A group of North Korean defectors living in Toronto, some of them for years, are worried that they soon might be deported.
Taegun Kim, a contractor who has been in Canada for 11 years, said he found out Tuesday that he might have to leave.
“I’ve been living in Canada doing my own business and I’ve been settled down for a long time. And my friends here also, they also settled down well,” he said. “We North Korean defectors are doing our best for our country, doing our work.”
“Is it right to be deported forcefully from Canada? I don’t think it is right based on human rights.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada sent 150 letters to people of North Korean origin like Kim in late October, saying the government had concerns about their applications for permanent residency. IRCC told Global News that they had information that raised “possible concerns” about their admissibility to Canada, though the ministry provided no details, citing privacy.
If these people’s applications for permanent residency are denied, they could face deportation. But they wouldn’t be sent back to North Korea – they would instead go to South Korea, a country that Canada believes is safe and where they can get citizenship.
But many of them don’t want to go, saying that North Koreans face discrimination there.
“They treat us like garbage,” said Kim. “Even though we work harder than them, the payment for us is lower than the payment for foreigners.”
He would know – he spent five years living in South Korea after escaping the North, a fact that he withheld from immigration officials when he made his application for asylum. He says he was told by others that he should lie, that his application stood no chance of being accepted if he admitted that he had lived in South Korea.
He was desperate too, he said. His experience in South Korea was rough.
Kim left North Korea in 1998, during a massive famine in the country that claimed between a few hundred thousand and three million lives.
He didn’t intend to leave permanently, he said. He crossed the border into China to find food and was planning to bring some home. But when he and his companions were spotted at the border by the North Korean military, he knew he had to keep running.
“At the time, if you were captured at the scene, normally you got put to death in front of the public,” he said.
He lived in the Chinese countryside for four years, constantly in fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to North Korea. He watched a few of these prisoner transfers through binoculars at the border, he said.
“In North Korea, they didn’t have enough handcuffs. Instead of using handcuffs, they punctured the palm and they used metal thread to thread together the hands.”
In 2002, there were several incidents of North Koreans breaking into diplomatic compounds in Beijing and claiming asylum. As the Chinese authorities started to crack down on North Koreans in their country in response, he decided he couldn’t stay. He got to the South Korean consulate in Beijing in 2002 and went to South Korea.
When he arrived with a group of other North Koreans, he said, news media took their pictures and filmed them. It was international news, and was reported on South Korean television.
Because his image appeared on TV, he said, the North Korean government took notice.
“North Korea noticed that we were there, so my family, my parents were captured,” he said.
A Chinese people-smuggler called to tell him the news.
He had a hard time finding a job in South Korea, he said, and every time North Korea was in the news, he felt like people pointed at him and demanded to know why North Koreans acted the way they did.
So in 2007, he left for Canada.
He got married in Canada and has two children who were born here. He works hard as a contractor, he said, and he pays taxes and contributes to society. And although he admits he lied on his application, he doesn’t want to leave.
“I feel we are accepted here because of the political and legal support for multiculturalism,” he said. “When we lived in South Korea we used the same language but we were treated different, so it was hard for us to live there. But in Canada, we speak different languages, but in spite of the language barrier, we make a good contribution to society and we live well here.”
According to the 2016 census, there are about 970 people in Canada who were born in North Korea – though about half arrived here before 1980, so many may have been born in North Korea before the country split in 1945.
North Koreans who arrive in South Korea are generally granted South Korean citizenship. “They become South Korean. But it’s only legally, because culturally, even though they speak the same language, there’s a big difference,” said Raymond Cho, MPP for Scarborough-Rouge River, who is of South Korean origin.
Their accent identifies them as North Korean, he said, and children get bullied in school and adults have trouble finding jobs because of it.
But for the federal government, what matters is that they get granted citizenship.
“IRCC does not support facilitating the entry and resettlement of North Korean defectors into Canada,” said the ministry in an emailed statement.
“As North Koreans are able to apply to become citizens of South Korea, and given that Canada has limited resettlement spaces, it would mean that fewer spaces would be available to refugees who are just as much in need of protection yet do not have access to a durable solution.”
Although the government will listen to individual cases in case there are reasons why a specific person shouldn’t go to South Korea, that’s their general policy. Several cases at the Immigration and Refugee Board have all found the same: that because North Koreans can get South Korean citizenship, and because they’re unlikely to face death or torture in South Korea, they can’t be granted asylum in Canada.
Cho hopes that something can be done to keep the North Koreans here – perhaps a private sponsorship program to help support them while they find work. “Give them a grace period for one year. If they can get a job and become good Canadians, why not give them the opportunity? They’re already here.”
He understands the government’s position. “I know we have too many refugees around the world. I see the position there.”
But he hopes that the government considers what could happen to people’s families who still live in North Korea, who like Kim’s parents, could be harmed if their relatives appear in South Korea. “North Korea considers South Korea an enemy country. So you’re not only defecting, you’re betraying ‘our great leader Kim Jong Un.’ You’re betraying North Korea, so your whole family gets punished.”
He also wonders about the children who have spent their lives in Canada. “Some came with their parents at a young age and now they’re teenagers. If they go back they are going to have a real culture shock and discrimination.”
-With files from Mike Drolet, Global National