North Koreans and their shattered American dream

The Hankyoreh (January 23, 2012) has an interesting piece on the hardships North Korean defectors face in the United States.  Did you know that…

As of 2011, more than 400 North Korean defectors were living in the United States. That number has increased rapidly over the last five years. Last year, for example, 1,194 North Koreans chose the United States and Europe as their final destination for refugee status or exile, while 2,376 chose South Korea. In other words, one in three North Korean defectors is heading to countries other than South Korea. The number increases when taking into account those who went to the other nations through South Korea. In fact, the United States has emerged as the main destination for North Korean defectors since 2006.


For a long time, North Korean defectors preferred to go to Europe. In the early 2000s, European nations took in quite a number of North Korean defectors as refugees. Some went to Britain, others to Germany. Some moved to Europe via South Korea. That started to change in the mid-2000s when the British government caught a South Korean trying to defect as a North Korean and raised the bar for refugees. The United States, however, passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004 to allow for the immigration of more North Korean defectors.

As most of you already know – it is no easy task getting out of North Korea and finding refuge in a third country.  They are often robbed and abused by the citizens of the country they are passing through and  even by South Koreans in China.  And being granted refugee status is no guarantee of a good life – whether it be in South Korea where they have been likened as sources of  embarrassment or the United States.  According to the article:

In the United States, everyone in the family worked. His mother worked in a garment factory and the brothers in a fish store. Jang-gil’s father had difficulty adapting to his new surroundings. He kept changing jobs, from an eye glass factory to a laundromat to a fish store. His English didn’t improve either. He and his wife started fighting quite often. A Korean-American in Rochester remembers the father, Mr. Lee, saying, “My family and other Koreans, everybody alienates me.”

Apparently the strain became too much:

On June 18, 2011, he [Jang-gil] got home late at 11 o’clock and immediately dialed 911. His mother was lying on the floor bleeding. Fire engines, police cars, and an ambulance arrived to the house on South Clinton Avenue in Rochester, New York. Police discovered that Lee’s father had hanged himself in the attic. The North Korean defector, 54, had stabbed his North Korean defector wife, 48, during a quarrel and then killed himself.

We have seen other incidents in the United States where the defectors were allegedly ill-treated by those they trusted to help them, members of the church, and ended up taking their own lives – unable to deal with the shame or stress.  Mr. Marmot also posted about the troubles North Koreans living in LA had.

I do like the ending of this rather depressing article because it resonates of hope:

For the time being, his goal is to get out of Rochester. There are a few North Korean defectors in Richmond, Virginia. He plans to move there to learn how to fix cars, make some money and go to university. His brother, who is still receiving counseling, decided to stay in Rochester. They had to part from each other but had no choice. As Lee puts it, “I can’t stay here anymore. I want to forget everything and start anew.”

  • setnaffa

    Apparently, the streets of America are not paved with gold, unlike those of Pyongyang… /sarc

  • nayaCasey

    Reporters are always looking for the surprising or interesting “man bites dog” stories, outliers, personal anecdotes that go against the grain. I wonder what are the “dog-bites-man” stories about North Koreans in America.

  • Sperwer

    @1 Don’t you mean Seoul?

  • DLBarch

    The solution is simple: Come to the U.S., but stay the hell away from the parochial Korean communities and their divisive village idiots once you get there.


  • cm

    ““But it should be different now.” Mr. Lee couldn’t understand why in the United States he should go through the same level of poverty that he’d suffered in North Korea and China.” – North Korean

    Their complaints about living in the US sound similar to their complaints about South Korea. Unfortunately with their lack of skills, lack of education, and most of all, the lack of understanding about how capitalism works, will ensure that they will always be “discriminated against” in their minds wherever they go.

    Much of North Korean defectors problems are psychological – feeling of persecution, distrust, and paranoia, rather then real discrimination.

  • cm

    “The solution is simple: Come to the U.S., but stay the hell away from the parochial Korean communities and their divisive village idiots once you get there.” – DLB

    Tough to do when non-Korean communities aren’t willing to hire him nor give him any kind of financial or psychological support.

