Jo Hye Kyung beat the odds: She made a dangerous escape from North Korea 20 years ago and eventually made her way to Canada and a new life. But because she initially settled in South Korea, her life in Toronto may soon be uprooted. Jo, 32, is just one of a number of North Korean defectors in Canada who came to the country by way of South Korea and could now be sent back to a place where, they say, they face systemic discrimination.
As soon as North Koreans enter South Korea, they are granted citizenship, but that makes them ineligible to apply for asylum in Canada [or elsewhere] since South Korea is considered a safe country. Which is why they end up applying for refugee status as North Koreans without declaring their South Korean citizenship.
Jo was 12 when she and her family crossed the icy Tumen River from North Korea to China. It was a daring escape on a perilous route that has claimed many lives. Jo, her mother, her father and her little brother made it into China, where Jo says they lived for five years in hiding for fear of being sent back to North Korea.
In 2002, Jo and her family climbed over a barrier into the grounds of the South Korean consul general’s Beijing office and claimed asylum. “I thought, ‘At least they won’t send us back to North Korea’ [like China might]” Jo said.
Jo says she and her family didn’t realize that once on South Korean soil, they would automatically be considered citizens. “Until I came to South Korea, I didn’t know … [if] I became South Korean, … I could not go anywhere else,” Jo said.
In South Korea, her North Korean education wasn’t recognized, which meant that she had to begin her secondary school education from scratch at 18. She says her classmates told her that because she was North Korean, she did not belong in South Korea, and that she should not try to get an education because North Koreans should know their place in South Korean society. Jo’s North Korean dialect left her vulnerable to unwelcome interrogations from strangers.
Kim Joo Eun, a lawyer with the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario in Toronto, says that Jo’s story is a part of a pattern of North Korean defectors who feel rejected by South Korean society and look to emigrate somewhere more welcoming.
“The overall trend is that after going through unbelievable treatment and trauma in North Korea, escaping from there and going through very precarious and dangerous time in China, after arriving in South Korea, a lot of them faced a lot of discrimination – stigma – against them,” Kim said. Continue reading about Jo Hye Kyung and family