction with their migration experience.
Daniel C. Park concluded the panel by thanking the five speakers for their time and efforts to visit to the University of Toronto. Several speakers travelled for this event, and were commended for visiting the university’s campus.
Jerry Zhu is a 2nd Year student studying Political Science and Contemporary Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, Trinity College.