The topic of human rights in North Korea is one that has been in the news for many years. The issue got renewed attention due to a UN report late in 2014. Owing to the harsh conditions, many North Koreans attempt to escape the country every year, fleeing into China in an effort to eventually reach safe haven elsewhere. Being stateless for years, they lack basic support for living and are susceptible to human trafficking. The South Korean government and civil society organizations try to do as much as possible for these refugees, but it is a massive effort. In recent years, the United States has begun making an effort to help by enacting the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011, later amended and renamed the North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012.
Adoption is a unique approach to helping North Korean refugees to resettle. Though the number remains relatively small, adopted North Koreans have successfully resettled in the US, and they have become key figures in the movements calling for changes in North Korea. Joseph Kim, who escaped from North Korea as a child and was later adopted by American parents, gave a TED Talk about “the family he gained” in the US. His story is testament to the fact that the US government and civil society are sincerely welcoming the North Korean refugees.
Although South Korea, already providing asylum for more than 27,000 North Koreans, remains the default destination, an increasing number of refugees are looking to the US as another option. President George W. Bush signed North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 and President Obama further developed the issue, enacting additional legislation. Starting in 2006, North Korean refugees began coming to the US. Grace Kim, who came to the US in 2007, runs her own grocery store in northern Virginia. As a small business owner, she has successfully transitioned to a free-market society, and now she makes regular donations to North Korean refugee causes. Another refugee, Rev. Eom Myung-heui escaped from North Korea motivated by a desire for freedom of religion. She moved to the US in 2008 and devotes her life to fostering North Korean refugee students in the States.
Despite these success stories, challenges still remain for North Koreans coming to the US. Many North Korean refugees are often unaware that the US might be a viable destination for them, though this information is slowly beginning to spread. Furthermore, in cases of adoption, the US legal system requires documents that North Korean refugees do not have access to, such as proof of a child’s status as an orphan. There is hope that the State Department and other agencies will find ways to facilitate easier adoption of North Korean children in the US, because even if the appropriate documents could be obtained, verifying their legality is difficult. Another challenge is the lack of specific support networks for North Korean refugees in the US. While there is an extensive system in South Korea for helping North Koreans transition to their new society, few places in the US are specifically prepared for the unique needs of refugees coming from North Korea.
Those challenges may explain why more North Koreans have not yet comes to the US. Since 2006, a total of 179 North Korean refugees have resettled in the US, and the number of adopted children would raise that total higher. While that number is small relative to other sources of refugees arriving in the US, the above success stories suggest that those who do relocate can become strong contributors to the civic landscape of the US and may prove inspirational to other North Koreans seeking alternatives to life under the Kim regime.
Cheolwoo Lee is an Asan Academy intern at the East-West Center in Washington.