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Bitter Taste of Paradise: North Korean Refugees in South Korea

  • Andrei Lankov


This article deals with the problems of North Korean defectors currently living in South Korea. In the past, most such defectors came from privileged groups in the North Korean population, and their adjustment to the new environment did not pose a significant problem. However, from the mid-1990s, defectors began to come from the far less privileged groups. They experience serious problems related to jobs, education, crime, and social adjustment. Recent years have seen a dramatic but not always openly stated change in the official South Korean attitude toward defectors: from a policy explicitly aimed at encouraging defection, Seoul has moved to the policy of quietly discouraging it. There are fears that encouraging defection will undermine the policy of peaceful engagement with the North. There is also the perception that refugees are outsiders, not quite adjustable to the conditions of South Korean society and thus a social and budgetary burden.



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1. For arguments of those who expect(ed) collapse to happen, see, for example, Eberstadt, Nicholas, “Hastening Korean Unification,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 2 1997); Foster-Carter, Aidan, “North Korea: All Roads Lead to Collapse: All the More Reason to Engage Pyongyang.” In Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 1998); Lankov, Andrei, “Soft Landing: Opportunity or Illusion?” In The North Korean Crisis and Beyond (Wellington: Asian Studies Institute, 2004). For those who expect that North Korea will survive and “muddle through,” see Noland, Marcus, “Why North Korea Will Muddle Through,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 4 (1997); Noland, Marcus, Korea After Kim Jong-il (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2004). Actually, the number of publications dealing with the (im)probability of North Korea's collapse is quite large. For a summary of the current opinions on the issue, see American Enterprise Institute, A New International Engagement Framework for North Korea? Contending Perspectives (Washington, DC: AEI, 2005).

2. Kwak, Tae-Hwan and Joo, Seung-Ho, “The Korean Peace Process: Problems and Prospects After the Summit,” World Affairs 162 (Fall 2002); Kim, Youngho, “The Great Powers in Peaceful Korean Reunification,” International Journal on World Peace 20, no. 3 (2003).

3. Of many publications on this topic, one should mention numerous works by Marcus Noland, such as Noland, Marcus, Robinson, Sherman, and Liu, Li-Gang, The Costs and Benefits of Korean Unification , Institute for International Economics Working Paper 98–1 (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 1998).

4. Notable works in English dealing with the social consequences of the unification are Bleiker, Roland, “Psychological Difficulties of German Unification: Implications for Korea,” Korea Observer 34, no. 2 2003) (a long interview with a former East German psychologist); Kelleher, David, Kim, Hak-Min, “Post-Unification Privatization of North Korean Enterprises: Lessons from Transition Economies,” Korea Observer 36, no. 1 (2005).

5. Yong-gwan, Cho, “Bukhan jeongchi gyo-yug-ui naemyeonhwaga talbukja namhan sahoe jeok-eung-e michin yeong-hyang” [An influence of the internalization of North Korean political education on the adaptation of the North Korean defectors to South Korean society], Hanguk jeongchi oe-gyo-sa noncheong 25, no. 2 2004):156.

6. The most comprehensive summary of the available estimates, together with a short analysis of how they were arrived at, can be found in Foley, James A., “‘Ten Million Families’: Statistic or Metaphor?” Korean Studies 25, no. 1 2001).

7. In 1960, the estimated per capita GNP was $172 in the North, compared to $85 in the South. Hamm Taik-young believes that only in 1974 did the per capita GNP of the South finally exceed that of the North. Taik-young, Hamm, Arming the Two Koreas: State, Capital and Military Power (London and New York: Routledge, 1999) p. 131.

8. Hirschman, Albert O., Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970). For the application of Hirschman's ideas to specifics of a communist authoritarian state, see Carol Mueller, “Escape from the GDR, 1961–1989: Hybrid Exit Repertoires in a Disintegrating Leninist Regime,” American Journal of Sociology 105, no. 3 (1999): 697–735. Another similar attempt was undertaken by Hirschman himself: Hirschman, Albert O., “Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic: An Essay in Conceptual History,” World Politics 45, no. 2 (1993): 179.

9. In November 2004, a professional broker involved in arranging defections to the South estimated the number of refugees in China at 50,000. See Dong-A Ilbo , November 20, 2004, p. 8. Around the same time, in October 2004, the Beijing correspondent of a mainstream Korean daily estimated the number at 100,000: Kyeonghyang Sinmun, October 28, 2004, p. 2. In August 2004, another newspaper put the highest and lowest estimations of refugee numbers at 30,000 and 100,000, respectively. See Kukmin Ilbo, August 18, 2004, p. 4.

