Embracing North Korean Refugees

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Campus Desk

Written by: Emily Lin

On October 23, 2019, Yale Law School invited Andrew Hong, the founder and executive director of Emancipate North Koreans (ENoK), to speak on the resettlement process and challenges for North Korean refugees adjusting to life in the United States. Based in Chicago, Hong’s non-profit provides education services, career counseling, community support, and a safe shelter for refugees.

Hong began the talk with a historical overview of the reasons that motivate individuals to leave North Korea despite the arduous journey and dangers that come with the defection process. Refugees often leave due to political fallout with the regime or to seek a better standard of living. They typically cross the Yalu or Tumen Rivers on the North Korean-Chinese border, making their way through mainland China with the help of brokers, non-profit organizations, or missionary groups. The next step of the journey takes them to Southeast Asia, typically ending at the UN refugee base camp in Bangkok, Thailand where members from various national consulates begin a screening process. Refugees have the freedom to choose where to relocate, with most migrating to South Korea or the United States. 

North Koreans who choose to come to the United States face additional challenges due to the language barrier and difficulties adjusting to a full-fledged market economy. Usually, they do not have access to a robust support network and face obstacles in applying for benefits due to the lack of information on available assistance programs. In that regard, ENoK’s Empower House program provides them with living necessities, access to information and job networks, and educational training on valuable and marketable life skills, seeking to fulfill three main goals to emancipate, empower, and embrace North Korean refugees.

Hong described his last five years as an eye-opening experience because he realized that resettlement involves more than practical and tangible assistance for migrants. It also involves building a support base that makes a continued effort to understand each individual’s narrative, since the psychological trauma and social challenges of resettlement are often more jarring and complex. Hong concluded the discussion with his next steps for ENoK, focusing on empowering North Korean refugees by expanding the network of defectors, volunteers, and donors to help them feel more at home in the United States.