  • silver surfer

    Is he going through poverty because he’s being exploited or is that just the way it is in the U.S., where, according to the latest stats, around half the population live below or near the poverty line, and one in four children live in hunger?

  • nayaCasey

    Silver Surfer #7: Regard those poverty line statistics with suspicion, according to Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post. The federal poverty line statistic was a political formula created by the LBJ administration to push its War on Poverty, a large part of the increase in poverty are Hispanic immigrants, the statistics don’t include such things as the earned income tax credit, food stamps, health insurance, housing, energy subsidies. Robert Samuelson is one of the messengers, you could probably Google something like: poverty line statistics misleading.

  • Granfalloon

    Given what North Koreans are taught about Americans, it’s not surprising that they cling to Korean communities in the US.

  • nayaCasey

    Granfalloon–here’s something I wrote a while ago about meeting with North Koreans here in Seoul. The title is “North Koreans love me–really!

  • hamel

    nayaCasey: thanks. Interesting column. I had read it before but it was good to read it again.

    I wonder what the CFE’s vision is for a united Korea. Should there be any kind of state support for ex-North Koreans, or is the market sufficient to sort it all out?

  • nayaCasey

    thanks, hamel #11:

    Knowing that it is a pro-free enterprise, individual liberty, limited government organization, what would you suggest should be CFE’s vision for a united Korea?

    Somewhat off the point, but here’s a video one of our staff members recently put together about Oh Kil-nam’s family.

  • Granfalloon


    I had a similar experience with a busload of North Koreans on a one-day tour that I somehow found myself on. If I hadn’t been told that they were North Korean defectors, I wouldn’t have known (I didn’t speak much Korean back then).

    Still, the entire structure of North Korea hinges on a worldview that puts North Koreans in one class of moral character, and the rest o the world (especially Americans) in another. I wouldn’t expect North Koreans to be trembling with fear or rage at the sight of an American, but I also wouldn’t expect them to jump into full engagement with American society and culture with no reservations.

  • hamel

    thanks, Casey, for answering my question with a question.

    Given that it is a pro-free enterprise, individual liberty, limited government organization, I am doubtful as to whether CFE could have an effective vision for the initial stages of a unified Korea, when North Koreans and South Koreans would be competing in the same marketplace with vastly differing levels of training, experience, IQ, and physical ability.

    That is why I asked the question. I am genuinely curious.

  • Brendon Carr

    If it were up to me, it seems North Korea should be maintained as a separate but free state until such time as the gap between the two is narrowed.

  • nayaCasey

    Granfalloon #13, good point. Seems that it is a bad situation with a terrible start and not many good options going forward for NK refugees.

  • nayaCasey

    Hamel #14,
    1) what it is that you think should be done for ex-North Koreans (esp., in terms of state support)?
    2) could you mention any organizations or government agencies/offices that you believe are a model for activities when it comes to helping ex-North Koreans?
    3) is there an organization or person that you believe has an effective vision when it comes to dealing with North Korea?

  • hamel


    That is a commonly expressed idea. My question is, without actually shooting North Koreans trying to get over the border into South Korea, how would you actually convince them that they need to stay north, at least for a generation or three, until they can live together in one country?

    If you can picture, as I do, the idea that after shooting the first hundred or thousand, South Koreans lose the stomach for that method, and allow North Koreans to move south and create their own slums around large cities in Seoul (much as we see happening in, say, Rio, for example), then what is to prevent them from becoming a permanently exploited slave/servant class coupled with an underworld of criminal gangs?

  • hamel


    1) what it is that you think should be done for ex-North Koreans (esp., in terms of state support)?

    I don’t know. But it is an issue I want to know more about.

    2) could you mention any organizations or government agencies/offices that you believe are a model for activities when it comes to helping ex-North Koreans?

    No, I could not.

    3) is there an organization or person that you believe has an effective vision when it comes to dealing with North Korea?

    Not yet. Although Andrei Lankov comes close.