10. For an overview of the history and current situation of North Korean defectors in China, see Lankov, Andrei, “North Korean Refugees in Northeast China,” Asian Survey 44, no. 6 2004):856873.

11. Hirschman, , “Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic,” p. 179.

12. Ibid.

13. Data provided by the Ministry of Unification, Settlement Support Division at the author's personal request on April 1, 2005 (interview with Kim Sung-guk, the ministry official).

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. According to a study undertaken in the late 1990s, women constituted 75.5 percent of all North Korean refugees hiding in China at that time. See Du-mangang-eul geonneon saramdeul [People who have crossed the Duman River] (Seoul: Jeongdo Chulpan, 1999) p. 21. This high figure has been confirmed by other research as well. According to Kwak Hae-ryong, women may constitute as much as 80 percent of all refugees. Kwak Hae-ryong, “Bukhan i-tal ju-min in-gwon siltae-e gwanhan yeongu” [A study of the human rights situation of the refugees who fled North Korea], Pyeong-hwa Munje Yeongu 12, no. 1 (2000): 261.

17. Yong-su, Kim, “Bukhan i-tal ju-min hyeonhwang-gwa jae-sahoe-hwa munje” [The present situation of defectors from North Korea and problems of their resocialization], Sahoe gwahak yeongu 12, no. 1 2004):122.

18. Noland, Marcus, “Political Economy of North Korea: Historical Background and Present Situation.” In American Enterprise Institute, A New International Engagement Framework for North Korea? Interview with Professor Hwang in Chosun Ilbo, July 28, 2005.

19. Kyu-wan, Kim and Sung-jo, Park, Nam-gwa Buk: Mung-chi-myeon jung-neun-da [North and South: Dead if united] (Seoul: JoongAng M & B, 2005). The title itself hints at how Koreans translate the famous dictum “United we stand,” normally rendered as “Mung-chi-myeon sanda” (literally, “Alive if united”).

20. The newspaper articles that cite such data are very common; see, for example, Seoul Shinmun , November 19, 2002; Naeil Shinmoon, July 15, 2005.

21. See Korea Times , April 14, 2005.

22. Kwak, Tae-Hwan and Joo, Seung-Ho, “The Korean Peace Process,” p. 80.

23. Both Lim Dong-won's statement and the “clarification” attracted much attention and were reported by all Korean media. Here we use the English wording of the Korea Times, which reported both the ministerial statement and its effective withdrawal in the same issue, albeit in different articles ( Korea Times , October 18, 1999).

24. Stories about would-be defectors who went to South Korean embassies or consulates but were unconditionally denied assistance are numerous. I cite only magazine articles that contain some generalizations about this approach: Hwa-song, Kim, “Hanguk daesagwan Seoul-haeng an-dowa-jwo-yo” [South Korean embassy does not help with move to Seoul], Weekly Dong-A , January 7, 1999; Chae-yol, Ko, “Haeng-bok-han chil-in, bul-haeng-han sam-sip-man” [Seven are happy, 300 thousands are not happy], Sisa Journal, July 11, 2001; Hae-jong, Yu, “Jeongbuga beo-rin talbukja simin-i do-ub-sida” [Let's help the North Korean refugees who are deserted by the government], Hangyeoreh 21, March 2, 2000. In the South Korean press, one can find virtually hundreds of testimonies about this semiofficial stance toward defectors. Indeed, I have never seen a single report about a defector whose escape was seriously assisted by the China-based South Korean diplomatic staff (unless such a person was a very high-ranking individual).

25. For a good description of current rates and “business models” used by people smugglers, see Tang-gi, Kim, “Talbukjadeul, moksum-geon ga-jok bbae-nae-gi” [Defectors: even if it's dangerous, (we'll) take families out (of North Korea)], Weekly Dong-A , July 5, 2002, #292. An interview with a professional broker appears in Daily NK, March 31, 2005.

26. The mass defection, the largest in Korean history, was widely discussed in the media. See, for example, Chosun Ilbo , August 4, 2004.

27. Song-ho, Che, “Talbukja jeongchak jiwon jedo-ui siltae-wa gaeseon bang-an” [The current situation with support of the North Korean defectors upon their arrival and proposals for its improvement], Jung-ang Beobhak 3, no. 1 2001).

28. Chosun Ilbo , May 24, 1996. According to the Stat-Korea database supported by the National Statistical Office (, an average monthly wage in 1982 was 209,553 won.

