Australians on North Korea: China-DPRK, Refugees and a Fellowship Opportunity



Corrected May 14: an earlier version of this post gave the impression that the Australian government was unwilling to issue visas to North Koreans. This is not the case; such restrictions only apply to senior regime figures or those who contribute to the North’s missile or nuclear programs. North Korean students are allowed to study at Australian universities as well. 

While visiting Australia, I have had the chance to touch base with strong scholarly communities at the University of Sydney and ANU doing work on the Korea peninsula, including a number of people we have covered before (Justin Hastings [University of Sydney] continues to work on trade networks, including drug networks; James Reilly (also at Sydney) is watching the China-DPRK relationship closely, including a new paper on Chinese aid to North Korea at Asian Survey I had not seen).

But I also had the chance to meet Bronwen Dalton (Director of the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre at the University of Technology Sydney UTS). In addition to earlier work on gender and aid, she and Kyungja Jung, Jacqueline Willis and Markus Bell have an interesting study at The Pacific Review –which I am certain would replicate to the US media. It shows how dominant press images manage to demonize not only the regime but also the North Korean people as well.

But Dalton is also involved in fighting the good fight with respect to the refugee issue in Australia; she provides an overview in an interview with ABC radio. Convoluted immigration laws—as in the US and increasingly Europe—result in North Korean refugees being turned away or sent back to the South even if they prefer to resettle in Australia. Bronwen provided me with a lot more detail.

She confirmed that the UK, Canada and some EU countries have recently adopted more stringent screening to filter out fraudulent refugee claimants. The UK government has rejected the application of refugees who already have South Korean citizenship or are “supposed to” apply for that citizenship. In 2008--in cases we didn’t know--the UK actually deported North Korean refugees who claimed that they came directly from North Korea via China but actually had resided in South Korea. Britain now requires refugees to provide fingerprints in order to check whether they came to the UK via South Korea.

The Australian process bears sad similarities. Under Australian law, North Korean asylum seekers are considered dual citizens of both North and South Korea and are typically deported to South Korea within two weeks. She estimates that about 80 asylum seekers were thrown into this situation in 2011, when the High Court ruled that refugees cannot stay in Australia if they received protection in a third country, a level hurdle in the US as well (we attempted to sort through this legal arcana for the US here and here). In 2011, between 60 and 70 North Koreans lived in Sydney in 2011; after the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) began to crack down on illegal or overstaying NK refugees in early 2012, that number has fallen to approximately forty. With the crackdown by immigration officers and the slim possibility of securing a Protection Visa or any kind of legal visa, more North Koreans are likely to return to South Korea.

There is a small silver lining, and if anyone has candidates, Dalton is interested in hearing about them. She has worked to establish a generous scholarship for settled refugees. Applications are open until the end of July if anyone knows candidates.

Why not training for North Koreans as well? Australia is perfectly positioned to provide much-needed education to North Koreans.  The current political climate is not supportive for government funding such an initiative but since 2013 the government has been willing to issue visas. The US should be more liberal on this score.

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