International orphans: why is Britain turning away North Korean asylum seekers?

North Korean refugees are being denied British asylum, despite having risked their lives to escape one of the world's most feared totalitarian dictatorships.

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As time goes by, Britain’s attitude towards North Korea becomes increasingly fickle. On the one hand, we’ve restored diplomatic relations with North Korea since 2000, but on the other hand, we’ve supported every single UN resolution on their human rights abuses since.

More recently, this hypocrisy has become even clearer. Increasing numbers of North Korean refugees are being denied British asylum, despite having risked their lives to escape one of the world's most feared totalitarian dictatorships. To put this into context, in 2014, 17 of the 23 North Korea asylum cases registered in Britain were rejected, whereas in 2012 virtually all applications were accepted. The fact that such inconsequential numbers of refugees are being turned away is symbolic of the contradictory nature of our asylum policy.

Nevertheless, this hasn’t always been the case. Up until 2013, Britain welcomed most North Korean refugees with open arms. In fact, to date, Britain has accepted the largest number of North Korean refugees in the world apart from South Korea. Ji-hyun Park is one of the 1,000 North Koreans currently living in Britain.

Park first left North Korea during the famine, which killed 4m people in the late 1990s. “My uncle lived alone in a rural area and because of the shortage of food he starved. We could not even afford to buy a coffin,” she tells me.

In the end, Park decided to escape to China from her hometown Chongjin by the border. “I was approached by a man who promised me an honest and well-paid job in China and a safe way out for my brother,” she explains. “Once in China, however, I was brought to a trafficking establishment, sold to a Chinese man, and separated from my brother. I still do not know if he survives. From 1998-2004, I spent six isolating years in northeast China.”

Nevertheless, this changed when Park was arrested and repatriated back to North Korea. “I was imprisoned, tortured, and re-educated for six months, after which I could no longer work because of severe malnutrition,” she explains. After spending a year in one of North Korea’s most gruesome detention camps, Park again escaped to China and then Mongolia, eventually arriving in the UK in 2008.

Park now lives in Manchester with her husband, a fellow North Korean defector whom she met in China, and their three children. “I respectfully ask that more North Korean refugees are accepted to Europe and that they have the opportunity to live the life that I was allowed to live,” she reflects.

Ji-hyun Park

Sadly, this is not the case. Despite having endured the daily threat of the gulag, public execution and starvation, North Koreans are being denied British asylum. Despite having undergone gruelling, treacherous, journeys to Britain, we are turning them away. This is all the more shocking when you consider the tiny number of North Korean defectors applying for refugee status each year.

Why is Britain rejecting these applications for asylum? It all boils down to the fact that the UK now considers North Koreans as South Korean citizens, thus excluding them from refugee status. But this distinction lacks legal clarity or transparency. Instead, the issue remains a grey area clouded by confusion from all parties.

As Andrew Wolman, a specialist law professor from Seoul explains: “There has been some uncertainty over whether all North Korean escapees are in practice allowed to come to South Korea. If not, then their de jure South Korean nationality may not be ‘effective’ and they should arguably be considered refugees anyway under international law.”

Moreover, forcing North Koreans who have never stepped foot on South Korean soil and have no desire to become South Korean citizens to do so, is morally questionable. Life is far from rosy for North Koreans in South Korea. After a three-month interrogation process upon arrival, they are treated as second-class citizens and subject to social prejudice, unemployment, debt and mental health problems.

As Park comments: “It is hard for them to get past the interview stage in their job applications once it is known that they are from the North. Children become outcasts at school because they are from the North.”

Nevertheless, the British government continues to deny North Korean defectors citizenship. As Michael Glendinning, the co-director of the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, tells me: “The position of the Home Office is every application will be considered on its individual merits but the reality is it’s pretty much a blank rejection.”

Glendinning has first-hand experience of how difficult this process can be. “I’m helping a North Korean woman who’s had her application rejected. She’s living on a friend’s couch, she doesn’t have any money to eat, all her benefits have been cut, she doesn’t get housing and she’s not allowed to work legally. She’s pretty screwed really,” he adds.

To put it simply, when North Koreans are denied British asylum, they become international orphans, spurned by the nations of the world. Displaced and left without a home, it becomes impossible to recover from the fear and trauma of a brutal dictatorship. Even though defectors offer us essential insight into the workings of the most closed, secretive and isolated regime in the world, we continue to turn them away.

While we might be publicly critical of North Korea’s human rights abuses, when the limelight leaves the world stage, we deny defectors a modicum of dignity. Preoccupied with the absurdity of Kim Jong-Un’s state-sanctioned bowl cuts and fist-pumping, flag-waving rallies, it becomes all too easy to forget that the victims of this regime are living on our doorsteps.

Despite the uniquely inhumane abuses of the North Korean government and the inconsequential number of North Korean defectors applying for refugee status, the invisible population of North Korean defectors continues to pass us by.