Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2017, 11:55 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - South Korea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - South Korea , 10 June 2002, available at: [accessed 13 December 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 hosted approximately 650 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2001. The majority (583) were North Koreans who entered South Korea during the year. The remainder included 64 asylum seekers from various countries whose claims were pending with the South Korean government at year's end, three refugees recognized under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and one refugee (from Ethiopia) recognized by South Korea – the first government-recognized refugee since the country became a party to the UN Refugee Convention in 1992.

According to media reports, the "defections" (as South Korea termed them) of 583 North Koreans to South Korea was almost double the number of defections in 2000. Under South Korean law, North Korean defectors are automatically entitled to South Korean citizenship.

Because the border separating the two Koreas – still technically at war with each other, despite a recent thaw in relations – remained tightly sealed, many North Koreans transited through China, and then through other countries such as Thailand or Burma (or, more recently, Mongolia), before traveling to South Korea.

In May, South Korean lawmakers and activists submitted a petition to the UN calling for international protection of North Korean refugees in China. Some 11.8 million people, about one-third of South Korea's adult population, signed the petition.

In June, in an incident that received international attention, seven members of a North Korean family, the Jungs, entered the UNHCR office in the Chinese capital of Beijing and demanded sanctuary. South Korea asked China not to return the family to North Korea and said the issue should be settled on humanitarian grounds. After three days of tense negotiations, the Chinese government permitted the Jungs to fly to South Korea via Singapore and the Philippines. A South Korean diplomat noted that while South Korean embassies elsewhere in the world could help North Korean refugees directly, such assistance was not possible in China.

That same month, UNHCR opened a liaison office in South Korea (having previously handled South Korean issues through its Japan office). The South Korean government said it hoped to strengthen ties with UNHCR on such issues as assistance to North Koreans.

Despite its laws and official statements of welcome, the reality of South Korea's treatment of North Koreans is often different. The government harshly interrogates North Koreans it suspects of spying, and turns away many asylum seekers who can provide no valuable intelligence information. In recent years, South Korea's burgeoning relations with North Korea have caused it to be even less inclined towards a generous asylum policy.

Near the end of 2001, South Korea's national assembly adopted a resolution calling on the government to increase diplomatic efforts on behalf of North Korean defectors and to promote a new concept of "refugee" that would include North Koreans. The resolution urged "those countries to which [the North Koreans] have fled, to shelter them as refugees under the terms of that wider definition" and called on UNHCR to redouble its efforts with respect to the refugees.

South Korea is even more ambivalent toward asylum seekers from other parts of the world. The government received 29 new asylum applications during 2001. It rejected four and approved one, with 64 cases pending at year's end. (The government does not require North Koreans to apply for asylum.)

In its first-ever grant of refugee status, the government provided an Ethiopian with a one-year residency permit that includes work authorization, as well as a travel document. However, the refugee receives no health or welfare benefits and no employment assistance.

During the year, South Korea amended its deadline for applying for asylum from 60 days after arrival in South Korea to one year. The law will become effective in 2002.

In the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, South Korean officials questioned all asylum seekers of Arab or Central Asian origin. The government detained those who were in even minor violation of immigration laws, and, according to UNHCR, forcibly returned two persons with active asylum claims. One was returned before UNHCR was aware of his detention, and the other was returned on the day UNHCR was meeting with immigration officials to discuss the fate of the detained asylum seekers. One of the two was returned to Iran, the other to an undisclosed Central Asian country. The government eventually released the other detainees (some after nearly two months), but only after receiving guarantees from Korean sponsors.

South Korea's detention policies for asylum seekers were vague and at times arbitrary, UNHCR reported. Asylum seekers did not have access to competent or independent interpreters. While the government allowed detainees to contact UNHCR and to receive visitors, the asylum seekers often lived in facilities that lacked heating or other necessities. Detention conditions were not subject to independent review by either judicial or administrative bodies – a minimum requirement of UNHCR Executive Committee conclusions.

According to UNHCR, South Korea continued to rank lowest among industrialized member states (members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that are also parties to the UN Refugee Convention) in overall performance toward refugees – recognition rate (low), amount of social assistance for refugees and asylum seekers (none), and integrity of the adjudication process (limited).

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