    That is why I like to ask organizations that put forward an economic vision or plan for a given society. Maybe they have an answer that makes sense.

    My limited knowledge of libertarianism is that it would probably work okay in a society where everyone is adult, reasonably rational (i.e. no serious mental illnesses or handicaps), and starting off from a relatively level playing field in terms of basic education, nutrition when a child, and physical/mental development.

    I don’t (yet) see how a laissez-faire market system would work to create a functioning and healthy economy in a situation like fusing two completely economically opposite nation states together.

  • nayaCasey

    Thanks, Hamel #19, the next time we have a staff meeting and the issue of how to help former North Korean refugees comes up, I will be sure to mention your comments.

  • hamel

    nayaCasey: thanks for your response #20.

    My original (indirect) question was “I wonder what the CFE’s vision is for a united Korea.”

    At this time, does the CFE have a specific plan or roadmap for economic unification of the 2 Koreas?

  • nayaCasey

    To get back to the main thrust of this thread:

    *Are there any organizations or government agencies/offices (anywhere in the world) that you believe are a model for activities when it comes to helping ex-North Koreans?
    **If yes, could mention who they are and what they do?
    **If not, what do you believe is the main reason for this?

  • hamel

    nayaCasey: it would be nice if you would answer a question with a statement, rather than another (repeated) question.

    Am I to take it that the CFE has no plan or vision for how the economy of a united Korea should be unified?

  • Granfalloon

    No one else has a plan for integrating two of the world’s most polar-opposite economies. Why should CFE be any different?

    Shit, let’s not put the horse before the carriage. Does anyone have a plan for how you’ll get a million scared-shitless quasi-children in uniform to give up their AK-47s?

  • nayaCasey

    hamel #23, if one of the hosts here starts up another thread specifically about the Center for Free Enterprise then I would be delighted to answer questions posed there (and explain to you there why your questions don’t make sense and aren’t really worth answering). Or you can find the old thread and post your questions there. But this time, don’t waste the opportunity!

    Otherwise, please, let’s not hijack this particular thread on ex-North Koreans and their alleged shattered dreams to have yet another FAQ about libertarianism.

  • hamel


    I am always intrigued when people tell me not to ask something, or that my question doesn’t make sense. In my view, the only stupid question is the one not asked.

    As for hijacking this thread, the CFE and libertarianism became involved in this thread up at comment #10 above. I am sure that Robert will indulge a discussion on this topic.

    I made an honest effort to answer your questions, why won’t you answer mine?

  • slim

    @hamel. I don’t have the book or links at hand, but Marcus Noland’s first book on NK and unification (based on East Germany’s example and oter studies of internal migration) suggests raising incomes in the North to 60% of the level in the South would be enough to keep people from fleeing south.

  • hamel

    Slim: it is an interesting idea. Would it be enough for you? Especially if you were a single North Korean still in the military at the time of unification. Would you stay north with an uncertain future, or would you risk it all and come to Seoul?

  • doctoroh

    One possiblity in south Korea is putting more north Koreans out there on the lecture circuit in universities, companies, or in detention facilities and the like where pro-norky activists pass through from time to time. More time could be spent documenting individual stories both in writing and on film. Those few documentaries that I have seen are quite moving.

    And, ‘ For the time being, his goal is to get out of Rochester.’ I hear you.

  • nayaCasey

    Well! Inspired by this discussion I just sent 100,000 won to Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. It seems they are involved in practical ways to help ex-North Koreans.

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  • hamel

    A belated follow-up to Brendon Carr (15):

    A report by the Korea Employers Federation (KEF) [not a very left-wing organization. Hamel] predicted that if the North Korean regime collapsed suddenly, up to 3.65 million people from the communist country may cross over into capitalist South Korea.

    “Even under a conservative estimate, up to 1.61 million North Koreans may move to South Korea, mainly because of the huge difference in wages and employment opportunities,” the KEF said.

    Hell’s bells! That’s sure to destabilize things, and much more than an influx of Chinese Korean migrant workers.