Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2017, 15:25 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - South Korea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - South Korea , 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 23 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

South Korea

South Korea hosted about 160 refugees and asylum seekers in 1999, the majority (144) North Korean refugees who entered South Korea during the year.

The "defections" (as South Korea termed them) of 144 North Koreans to South Korea surpassed the 100 mark for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War. The 1991 number was more than twice the 71 defections in 1998 and much larger than the 9 defections in 1990 and 1991.

In November, a top South Korean official reiterated that his government was ready to accept all North Koreans who went to relocate in the South (although South Korea officially refers to them as "defectors," it publicly recognizes the refugee nature of their flight). The official said his government was ready to discuss the issue with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but cautioned that if the number of refugees was to exceed the hundreds, South Korea would need additional facilities to help them. South Korea provides North Korean refugees with assistance at reception centers for one year, with limited freedom of movement. Subsequently, the refugees receive two years of additional assistance including food, accommodation, medical services, education, and job placement.

South Korean officials noted that more and more North Koreans were taking greater risks by escaping to China with their families for fear that family members left behind would be punished.

Because the border separating the two Koreas – still technically at war with each other – was tightly sealed, many North Koreans went to China before going to South Korea, often with UNHCR assistance, or seeking refuge at Seoul's embassy in Beijing.

North Korean asylum seekers remained a sensitive issue between South Korea and China. For that reason, South Korea usually said the defectors arrived from "an unknown third country." In October, South Korea's foreign minister urged politicians and civic groups to refrain from revealing or publicizing the matter of North Korean refugees in China. He said South Korea would continue to work on the issue but would do so with a low profile.

In March, South Korea offered asylum to a North Korean diplomat in Thailand, who had been the target of a botched kidnapping attempt by North Korean security forces. UNHCR had reportedly classified the diplomat as a refugee.

South Korea's generosity toward North Koreans did not extend to other asylum seekers. South Korea became a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention in 1992 and amended its immigration law in 1994 to permit individuals to file asylum claims with the government. However, according to UNHCR, the actual practice of receiving those applications has been extremely problematic. Between 1994 and 1999, more than 50 persons from at least 14 countries – including Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, and China – applied for asylum. In all of those years, including 1999, South Korea did not approve any asylum claims (it does not require North Koreans to apply for asylum, although it takes steps to ascertain that the "defectors" are legitimate and are not spies). UNHCR recognized a very small number of persons as refugees under its mandate, including several whose claims were pending with the South Korean government.

UNHCR said South Korean immigration officers often refused to accept asylum applications on the grounds that the potential applicant had no claim, implying that the adjudication was not conducted according to the law. "Immigration officers continued to discourage asylum seekers from even applying for refugee status determinations," said UNHCR, "often completing an ad hoc determination on the spot rather than allowing the asylum seeker to access a proper status determination process." South Korea did not, however, return any asylum seekers to their home countries in 1999, to UNHCR's knowledge.

North Koreans are provided protection and assistance pursuant to special legislation. The law does not explicitly provide for the granting of South Korean citizenship but, according to UNHCR, once South Korea determines that a North Korean is eligible for protection, the North Korean "seems to be regarded as a South Korean national and is given an identification card."

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