Asia Rights

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

Sixth Edition: Concepts of Caste in Contemporary South Korea: The case of North Korean re-migration

Markus Bell

The South Korean nation-state has, since its founding in 1948, espoused the bio-political precept of ethnic homogeneity and unity among the globally dispersed Korean diaspora. According to this ideal, Koreans, as one people, enjoy use of a unique mother tongue, a commitment to Confucian values and cultural traditions, a unique diet, and a unique bloodline.[1] Accordingly, South Korea, in its bid to lay claim to being the sole, legitimate heir to some five thousand years of history, granted special rights and privileges to ‘returning brothers’, such as ethnic Koreans who grew up in other countries and North Koreans.[2] Despite this, recent events have consistently highlighted the hollow nature of this rhetoric and scholars have continued to point to a reality for these ‘returnees’ that is marked by anything but cordial feelings from the wider South Korean society.[3]

This article will offer insight into the latest example of what I refer to as ‘failed ethnic familiarity’, highlighting the case of North Korean refugees and the recent phenomenon of onward-migration from South Korea. This article argues that South Korea is a deeply divided country, along class and cultural lines, and the spectre of a past before modernization, as embodied in the recent influx of North Korean refugees, disturbs the hegemonic discourse of the nation-state. In reality, returning Koreans are often relegated to a second-class citizens in a caste-divided society.

Caren Freeman explains, in regards to ethnic Korean-Chinese in Seoul,

[They] were angered by the apparent incongruities between the South Korean government’s rhetoric of blood, kinship, and homecoming on the one hand and the realities of its exclusionary immigration policies and harsh crackdown on migrant labor on the other.[4]

It is the gap between the reality and the ideal that caused the ethnic Korean-Chinese whom Freeman interviewed distress during their time in South Korea, and it is this same incongruity that lies at the heart of the main push factors motivating many North Koreans to leave South Korea in search of improved living conditions.

The ideal, as the hegemonic discourse in South Korea would have us believe, and as touched on above, is that a kind of global, pan-Korean community exists. Whether separated and dispersed through conflict, commerce, adoption or political dissidence, it is proclaimed that Koreans from all over the world have a home in South Korea, the state that has, according to this same rhetoric, inherited the true spirit of the Korean people, as passed down through the ages.[5] In the last 15 or so years, however, as the political system in South Korea stabilized and more ethnic Koreans took the chance to return to a ‘home’ many of them had never seen, it has become clear that many South Koreans regards these returnees as somehow ‘less Korean’ than themselves.

According to the hierarchy of the caste system, as explained to me on numerous occasions by South Koreans and North Koreans alike, Korean-Americans are considered as somewhere near the top of the ethnic ladder, ethnic Koreans from other, predominantly white societies, (Canada, Australia, European nations) slightly below them, while Korean-Japanese exist on the next rung down. They are followed by Korean-Chinese and, at the bottom of the list, North Korean refugees.

Many Korean-studies scholars may point out that the presence of a caste system is far from revelatory news. In a recent article by Gianluca Spezza, he noted that the Chulshin Songbun (출신성분) social system in North Korea is akin to a caste system, ascribing inherited status and restrictions on various individuals and families.[6] South Korea, however, is a country that espouses an ideal embracing unity and equality, at least amongst ethnic Koreans near and far. It is this ideal, made tangible in the policy of handing passports to North Koreans who made it to an embassy outside of their home country that, for a long time, made South Korea such a desirable destination. Fuelled by the winds of South Korean pop culture – and this was before the styles of Gangnam – the number of arrivals from North Korea has continued to grow exponentially.

Over ten years have passed since the beginning of this latest wave of arrivals from North Korea and time is proving itself apt at revealing a great many flaws in the fabric of South Korean society. Most significantly, the gaping chasm between the pan-Korean ideal and the reality of a caste system that limits North Koreans in terms of employment opportunities, marriage opportunities, social mobility and education.[7]

The harsh reality – that no matter how well they speak the standard dialect or wear the latest brands they will never be South Korean –­­ conspires to leave many North Koreans who have left their friends and family above the 38th parallel feeling, at best, second-rate citizens. As one young North Korean who arrived in South Korea in 2004 expressed to me, “The past always follows me, I will always be talbukin, I will always be on the outside, and this is how I feel.” This, in turn, acts as one of the strongest ‘push factors’ driving the onward-migration of North Koreans to third countries.

Whether, upon arrival in countries such as Australia or Canada, these onward-migrants feel a peace that was denied them in South Korea is yet to be seen. It is also significant to ask if the same gendered-logics will play out in the lives of re-migrants, female re-migrants often being doubly discriminated against in South Korea – as North Koreans and as women. What is clear however, looking at the case of Canada, which had 385 asylum claims[8] from North Koreans in 2011, up from 26 in 2006,[9] is that this is only the beginning of the onward-migration. Perhaps it would benefit the South Korean state, North Korean refugees, and nations such as Australia and Canada, if the gap between the ideal and reality for North Koreans in South Korea was addressed, with a view to eradicating elements of an archaic and discriminatory ethnic Korean caste system?


[1] Kim and Choi. 1998. Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism. Routledge. New York and London.

Miyoshi Jager. 2003. Narratives of Nation Building in Korea: A Genealogy of Patriotism. An East Gate Book. Armonk, New York, London.

Freeman. 2011. Making and Faking Kinship: Marriage and Labor Migration between China and South Korea. Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London.

[2] Freeman:2011

[3] ibid

[4] ibid:105

[5] Miyoshi Jager:2003

[7] Hosaniak, NKHR Briefing Report: 2011

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