Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

Archive for December, 2012

Fifth Edition: Welcome to Australia: Questions of North Korean Onward-migration

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on December 9th, 2012

Peter Walis

The movement of North Korean refugees, from North Korea, through China and, for the most part, on to South Korea is, by now, becoming a relatively well documented phenomenon. Less well known is the latest developing feature of the northeast Asian migrant population, a phenomenon yet to catch the eye of either the popular media or scholarly circles, that of onward-migration or secondary migration as it applies to North Korean refugees. This article describes a meeting with two individuals whose situations render these forms of transnational movement more tangible, and asks a number of timely questions probing at the structural and social conditions in which such movement is embedded.

Just outside of central Sydney, lies a peaceful, unassuming suburb that could be mistaken for any other in the outlying areas of Australia’s largest city, with its collection of Middle Eastern and Chinese takeaways, the ubiquitous pizzeria and an assortment of small businesses. This particular suburb, however, is (in)famous across Australia, for this is home to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (VIDC).[1] VIDC, like many others across Australia, is built to house migrants who, for whatever reason, have been apprehended by the state and whose status, as legal persons in Australia is in question. In the last two years this particular centre has been the scene of rioting and ongoing protests, by both detainees and activists.[2] Most recently, two security guards were suspended after accusations of assault once again put VIDC in the spotlight.[3] It was with this in mind that we arrived at VIDC to meet with two detainees waiting for decisions on their applications for asylum.

After making our way through security, a feat far less daunting than travelling through any international airport, we were led through an interim area and, upon showing our passes, gained access to the visitor’s area of the complex. I think it is fair to say that my colleague and I had imagined something a little more daunting, perhaps a few hunger strikers clinging to life, a burning bed or two and at least one or two burly guards keeping the peace– we were disappointed. On one side of the large, well-kept grassed area, a group of Chinese were gathered around a long table, debating something with great gusto as they shared a meal from home. Just past them a gathering of Middle Eastern men were greeting each other, while, nearby, a young man escorted his pregnant girlfriend up the steps of the sheltered area.

Our guide for the day, a representative from the Salvation Army, presently returned with two companions following close behind. We navigated our way over to a set of light-blue painted steel tables, flanked on one side by a small children’s park and on the other by the Chinese, now making short work of their meal.

Bowing deeply and offering a hand to shake, Mr. Park, a man in his late forties, with a robust, slightly weathered face and large hands he would frequently wring together, was the first to introduce himself and apologise for keeping us waiting. Ms. Cho, a more reserved women perhaps in her early forties, with a scar that ran across one side of her cheek, bowed and, with eyes slightly lowered, softly exclaimed that she, also, was very pleased we had come to visit.

Following further introductions and inquiries into the general health of Mr. Park and Ms. Cho, we tentatively asked if they would tell their story; “You know, I’ve lived outside of North Korea for over twenty years,” Mr. Park, alternating between wringing his hands and picking at the newly painted table, exclaimed in a heavy Korean-Chinese accent.

Leathery brow creasing, he continued,

I’ve already been in Villawood for just over two years. I arrived at the airport in Sydney and was immediately picked up by security. Originally, I’m from Yanggang Province, North Korea, up near the border with China. When I was younger I lived in a village surrounded by fruit farms. I left my home, my wife and new born son, in 1989 and crossed over into Jillin province [Northeast China]. I was in my mid-twenties then. I knew that China would be the easiest place for me to get work and sure enough, within a short time I was working on a construction site.

I worked there for almost twenty years before I felt it was time to move on, things are hard in China because the police are always looking for North Koreans who have crossed over illegally. I’d heard from a friend that Australia is a good country to live in. Using the money I’d saved I managed to get a [fake] passport and I bought a ticket to Australia. I’d heard it was a good place to live and there were many Koreans here.

The big problem, however, now that I’m here in Australia, is that I have no proof that I’m North Korean, in fact I can’t even describe the area I am from very well because I left so long ago and when I was there, I didn’t socialize with my neighbours much. If they deport me, they will send me to South Korea, but I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to work as a construction worker there. If I can stay here in Australia, I will work in construction. Look over there, [motioning to the adjacent construction site] it’s the middle of the day but no one is working. If this was China, people would be working a lot harder. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I want to stay here, in Australia.

Ms Cho, her frame appearing diminutive next to the larger Mr Park, smiled nervously and explained that, unlike Mr Park, she was ethnically Korean-Chinese. In a voice approaching a whisper, she continued;

I’ve lived in Australia for about eight years. Of course, I was living here illegally. I was working as a kitchen hand in a restaurant in Sydney. I was picked up by the police earlier this year [2012] and brought here, to Villawood. For most of the time I was in Australia, I was with my husband, at the time I was arrested, however, he left and I haven’t heard from him since. I heard he went back to China.

I’m a Christian and I’m applying for refuge on religious grounds, if I go back to China I fear I will be persecuted. I have a daughter, who is in Sydney at the moment, she is here on a student visa and I worry about her as she is alone.

The situations of Mr Park and Ms. Cho are far from unique. On a basic level, as with many individuals moving transnationally in a form of self-imposed exile, they felt their lives under threat in their home countries and chose to take great risks to try and improve their lot. What is unique about their cases, however, is that both of these individuals chose to come to Australia and live as illegal immigrants, rather than going to South Korea, a nation-state where, at least in the case of Mr Park, they could have been granted South Korean citizenship. This prompts us to ask why are more and more North Koreans leaving by means legal and otherwiseand on-migrating to third countries, in this case Australia? What combination of push and pull factors exist to make life in Toronto or Sydney more promising than Seoul or Daegu? Furthermore, how is it that a man such as Mr Park, who spent the last twenty years working on construction sites across northeast China, is exposed to information on what Germans in the early 1990’s referred to as ‘Mein Traumland’[4]. How are brokers, individuals who flout the borders of nation-states as a means of making a living, influential in aiding and encouraging North Koreans and ethnic Korean-Chinese alike to choose countries other than South Korea as their preferred new home? These questions are all pertinent in establishing a basic understanding of onward-migration within and beyond Northeast Asia.

As our meeting drew to a close, Mr Park looked pensive, commenting that he felt anxious about his immediate future. Ms. Cho, lightly fingering the sliver crucifix, asked us to contact her daughter and see if there was anything she needed. In the meantime, Mr Park and Ms Cho would continue waiting, caught in a liminal state, detained at her Majesty’s pleasure. Rising to our feet, we exchanged bows and handshakes and assured them we would visit again. In the meantime, they would continue to receive visits from members of the Korean Christian community. As we exited the visitor’s area of the facility, the Chinese banqueters were packing up the remains of their lunch, by the fence two guards were going over the results of the local football match, their dark sunglasses reflecting the low-lying afternoon sun.

[1] The Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) is located 27 kilometres from the CBD. Villawood IDC mainly caters for people who have over-stayed their visa permit or those who had their visa cancelled because they have failed to comply with their visa conditions. For more information see

[2] The Sydney Morning Herald. Buildings set alight in Villawood detention centre rooftop protest

[4] ‘Mein Traumland’ means ‘My Dreamland’ and was how many Germans at the beginning of the 1990’s referred to Australia.