29. For an overview of earlier legal regulations regarding defectors, see Tong-ik, , “Talbuk gwisun dongpo eo-tteo-ke cheori hayeoya hana?” [How are the defectors from the North treated?], Bukhan , no. 293 (1996):5057.

30. The author expresses his gratitude to the staff of the North Korean Democracy Movement (an association of North Korean defectors) who provided him with recent regulations and helped to make sense of this material in a series of interviews in October-November 2004.

31. Data provided by the Ministry of Unification, Settlement Support Division, at the author's personal request on April 1, 2005 (interview with Kim Sung-guk, the ministry official).

32. Munhwa llbo , January 27, 1997.

33. Munhwa Ilbo , October 1, 1997.

34. Tong-bae, Kim, “Talbukjadeul-ui jeok-eung-eul wihan min-gan cha-won-ui daechaek” [Measures for nongovernment support for the adaptation of defectors]. In Talbukjadeul-ui sarm [Defectors' life] (Seoul: Orum, 1996), p. 71.

35. JoongAng Daily , March 19, 2002; JoongAng Daily, December 22, 2001.

36. 2004 Tong-il Baekseo [The 2004 Unification White Book] (Seoul: Ministry of Unification, 2004), available online at (chapter IV-3-2). Defectors over the age of sixty are exempted from training in Hanawon.

37. Remarks to this effect were made in an interview with Yun-tae, Kim (March 2, 2005, Seoul); and in an interview with Sohn Kwang-ju, managing editor of the Daily NK newspaper (March 8, 2005, Seoul).

38. The South Korean press is almost unanimously critical about Hanawon (the only difference is that some blame its administration while others argue that with such a limited budget the center cannot possibly fare much better). The opinion is shared across the political spectrum from the leftist Hangyeoreh Sinmun to the conservative Weekly Chosun. For press reports of Hanawon and its problems, see Yong-nam, Kim, “Talbukja jeongchak gyo-yug” [The education of the defectors upon arrival], Weelky Chosun , March 1, 2001; Chon-ho, Kim, “Deo-i-sang i-deung gukmin-eul mandeulji mala” [Let's not produce second-rate citizens any more], Shindong-A, no. 6, 2001; Hangyeoreh, May 14, 2001. The same critical remarks were confirmed by Pak Sang-hak, office manager of the North Korean Democracy Movement, who himself studied in Hanawon in 2000 (interview with Sang-hak, Pak, October 25, 2004, Seoul) and by Yun-t'ae, Kim, who deals with many defectors (interview with Kim Yun-t'ae March 2, 2005, Seoul).

39. Yong-gwan, Cho, “Bukhan jeogchi gyo-yug-ui naemyeonhwaga talbukja namhan sahoe jeok-eung-e michin yeong-hyang,” p. 156.

40. Pyong-su, Pak, “Talbuk dae-hak-saeng gukhoe-ro gatta” [A Defector-turn-university student goes to the parliament], Hangyeoreh 21, April 3, 2001.

41. Kyeonghyang Sinmun , April 9, 2001.

42. The Segye Times , May 12, 2000.

43. The Segye Times , March 31, 2000.

44. Hankook Ilbo , February 3, 2001.

45. The Segye Times , February 18, 2000.

46. KOSIS database of the National Statistics Office, available online at

47. Han-seong, Son, Bukhan i-tal ju-min-ui chui-eop siltae-wa jeongchak gwaje yeongu [A study of North Korean defectors' employment situation and (related) policy goals] (Seoul: Korea Labor Institute, 2005), p. 34.

48. In-jin, Yun, “Gyeong-je-jeok jeok-eung mullon, namhan saramdeul-ui pyeon-gyeon-gwa cha-byeol himdeulda” [Not only economic adaptation, but also biases and discrimination by the South Koreans are difficult (for the defectors)], Bukhan , no. 393 (2004):82.

49. KOSIS database of the National Statistics Office, available online at

50. Han-seong, Son, Bukhan i-tal ju-min-ui chui-eop siltae-wa jeongchak kwaje yeongu , p. 38.

51. Chosun Ilbo , April 16, 2002. The complaints about the “glass wall” created by the hakyeon-jiyeon system are quite common. See Hangyeoreh Sinmun, May 22, 2002; Munhwa Ilbo, March 17, 2002.

52. Han-seong, Son, Bukhan i-tal jhu-min-ui chui-eop siltae-wa jeongchak gwaje yeonngu , p. 49.

53. The Segye Times , January 12, 2002. The research was ordered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and was conducted by the scholars from Konyang University.

