Life for North Koreans who make it to South Korea can be difficult. Defectors report feeling discriminated against by South Koreans. Many report being denied jobs because they speak in dialect or have a North Korean accent or seeing their children bullied at school because of their background. In extreme cases, defectors say they have been threatened or extorted by people claiming to be North Korean agents.
North Korean defector Jo Hye Kyung told CBC that in South Korea, even though she was out from under the repressive, Communist dictatorship of North Korea, she still felt like she was being watched. “We staked our lives to come to South Korea and then found that defectors are assigned police officers,” she said. “I felt like I was being watched by them. It felt like a cage without walls.”
In a statement to CBC News, the South Korean Ministry of Unification, responsible for settlement support for North Korean defectors, said police officers are tasked with protecting defectors and resolving any problems they might face.
Andrei Lankov, the director of NKNews.org, a Delaware-based site covering North Korean news, and a scholar of Korean studies, wrote in 2006 that typically, “defectors, suffering from low income, alienation and real or perceived discrimination, form a sort of underclass that might even become semi-hereditary.”
The prospect of her children facing the same type of discrimination frightened Jo. “If I had lived alone in South Korea, I could have borne it,” Jo explained, “but with a child, I found myself thinking about his future and his well-being.
After eight years living in Seoul, Jo decided to go to Canada in 2010 along with her parents, her partner, a North Korean defector she met in South Korea, and their four-year-old son. When the family arrived in Vancouver, Jo did not disclose that they had been living in South Korea as citizens. She says she was advised by members of the Korean community in Canada they would have a better chance of staying in Canada if they applied for asylum as North Koreans.
Canada granted the family asylum. Then in July, living in Toronto now with two more children, Jo’s family received a notice alerting them that their refugee status could be vacated. They have a hearing scheduled for October 19, and if their refugee status is vacated, Jo, her firstborn son, now 10, her husband, and her parents will go through a pre-removal risk assessment and have the opportunity to file an appeal to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
Around 135 North Koreans were in the process of removal as of July although it was unclear how many of those held South Korean citizenship, according to the Canada Border Security Agency.