There are currently over 24,000 North Koreans residing in South Korea. Many of this latest wave of migrants to arrive in South Korea since the end of the 1990’s have now lived south of the border for over ten years. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that we are becoming accustomed to reading about the plight of North Koreans, both prior to and after their arrival in South Korea. Given that the mass movement of people is always a dynamic phenomenon, intimately tied to the vicissitudes of global power, it is not surprising that as the number of North Koreans in South Korea continues to grow, we are privileged to bare witness to various eccentricities emerging from within this particular migrant community. This article will describe two of these features, firstly, the relatively well-known ‘return migration’, and the newer ‘onward-migration,’ marking the North Korean migrant community as particularly interesting for both scholars in the field of migration studies and Koreo-philes of every persuasion.
It was difficult to avoid the fallout, when, in early summer 2012, Pak Jong-suk, a middle aged woman who had arrived in Seoul from North Korea six years prior, re-emerged in Pyongyang, presenting herself to the nation and the world as, “An ingrate who had betrayed my motherland.” The media in South Korea and beyond homed in on the story of this deluded woman who had got it all the wrong way round, as we all knew the South was where the milk and honey was and the North had nothing but suffering and strife. Ms. Pak was an object of curiosity for the mainstream media and the phenomenon of ‘returning’ quickly became the latest evidence that things were not working in terms of the settlement of North Korean refugees in South Korea. What the media failed to touch on, however, was that this was not a freak case at all, in fact, contrary to what many would believe, North Koreans had been ‘returning’ for a long time prior to Ms. Pak’s ‘boomerang migrational’ feat.
The fact is that the North Korea-China border is far more porous than many understand. It is difficult to completely control the borders of any nation state, let alone a country like North Korea, whose border guards often live off the bribes gained from those going back and forth. The reality is that for many North Koreans who have left their country illegally, the safest way to visit family and friends and to trade is to maintain their initial clandestine approach. To offer a brief case study, in 2010 I was approached by the sister of a young man who was planning on returning to North Korea in an attempt to convince his girlfriend to follow him back to South Korea. Needing someone to talk to, she explained that he would probably be ok, as long as he kept under the radar of the Chinese security forces. This, like many other cases that do not get reported, is an example highlighting the fact that a majority of cross-border movement is illegal and either deliberately ignored or simply undetected.
The latest in the saga of returning North Koreans sees the first signs of panic emerging as, according to the Dong-a ilbo, North Koreans are “rushing to go back home.” While it is generally understood that North Koreans are not, in fact, “rushing back home”, there is some consensus that, amongst the North Korean community in South Korea, if I may refer to this community in such a way, there is a high level of dissatisfaction in regards to the reception they continue to receive south of the 38th parallel. Signs of what can be, at best, referred to as ‘a general malaise’ are further exemplified in the case of North Korean onward-migrants.
Although yet to capture the imagination of the media in the same way was return-migrants, it is becoming clear that onward-migrants or re-migrants are likely to be a far more significant part of the globalizing North Korean diaspora. At the founding meeting of the World North Korean Federation, in Seoul, 2010, there was an expectation among participants that although meagre at the time, in the future the networks created by North Koreans moving to South Korea and beyond would offer options previously unimagined in terms of destination choice and facilitate the successful settlement of North Korean refugees. Two years on, it appears that these predictions are proving quite prophetic, as the number of North Koreans moving from South Korea to destinations such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States continues to grow.
In the case of Australia, it seems that the lures of one year working-holiday visa, along with relatively high paying low-skilled work, is proving to be a strong drawcard for North Korean onward-migrants. As in the U.K. and in Canada, when possible, many of these migrants move strategically, using already established South Korean transnational networks.
Unlike most South Koreans in popular destinations like Sydney and Toronto, however, many North Koreans are attempting to stay permanently. The means for achieving permanent remigration is equally diverse, ranging from the illegal to more nuanced, loophole-finding strategies. One such approach is for a onward-migrant to discard their South Korean passport upon arrival in their intended new home and claim refugee status based on the fact they are North Korean and have escaped to find freedom. Although not untrue, this is currently considered illegal by the Australian authorities and unless they are lucky, many attempting this strategy find themselves guests in one of Australia’s fast multiplying immigrant detention centres. The other option tried by some North Koreans is to arrive and stay legitimately on their South Korean passports, while lobbying the Australian government to grant them an indefinite stay, based on the fact that they are North Koreans and never intended to stay in South Korea– also not entirely untrue.
What is clear, as the networks of these individuals become stronger, as the number of disgruntled North Koreans in South Korea continues to rise and as word gets back to these individuals that there might be better options than existing perpetually as the poorer brother or sister from the North, is that the governments of countries such as Canada and Australia are going to have to make some tough decisions in regards to where they stand with these onward-migrants. This might entail treating them as something they struggle to achieve in South Korea– being South Korean. Unfortunately, this would also mean being deported.
 `3 defectors go back to N.Korea, raising returnee tally to 100`
 Markus Bell: Field notes November 2010.