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Home » When Roots/Routes Matter: The Appearance & Disappearance of Asylum Seeking Families from the DPRK in Canada

When Roots/Routes Matter: The Appearance & Disappearance of Asylum Seeking Families from the DPRK in Canada

Principal Investigator: Ann H. Kim (Sociology)

Proejct Team: Jack Kim, Senior Advisor, HanVoice; Shine Chung, Executive Director, KCWA Family and Social Services; Sean Chung, KCWA Family and Social Services, HanVoice

Project Dates: 2017–2019

Funding: Child and Youth Refugee Research Coalition at Dalhousie University | Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Between 2010 and 2014, hundreds to thousands of asylum seekers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea) arrived in Canada, many with children, hoping to obtain refugee status. Some of the initial applicants were accepted while most of the later applicants have been rejected. Since 2013, Canada has been verifying fingerprints with the government of the Republic of Korea (a.k.a. South Korea) and discovered many asylum seekers, though not all, initially settled there and obtained citizenship. Since asylum seekers given legal status in one country cannot apply for asylum in another country, North Koreans who migrate through South Korea cannot obtain refugee status in Canada. In 2014, only one refugee application was approved. In addition to the drop in North Korean asylum seekers, many of those already approved were informed in 2018 by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that their status was under review leading to deportations. Using six individual interviews and one focus group discussion in 2018, this exploratory study focused on North Koreans in Toronto and their trajectories, motivations, experiences and memories of home.

Secondary defection
North Korean motivations to leave South Korea to go abroad were very clearly focused on the push factors in South Korea – speaking to the ambivalence which South Koreans feel for those from the North, and the inability to return to North Korea. This secondary movement can be described as a secondary “defection” due to this perception and treatment of North Koreans as the “undesirable desirables” and the policies and practices in South Korea and Canada entangle North Koreans in ways that undermined their ability to settle permanently.

Social and economic discrimination, and subsequent integration challenges, emerged as the key reasons for leaving South Korea. In particular, it was believed that their accent was the main distinguishing feature for discriminatory behaviour. Similar to their initial move out of North Korea, their desire to leave South Korea was facilitated by brokers—people, often paid, who provide information and instrumental help to migrants crossing borders.

Memories of home and the identity issues
We often hear about North Korea in the media and through sensationalized media stories and we rarely hear the voices of youth and of their childhood. North Korean youth spoke of old and new memories; old memories of home, both joyful and painful, and their attachments to North Korea, along with the forging of new memories and life in Canada. These experiences informed their identity as North Korean, which in the Canadian context was accepted and to some extent, embraced, and as a defector, which elicited more mixed emotions.


  • A short-term solution is to accept North Korean migrants on humanitarian and compassionate grounds under section 25 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). There is some evidence that some families were able to obtain Permanent Resident status on a case-by-case basis but there is significant fear and anxiety. Some families have lived in Canada for many years and have roots here.
  • A long-term solution is to resettle North Koreans stranded in transit states (Thailand), and one stream would be under a Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program model, under section 25.2 of IRPA, i.e. to give them another route or option other than South Korea.
  • Revisit automatic citizenship policy for North Korean migrants and explore voluntary acquisition.
  • Public education on North Koreans and anti-oppression campaign in South Korea and in Canada (particularly in local Korean ethnic communities) to shift discourse and long-standing dominant ideologies.
  • Assist and advocate for North Korean families in navigating the immigration and refugee system and in dealing with legal representation and border services.
  • Assist and advocate those whose claims for status are denied, ensuring safety and security.

For more information about this study, please contact Ann Kim.