54. The statements and complaints about difficulties with English and Chinese characters have become a commonplace in the interviews with defectors. A few of many relevant examples are Munhwa llbo , January 21, 1997 (a defector complains that he is unable to read even signboards and ads); Hanguk llbo, February 20, 1997 (a defector says he cannot read even a name on a name card; names are normally written in Chinese characters); The Segye Times, October 22, 1995 (a defector states that problems with English loanwords and Chinese characters are the major obstacle in his adjustment to a new life); Hyeong-seok, Cha, “Talbuk cheongsonyeon ‘Na-neun hakgyo-reul sireo”’ [The defectors youngsters: “We hate going to school”], Sisa Journal. July 25, 2002 (a high school student says that he often does not understand his classmates who use many “foreign words”). In the above-mentioned study, 75.9 percent complained about their inability to understand English and 69.6 percent complained about Chinese characters (The Segye Times, January 12, 2002).

55. Myeong-hwa, Yi, “Geo-chang-han tong-il i-ron boda jak-eun sil-cheon jung-yo” [Small practical deeds are more important than grand unification theories], Weekly Chosun , June 28, 2001.

56. Interview with Myeong-ja, Keum, March 24, 2005, Seoul.

57. The Segye Times , June 30, 2000.

58. Dong-A Ilbo , October 4, 2004, p. 8.

59. North Korean official agencies reprinted a long article on the defectors' problems that was originally published by the monthly Shindong-A in the December 1995 issue (see Kookmin Ilbo , June 28, 1999).

60. Ji-yeon, Son, “Dong-gu Gongsan-ggwon bong-goe-si yeolhan-myeong-ui Bukhan yuhaksaeng. geu-hu 10 nyeon” [The eleven North Korean overseas students who defected from east Europe: Ten years later], The Monthly Chosun , no. 1, 2001.

61. Interview with Sang-hak, Pak, October 25, 2004, Seoul.

62. Hangyeoreh Sinmun , August 23, 2000.

63. Dong-A Ilbo , January 24, 1999.

64. See, for example, a recent study of the young defectors' adjustment, dotted with such statements, in Hyang-jin, Jeong, “Talbuk cheong-so-nyeon-ui gam-jeong-seong-gwa nambukhan-ui munhwa simlijeok cha-i” [The emotionality of the young North Korean defectors and the social/cultural differences between North and South Korea], Bigyo munhwa yeongu 11, no.1 (2005).

65. Yong-gwan, Cho, “Bukhan jeongchi gyo-yug-ui naemyeonhwaga talbukja namhan sahoe jeok-eung-e michin yoeng-hyang,” p. 175. Note that disappointment has partially resulted from the fact that the real North Koreans do not fit into a precreated, highly idealized image of themselves. Such an image, indeed, has been created by the South Korean left over the last two decades.

66. Yong-gwan, Cho, ibid., p. 174.

67. Dong-A Ilbo , October 4, 2004 (the article by Chu Seong-ha appeared only in the early afternoon issues of the newspaper, but it is available online; the article was explained to me by Chu Seong-ha in a letter.

68. “Gukmin tong-il yeoron josa bogoseo” [The report about opinion poll on the people's attitude to unification], Tong-il Hanguk , no. 254 (2005):8891.

69. As cited in the Korea Times , April 14, 2005.

70. Kyeonghyang Sinmun , December 21, 2004.

71. See, for example, an interview with a repentant broker, published in the Hangyeoreh Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the South Korean left (December 12, 2004): “Only belatedly I realized that planned defections annoy North Korea and China, provoke large-scale arrests of the North Korean refugees living in China and make more difficult the situation of the refugees who otherwise would live in China or return to North Korea when the economic situation improves.” This passage betrays the major desire of the South Korean left (shared by many on the right as well, albeit with lesser publicity) to send the North Koreans where they belong, to the North, and keep them there. It also contains an implicit denial that the refugees might have any other motivation but an economic one.

72. In late 2004 and early 2005, the monthly, widely read by “progressive” intellectuals, published one or two articles to such an effect in every issue.

73. Recently, describing the 25 percent drop in the refugees' number after the dramatic reduction in the aid packages available to them, a representative of a progovernment South Korean NGO said: “The government has ended the vicious circle when earlier refugees acted as brokers in order to get hold of the ‘resettlement money’ of new coming refugees” ( The Segye Times , July 12, 2005). Of course, this “breach of the vicious circle” means that more North Koreans remain in hiding in China, doing odd jobs there—and even more are starving in the North, unable to overcome the tacit rejection by the South Korean officialdom.

74. Hangyeoreh Sinmun , Janury 4, 2005.

75. The Segye Times , July 12, 2005.



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