Defectors from North Korea automatically become South Korean citizens after a mandatory three-month transition that is part debriefing, part re-education. Refugees receive a few thousand dollars to start their new lives and learn skills most people take for granted: grocery shopping or using an ATM.
“South Korea has an enormous program to resettle North Koreans. It’s basically a yearlong program, but then it goes on beyond that in many ways where there are grants for education, for housing, and all kinds of things,” said Lindsay Lloyd , who currently leads the George W Bush Institute’s Freedom in North Korea project. “So the scale of their programs to bring these people into South Korea, compared to what happens here in the US, it’s just radically, radically different.”
“When refugees come to the United States … the US government only provides about six months’ worth of support for them,” Lloyd added. “It’s done through groups like Catholic charities and others that really just address the basics: find a place to live, get some basic healthcare, maybe some rudimentary English lessons, a first job, that kind of thing.”
The State Department has documented 192 North Koreans entering the US from 1 January 2002 to 1 January 2016. But this only includes refugees who have obtained green cards through the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. Many North Koreans enter the US illegally and settle in Los Angeles, amid the large population of ethnic Koreans. Nearly 200 former North Koreans live in Los Angeles, advocacy groups say, but exact numbers are unknown.
In October 2014, the Bush Institute at the George W Bush Presidential Center published a qualitative survey, “US-Based North Korean Refugees.” It found that “even those on a path to citizenship lived almost entirely within Korean communities”, the survey reported. “However, nearly all also said they did not feel completely accepted or included, and often felt looked down upon or pitied.”