Defectors in South fleeing to Europe

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Defectors in South fleeing to Europe

An increasing number of North Korean defectors, dissatisfied with life in the South, are seeking refuge in a third country even after they obtain South Korean citizenship, creating a diplomatic headache for Seoul, the JoongAng Ilbo has learned.

Representative Hong Jung-wook of the Grand National Party said he obtained internal documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade detailing the defectors’ attempts to take asylum in Western countries by pretending they were still North Koreans. Hong shared the information with the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.

According to the ministry documents, the U.K. and Norway have discovered about 600 former North Koreans with South Korean citizenship who have applied for asylum.

A January 2009 report from the South Korean Embassy in Oslo to the Foreign Ministry said that Norwegian immigration authorities and police cracked down on a shelter for North Korean asylum seekers in November 2008.

The authorities found that 33 of the supposed refugees had South Korean passports and 22 had South Korean resident certification cards. Another 25 confessed that they had South Korean citizenship.

The Norwegian government sent 20 back to South Korea. Middlemen who arranged their attempts to seek refuge in Norway were also arrested, the embassy reported to the ministry.

Similar situations were reported in Britain. An internal ministry report showed that about 1,000 North Korean defectors have applied for refugee status there since 2004. The British government believes about 70 percent of them have South Korean citizenship.

According to the internal report, about 100 voluntarily returned to South Korea, and London has asked Seoul to take the rest back.

Until late 2008, the British government had granted refugee status to 375 North Korean defectors but stopped the practice last year. About 200 former North Koreans have applied for refugee status in Norway, but the Norwegian government believes about half of them have South Korean citizenship.

To toughen its screening process, the British government has asked the South Korean government to provide its entire database of North Korean defectors’ fingerprints, prompting a diplomatic fracas.

For privacy reasons, Seoul doesn’t want to surrender the database. But at the same time, Britain recently has been rejecting more visa applications from South Korea, and the Foreign Ministry worries it is in reaction to the asylum seekers problem. In addition, a plan to allow South Korean youngsters to work and study in England has been postponed.

North Korean defectors in South Korea say the phenomenon shows no sign of diminishing. The notion that Western countries are “havens for defectors” has spread widely, encouraging defectors who experienced discrimination in the South to take off for other countries, they said.

“About 20 of the defectors who had been at Hanawon [the government’s resettlement center] with me went to England, Norway and Canada,” said a 38-year-old defector who came to the South in 2005.

“One of my friends successfully settled in Canada in September of last year,” she said, “and is now worrying about the fingerprint verification.”

The Hanawon center is a safe house where North Korean defectors spend their first months in the South. They undergo job training as well as other educational programs.

“Some defectors, after experiencing difficulties in settling in the South, headed to foreign countries to seek refuge with the expectation they would be better off there,” said a Ministry of Unification official.

“We have not punished those who returned to the South,” the official said, “because it was important to keep the morale up in the defector community.”

By Jung Hyo-sik, Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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