North Koreans in South Korea and Beyond: Transnational Migration and Contested Nationhood


  • Jin Woong Kang Kyonggi University



residential mobility, internal migration, repeated migration, unobserved heterogeneity, life course, Switzerland


This article examines the differentiated identities of North Koreans in South Korea and beyond in terms of transnational migration and contested nationhood. In the post-Cold War era, North Koreans in South Korea have been marginalised as a social minority, and comprise a subaltern group within South Korea, despite having South Korean citizenship. As a result, many North Korean refugees, including those who have already gained South Korean citizenship, have migrated to Western countries for a better life in terms of wealth and welfare. As active agents, they have pursued strategic lives in the host countries’ multicultural societies and Korean communities. Through complex transnational migration to South Korea and elsewhere, North Koreans have reformulated nationhood by contesting the idea of a “homogeneous nation” of Korea. This article focuses on how North Koreans have shaped their own Koreanness in the multicultural societies of the United States and the United Kingdom as well as in the hierarchical nationhood of South Korea. By doing so, it offers an alternative framework for looking at the multifarious identities of North Korean refugees globally.

Author Biography

Jin Woong Kang, Kyonggi University

Jin Woong Kang is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of North Korean Studies of the Graduate School of Politics & Policy at Kyonggi University. He received his PhD in Sociology from the University of Minnesota. He worked as a postdoctoral associate and lecturer in the Council on East Asian Studies and the Department of Sociology at Yale University. He also worked as an Associate Professor in the Research Institute of Korean Studies at Korea University. He is the author of North Korea, the Country of Juche: State Power and People’s Lives (Seoul: Spring of May).


Ahrens, J., Kelly, M., & Liempt, I. V. (2016). Free movement? The onward migration of EU citizens born in Somalia, Iran, and Nigeria. Population, Space and Place, 22(1), 84-98.

Bell, M. (2014). Ties that bind us: Transnational networks of North Koreans on the move. Resilience, 2(2), 100-113.

Bhabha, H. K. (1990). DissemiNation: Time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation. In H. K. Bhabha (Ed.), Nation and Narration (pp. 291-321). London and New York: Routledge.

Charny, J. R. (2004). North Koreans in China: A human rights analysis. International Journal of Korean Unification Studies, 13(2), 75-97.

Chatterjee, P. (1993). The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Choe, H. (2006). National identity and citizenship in the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Korea. Journal of Historical Sociology, 19(1), 84-118.

Choo, H. Y. (2006). Gendered modernity and ethnicized citizenship: North Korean settlers in contemporary South Korea. Gender and Society, 20(5), 576-604.

Cohen, R. (2012). North Koreans in China in need of international protection. Forced Migration Review, 41, 42-43.

Coote, D. (2015). Toronto's North Koreans face deportation, (25.01.2018).

Delanty, G. (2000). Citizenship in a Global Age: Society, Culture, Politics. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Féron, É., & Lefort, B. (2019). Diasporas and conflicts: Understanding the nexus. Diaspora Studies, 12(1), 34-51.

General Affairs Department. (1978). The special compensation act for North Korean defecting soldiers. The Official Gazette, 8120.

Glenn, E. N. (2002). Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Human Rights Watch. (2017). South Korea: Seek help for North Korean refugees in China, (21.06.2018).

Kang, J. W. (2011). Becoming South Korean: South Korea's disciplinary governance and North Korean settlers' identity formation. Korean Journal of Sociology, 45(1), 191-227.

Kang, J. W. (2013). Human rights and refugee status of the North Korean diaspora. North Korean Review, 9(2), 4-17.

Kim, J. (2014). National identity and attitudes toward North Korean defectors. Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies, 2014, 95-111.

Koh, K., & Baek, G. (2002). North Korean defectors: A window into a reunified Korea. In K. Oh & R. C. Hassig (Eds.), Korea Briefing 2000-2001: First Steps toward Reconciliation and Reunification (pp. 205-225). New York and London: An East Gate Book.

