Breaking News Briefs

Vol. 3, No. 1, August 24, 2011                                                                                                             View PDF

These occasional briefs are designed to provide a quick overview and analysis of important events as they happen.  Written by USC KSI faculty and fellows, the briefs are distributed by e-mail and are available on the KSI website, /ksi.  All media are free to quote from this briefing, provided reference is made to the author(s) and the USC Korean Studies Institute. 


Insights on the Rising Number of North Korean Defectors in South Korea

Sandra Fahy, Sejong Society Postdoctoral Fellow, USC Korean Studies Institute



The number of North Korean defectors has reach 21,000 in the ROK, what insights can you provide on this?


Since 2000, the number of North Koreans in the south has steadily increased. These individuals are living in a society that systemically disenfranchises them socially, economically and politically. Their numbers have grown, yet full integration remains merely aspirational. According to a 2011 report by Crisis International, “refugees from the North almost all fail to integrate or thrive.” The reasons for this failure are complex. The make-up of contemporary refugee populations means they are deemed less valuable to the ROK intelligence community. Gone are the days of high-ranking leaders and MiG pilots, now is the time of “ordinary” North Koreans whose swelling numbers cause economic strain to the South. The result is diminished resettlement packages and greater need for training so that they can contribute to society in some meager way. Empathy toward North Koreans in the South is on the decline. Young South Koreans face their own legitimate hurdles: a floundering global economy, exceeding competitiveness in the job market and at schools, along with increased cost of living. This climate of scarcity is unlikely to motivate a generous economic or social spirit towards defectors.


What other factors, whether life in the North, or en route out, hinder adjustment to the South?

Many factors contribute incidences of stress long before they arrive in the South. There is the difficulty of life prior to leaving, the horrendous journey out, the complexity of life in foreign countries such as China and elsewhere, and then – if they manage it – there is arrival in South Korea, a veritable parallel universe where everyone kind of looks and talks like them, but is alarmingly Other. According to the North Koreans I met in Seoul, South Koreans, with their seeming worldliness, use of English, and style of dress was very different for them, not to mention the way women behaved on TV and in the streets which was remarked as pitiable and embarrassing. The struggle with depression, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other psychological issues among the defector community are the symptoms of a much larger social anguish. In fact, these anti-social symptoms were present in North Korean society too and repeatedly identified as signs of the failure of the North’s socialism: singled out as evidence that society had become “beastly” and corrupt as a result of the tremendous economic and agricultural stresses of the 1990s. These behaviors should more rightly be viewed as individually manifested symptoms of social, economic and political failures.   

Do you think South Korean society is ready for mass migration of North Korean refugees in the event of regime collapse?

Anything above 10,000 is defined as “mass” in refugee studies circles. South Korea has already experienced this at a slow pace and still failed refugees socio-economically. If the ROK received 10,000 defectors in one year alone it certainly couldn’t handle sheltering, processing, housing or training this number. The question of refugees is often phrased in terms of its impact on the ROK, and by default the US. This is emblematic of a US-ROK-centric view of things. The South is not ready, nor is any other country in the region, but that is not going to be the peninsula’s biggest problem. By far the greatest humanitarian crisis will be within North Korea itself: internally displaced people (IDPs). This will generate a hot-bed of problems: lawlessness and abuse of military/police power; illness and communicable disease; orphaned, abandoned or lost children, increased violent and economic crimes, sexual exploitation of women and children, unreliable access to food, water and other vital necessities of life. Pre-existing inequalities will exacerbate.   

There are geographic bottle-necks for passage out of the North which will continue to stem the flow, ensuring the IDP problem is not easily ameliorated. The Sino-DPRK border is unlikely to liberalize, would-be defectors, in the case of liberalized DPRK-ROK relations, are unlikely to pass single-file across the most heavily mined tract of land on earth, the DMZ. Sea-passage may be possible, but again, it will curtail the flow. These geo-political limitations will lead to chaotic internal migration. We saw this during the Korean War and we will see it again, regardless of whether the regime collapses, war breaks out or the North muddles through, leading to an internal humanitarian crisis on a huge scale. The international community, particularly the US and the ROK, need to turn their attention towards the inevitability of internal social, economic and political disaster inside the North, rather than merely exploring the knock-on effect of refugees in the ROK or China.

What is the best way to ameliorate an IDP crisis?

The strategy must be for conflict and post-conflict situations. There is no international treaty for protecting IDPs. Legal responsibility rests with national authorities; we need to imagine what this would look like under a unified Korea, or a defunct-but-sovereign DPRK. The following minimums must be accessible to all: essential food and potable water; basic shelter and housing; appropriate clothing; essential medial services and sanitation. Through government and non-governmental bodies, use of efficient and effective logistics, emergency telecommunications, camp coordination, management and emergency shelters will ameliorate problems. Full participation of women in the planning and distribution of these is essential. Lastly, and most importantly, we must ensure that trained military and civilian Korean-speaking aid groups (of foreign, South Korean and defector origin) working on-the-ground in the DPRK have a profound knowledge of North Korean culture.

Sandra Fahy is a post-doctoral research associate at the Korean Studies Institute, University of Southern California. She is currently completing a book manuscript about her research with North Korean refugees. Fahy can be reached at

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