What is life like for North Koreans in Britain?

Some 700 North Koreans now live in the United Kingdom. So why do they leave South Korea, and what role could they have when the peninsula is unified?

By Jiyoung Song


More and more North Koreans are living in Britain, with the number seeing a steep hike between 2006 and 2009, although many North Koreans who are believed to be refugees in the UK are not ‘genuine’ ones as they didn’t come directly from North Korea but from South Korea already.


[North Korean asylum applications and refugee status determination in the UK]


[Source: UNHCR, Statistical Online Population Database at http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a013eb06.html, modified by the author]


The South Korean government accepts North Koreans as its citizens because its constitution defines its territory as the entire Korean peninsula. After a 3-month interrogation and another 3-month rehabilitation, North Koreans who arrive in South Korea become South Korean citizens, the identity with which they can also apply for passports and can travel to more than 100 countries visa-free.


The approximately 700 North Korean refugees who now live in the UK mostly come from South Korea, travelling through their family and friends’ networks or through so-called ‘information brokers’. They arrive in the UK with the South Korean passport and claim refugee status – the British border agency hires South Korean interpreters to screen whether the asylum applicants are ‘genuine’ North Korean or Korean-Chinese (chosonjok).


For the past three years I have been visiting New Malden in London to research the lives of this community in the biggest Korean town in Europe, finding out what they believe and why they have come to live in Britain.

The main motivations identified by North Koreans are social discrimination by fellow South Koreans (push factor) and English education in the UK (pull factor). What is more important than the linear push-pull factors is the facilitating factor by social networks, formed in Hanawon under the ROK Ministry of Unification.




One North Korean puts it bluntly: “I couldn’t bear the second-class citizen treatments by fellow South Koreans in South Korea, but here in the UK, it’s OK because there are many second-class third-class citizens like Indian, Pakistani Muslims or other black people. I’m just one of them.”


As of June 2014, 26,854 North Koreans live in South Korea. The South Korean government support programme for North Koreans, including long-lease rented housing, living expenses (USD6,800 per person), affirmative action for North Korean students and employment incentives for companies hiring North Koreans is enough to get by, but not enough to live comfortably. In 2012, for example, 46.7% of North Koreans in the South fell under the poverty line.




In July 2014, I organised a week-long workshop for North Korean residents in New Malden. During the workshop, participants told me about their views on capitalism, the 2008 Financial Crisis, Oliver Cromwell, the House of Lords, the Church of England, miners’ strikes under Margaret Thatcher and the old Proletariat and the new ‘Precariat’ – but showed almost unanimous uneasiness toward certain ethnic or religious populations and homosexuality.


Many support a state-run economy, free education and medical services, and most participants agree with democratic values and rule of law, in principle. During the Annual Archaeological Day by the Tower of London, one of the outdoor activities I organised, they saw multi-ethnic participants in the event and appreciated ethnic diversity in the UK.


[Photo Credit: Tower of London]

Political power is a dominant theme in conversations between North Koreans. There was a local council election in the UK in May 2014. The participants expressed deep concerns over the change in the leadership in New Malden from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservative Party and how it would affect the local asylum policies.




Disability and unemployment benefit frauds, fake documents, goods smuggling, heavy drinking, domestic violence or sexual harassment are rampant among North Korean men, according to a priest and volunteers who have been helping North Korean refugees.


Concepts like religious tolerance, anti-racial discrimination or homosexuality are still new to them. Two families from Bradford stated that they did not want to live there because of the heavy Muslim population, and were openly and strongly negative about the Muslim prayers, hijab-wearing teachers and halal food in schools.


During the trip to the Westminster Abbey and to Cambridge as participatory observation, a male participant spotted a gay couple on the street and expressed strong opposition to homosexuality. A few children made queries about homosexuality, but the curiosity was immediately halted by adult participants.


The second generation of North Koreans experience identity confusion, if not crisis. Some were born in South Korea, but show no attachment to South Korea. They came to the UK when they were very little, go to British schools and speak English better than Korean. Their parents’ generation are worried about their children’s losing North Korean identity and confidence in their origin.




One thing that we tend to forget that the two Koreas are still at war. In this regard, all Koreans can be refugees who are subject to the fear of persecution by armed conflicts, family separation, internal displacement and national security laws against each other.


It’s possible that North Korea may create another refugee crisis in Asia when it collapses. We can manage the risks of this by opening borders between two Koreas, economic cooperation and cultural exchanges. What the UK can do is to cultivate future democratic leaders of North Korea as it hosts the largest North Korean refugee population in the world. In my view, North Koreans in the UK can be highly resourceful human capital for a post-conflict peace process in the Korean peninsula.


Published for NK News on15 October 2015 

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