Korea Institute for National Unification. (2013). White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, 2013. Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification.

Kymlicka, W. (2001). Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lankov, A. (2006). Bitter taste of paradise: North Korean refugees in South Korea. In S. Haggard & M. Noland (Eds.), The North Korean Refugee Crisis: Human Rights and International Response (pp. 53-72). Washington D.C.: US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

Lee, J. Y. (2002). Ethnic Korean migration in Northeast Asia. In T. Akaha (Ed.), International Seminar: Human Flows across National Borders in Northeast Asia (pp. 118-140). Monterey, CA: The Centre for East Asian Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Marshall, T. H. (1950). Citizenship and Social Class. London: Cambridge University Press.

Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. (2012). A Study on the Customized Self-support Plans for Violence Victims, North Korean Women. Seoul: Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Ministry of Unification. (2018a). Unification White Paper. Seoul: Ministry of Unification.

Ministry of Unification. (2018b). The policy of North Korean refugees, (21.06. 2018).

Mullen, J. (2013). Outcry over young North Korean refugees handed back to regime by Laos, (21.12.2017).

National Assembly. (2016). National assembly news, (22.12.2017).

Oh, W.-H. (2011). Research on the identity of North Korean migrant youth. PhD Diss., Korea University.

Ong, A. (1996). Cultural citizenship as subject-making: Immigrants negotiate racial and cultural boundaries in the United States. Current Anthropology, 37(5), 737-751.

Park, M., et al. (2011). North Korean Diaspora. Seoul: Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, Seoul National University.

Park, S., et al. (2004). A Study of National Consciousness and Perception of Discrimination. Seoul: Korean Women's Development Institute.

Radio Free Asia. (2006). North Korean refugees head for Europe, (22.12.2017).

Schiller, N. G., & Fouron, G. E. (2001). Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home (American Encounters/Global Interactions). Durham: Duke University Press.

Seol, D. H., & Skrentny, J. D. (2009). Ethnic return migration and hierarchical nationhood. Ethnicities, 9(2), 147-174.

Shin, G. W., Freda, J., & Yi, G. (1999). The politics of ethnic nationalism in divided Korea. Nations and Nationalism, 5(4), 465-484.

The Bush Institute. (2014). U.S.-based North Korean Refugees: A Qualitative Study - October 2014. Dallas, TX: The Bush Institute.

The Conversation. (2018). Why does the UK deport North Korean asylum seekers?, (22.06.2018).

The Guardian. (2016). North Korean defectors see American dream deferred as reality sets in the US, (25.11.2017).

The Republic of Korea. (1948). The Nationality Law. Seoul: The ROK.

Turner, B. S. (2001). The erosion of citizenship. British Journal of Sociology, 52(2), 189-209.

UK Border Agency. (2012). Operational Guidance Note: North Korea (DPRK). UK Border Agency.

UNHCR. (2017). Population statistics - data - persons of concern, (21.12. 2017).

USA Today. (2016). Hundreds of North Korean defectors live in this London suburb, (23.12.2017).

Vertovec, S. (2009). Transnationalism. Oxon: Routledge.

VOA. (2010). (25.11.2017).

Watson, I. (2015). The Korean diaspora and belonging in the UK: Identity tensions between North and South Koreans. Social Identities, 21(6), 545-561.

Yonhap News. (2012). 70 North Koreans in Australia are under threat of deportation, (15.11.2017).

Yonhap News. (2016). 2,000 North Koreans have entered Thailand every year, (27.06.2018).

Yoon, I.-J. (2001). North Korean diaspora: North Korean defectors abroad and in South Korea. Development and Society, 30(1), 1-26.




How to Cite

Kang, J. W. (2020). North Koreans in South Korea and Beyond: Transnational Migration and Contested Nationhood. Migration Letters, 17(2), 325–338.