A Refugee by Any Other Name



In talks I have been giving in Korea, I have been struck by the subtle resistance to thinking about North Korean refugees as refugees. With some help from my student Jaesung Ryu, I was once again reminded that nothing having to do with North Korea is simple.

As we note in Witness to Transformation, the international legal definition of a refugee stems from the Refugee Convention (or more precisely, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). According to the Convention, the term refugee shall apply to any person who “…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

English translation: refugees are refugees because of their legitimate fear of persecution if they were to return, or be returned, to their country of origin. The Chinese claim that the North Korean refugees are not refugees because they have economic motives for leaving. But these motives are not relevant as long as there is “well-grounded fear of being persecuted” for their political views, which would certainly include the view that they have a right to leave their own country.

Korean translation: the Korean word for refugee in this international legal sense is nanmin (난민, refugee). But it is not used in South Korea to refer to the North Korean refugees, nor do North Korean defectors argue that it is a more accurate description of their status. It is used for refugees from other countries, however, and some have suggested that nanmin might be appropriate if war were to break out on the peninsula, causing a massive outflow of North Koreans fleeing across the Chinese border.

Why aren’t the North Korean refugees—well--refugees? The reason has to do with the “country of origin” of the North Korean refugees who find themselves in China. It would seem obvious to an outsider that the refugees are coming from North Korea, which is clearly a sovereign entity and member of the UN. But South Korea’s constitution stipulates in Article 3 that North Korea is in fact part of the Republic of Korea.

Partly as a result, North Korean refugees are not typically considered nanmin but rather “defectors” or bukhan-ital-chumin (북한이탈주민). The origins of this term are bukhan (North Korea) + ital (desertion, defection) + chumin (residents). (See for example the South Korean Protection and Settlement Support for North Korean Defectors Act (in Korean).

Despite the fact that term bukhan-ital-chumin had been the legal terminology for North Korean defectors since 1997, two other terms have also entered currency. The first is talbukja (탈북자 or “people who fled the North”), a colloquial term, and saeteomin (새터민, or "people of new land"), which was first used by the Ministry of Unification (MOU) as of January 9, 2005. However, the MOU subsequently announced that it will no longer use the word saeteomin to describe North Korean defectors and returned to the legal terminology of bukhan-ital-chumin as of November 21, 2008. According to one report, the usage of the term saeteomin was relinquished upon the request of North Korean defectors who argued that it misrepresents their identity, which is motivated in some cases by political calculations and in others by economic reasons. However, the term saeteomin still enjoys currency and is the term of choice for some NGOs.

One of our colleagues with Chinese told us that the PRC uses the term “Chosun refugees” for the refugees (in Korean, choson-nanmin or 조선난민). If so, the Chinese may be more clear on what the refugees are than the South Koreans seem to be.

Coming shortly: the International Crisis Group is about to release another of their high-quality reports, this one on the integration of the North Korean refugees in South Korea; we will be blogging about it shortly.

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