The appearance and disappearance of asylum seeking families
from the DPRK in Canada

Researchers: Ann Kim1, Sean Chung1, Jack Kim2, and Shine Chung3
Affiliation: York University1, HanVoice2, and KCWA Family and Social Services3
Research Partner:
HanVoice and KCWA Family and Social Services
Keywords: asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, North Korea, DPRK, secondary migration, migration policy
Go to: Methodology, Findings


Objective: This study explored experiences of North Korean migrants in Canada, including their integration trajectories, motivations for migrating, and memories of home.

Justification: Between 2010 and 2014, hundreds to thousands of asylum seekers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK a.k.a. North Korea) arrived in Canada hoping to obtain refugee status. Some initial applicants were accepted, while most of the later applicates were rejected because they had originally applied for asylum in South Korea. In 2018, some refugees who had been approved were subsequently informed that their status was under review leading to deportations. This brief and fleeting wave of North Koreans, who will soon escape research attention, raises many questions for Canadian policymakers and practitioners.

Practical goal: To give policymakers and practitioners a better understanding about this wave of North Korean migrants, focusing on trajectories, motivations, experiences and memories of home of North Koreans living in Toronto

Primary audience:
Policy makers, service providers, academics, and Korean immigrants


This study employed six individual interviews and one focus group discussion with North Korean families living in Toronto, local experts and community leaders, and KCWA settlement workers. It asked the following questions:

  1. How do domestic and international policies and refugee legalities affect the movement of North Korean refugee families to Canada? How do such policies affect families with young children and youth? If policies change, can we expect a larger wave of North Korean migrants?

  2. What does the construction of North Koreans as South Korean, and thus illegal/illegitimate refugees, by policymakers mean to families?

  3. What do North Korean families know about Canada prior to their arrival? What are their experiences here and that of their children?

  4. How have recent North Korean immigrants and their children been received by local Koreans? What would facilitate their integration?


Secondary Defection:

North Korean motivations to leave South Korea were 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. Social and economic discrimination, and subsequent integration challenges, emerged as the key reasons for leaving South 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 which entangle North Koreans in ways that undermine their ability to settle permanently.

Memories of Home and the Identity Issues:

North Korean youth spoke of old and new memories, including 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.


  1. A short-term solution is to accept North Korean (NK) migrants on humanitarian and compassionate grounds under s.25 of IRPA. There is some evidence that some families were able to obtain PR 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.
  2. A long-term solution is to resettle NKs stranded in transit states (Thailand), and one stream would be under a Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program model, under s.25.2 of IRPA, i.e. to give them another route or option other than South Korea.
  3. Revisit automatic citizenship policy for North Korean migrants and explore voluntary acquisition.
  4. 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.
  5. Assist and advocate for NK families in navigating the immigration and refugee system and in dealing with legal representation and border services.
  6. Assist and advocate those whose claims for status in Canada are denied, ensuring safety and security.

Explore more projects

Go to Top