A man walks by a window, his face shadowed, with the bustling city outside

A man attends a job fair for North Korean defectors in Seoul in December. (Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)


What’s Behind South Korea’s New Defectors’ Day Holiday?

The inaugural July commemoration is an inflection point and an opportunity for the Yoon government to advance both domestic and foreign policy priorities.

Published on July 8, 2024

On July 14, South Korea will commemorate its inaugural North Korean Defectors’ Day. The new holiday, established by the administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol earlier this year, marks the twenty-seventh anniversary of the North Korean Defectors Protection and Settlement Support Act, the legislation that governs South Korea’s policies toward the community of over 34,000 North Korean defectors who have resettled in the Republic of Korea (ROK). Despite some debate over the holiday’s timing and merits, it marks a noteworthy inflection point in South Korean policy.

Building on this momentum, the Yoon government should use the new holiday to advance policy toward the North Korea diaspora in three ways. It should lead global cooperation to address the challenges of transnational repression, enhance efforts to protect vulnerable North Koreans abroad through diplomacy targeted at key third-country governments, and directly engage the global diaspora network of North Korean émigrés in values-based cooperation with other liberal democracies.

New Holiday, New Approach

Establishment of this new holiday is one of the more visible steps taken by the Yoon administration to indicate support for the defector community. It’s also part of the government’s overall effort to reframe its vision of the purposes and pathway to Korean unification. The Ministry of Unification’s policy agenda, released in March, explicitly frames South Korea’s task as preparing for “unification grounded in liberal democracy”—an approach that is distinct from the ones taken by previous Korean presidents. While some past administrations, such as the Lee Myung-bak government (2008–2013), also supported a democratically unified Korea, Yoon has made liberal democracy central to his approach in both inter-Korean relations and South Korean foreign policy.

Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, often appeared to believe in an inherent tension between promotion of human rights in North Korea and inter-Korean rapprochement. Moon treated defector-led human rights activism toward North Korea as destabilizing to intergovernmental relations between the two Koreas and an obstacle to his goals of inter-Korean rapprochement. As one of his advisers told reporters, “peaceful management of inter-Korean relations is the number one priority for us, and human rights come second.” As a result, during Moon’s presidency, the South Korean government reduced funding for organizations focused on human rights and defector support, investigated NGOs that engage in this work, and limited information-sharing operations such as leaflet launches into North Korea.

The Yoon government has taken a different approach. It has framed unification as dependent on the advancement of human rights inside North Korea, saying that its goal is “laying the foundation for a united Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.” To do that, the Ministry of Unification has de-emphasized intergovernmental relations between North and South Korea, including through a relatively major reorganization of the ministry. Instead, it has emphasized three other lines of effort: educating domestic and public audiences about the reality of conditions inside North Korea, attempting to foster better human rights conditions inside North Korea itself, and successfully integrating North Koreans into South Korean society.

The Yoon administration’s agenda speaks directly to some of the newer challenges facing North Korean defectors and refugees. For example, the Ministry of Unification’s emphasis on family support and trauma care is appropriate for a population that is no longer composed mostly of elite, male Cold War defectors and instead is now majority female, with a large number of single mothers. South Korea is also expanding support for “third-country” children, such as those born in China to North Korean mothers. Third-country children now make up over 70 percent of the children of North Korean defectors, but they sometimes fall through the cracks of existing resettlement policy.

Policy Changes for a Global Diaspora

Additional steps could address another major change in the North Korean diaspora: its increasing globalization. As I documented in my recent book, South Korea is the epicenter of what has become a global North Korean diaspora—global both in terms of where North Korean émigrés reside and how they engage in activism. The Yoon government has taken some steps toward recognizing this new reality by including enhanced efforts at global education and advocacy in the 2024 policy agenda, as well as by appointing a global ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights, a position left vacant under Moon.

The ROK could strengthen its policies in three additional ways to address the changing nature and needs of the North Korean diaspora—steps that would simultaneously enhance South Korea’s efforts to lead the world in what Yoon has referred to as “values-based diplomacy.”

First, the ROK could more directly address the use of transnational repression by North Korean security and intelligence agencies to intimidate and pressure North Korean defectors and refugees abroad. Pyongyang uses a menu of tactics to dissuade citizens from leaving and to discredit those who do leave as traitors and liars. If these efforts fail, the regime often goes a step further, using coercion, threats, and even outright violence to deter émigrés from engaging in anti-regime activity or pro-human rights advocacy.

The most high-profile of these efforts was the fatal February 2017 attack on Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, using the nerve agent VX in a Malaysian airport. However, transnational repression is also an ongoing lived reality for many ordinary North Koreans, whether in the form of threatening phone calls or assassination attempts. North Korea is far from alone, as authoritarian regimes around the world view their “defector diasporas” as a threat to regime security. As a result, transnational repression is a growing challenge for liberal democracies and individuals worldwide. 

South Korea has an unusual opportunity to exercise global leadership in this space by sharing best practices, cautionary tales, and lessons learned with the democratic governments and civil society organizations that increasingly grapple with these challenges. Doing so would not only allow South Korea to strengthen its desired position as a “global pivotal state” but also add an important nonsecurity dimension of diplomatic, values-based cooperation to the ROK’s relationships with Japan, the United States, Europe, and other liberal democracies. North Korean defectors can and should be active contributors to these efforts, with unique firsthand perspectives to share. The survey data I collected in the course of researching my book show that North Korean émigrés strongly believe that the primary responsibility of a democratic government is to allow citizens their rights and freedoms, protecting them from abuse by those in power.

Second, South Korea can continue to build up its efforts to advocate for the protection of vulnerable North Koreans abroad. ROK Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul’s calls for China to stop repatriating North Koreans—in both his inaugural phone call with his Chinese counterpart in February and bilateral talks held in May—are a welcome step in this direction, as is the Ministry of Unification’s statement in its 2024 policy agenda that it will take steps to address the exploitation of North Korean overseas workers.

The ROK’s diplomatic efforts to protect North Koreans, however, should also be focused on third countries, particularly those in Southeast Asia where North Korean escapees commonly transit in their attempts to get to Seoul. Countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, which have close economic and sometimes security ties with China, have not always assisted escaping North Koreans and at times have actively assisted in their capture and repatriation, often in the face of relative passivity from Seoul.

A stronger ROK diplomatic stance and increase in diplomatic resources devoted to engaging with third-country governments on behalf of escaping North Koreans could produce positive outcomes for this vulnerable population, especially as the flow of refugees has started to (moderately) rebound after the coronavirus pandemic. It would also likely support the South Korean government’s goal of smoothing the process of societal integration of North Koreans into South Korean society: in the past, a lack of assistance from ROK diplomats and personnel abroad has led defectors to doubt that citizenship in South Korea is truly “automatic” if actually helping North Koreans exercise their citizen rights comes at a geopolitical cost to Seoul.

Third, the Yoon administration could explicitly lean into the global network of North Korean émigrés to strengthen civil society activism around North Korean human rights and defector resettlement. In South Korea, onward migration by North Koreans is sometimes viewed as a failure of resettlement policy, rather than as a sign that North Koreans are also a globally engaged and mobile population whose worldwide presence can be an asset to the ROK. It is appropriate and important to reduce welfare gaps and improve policies toward North Korean resettlers in South Korea, so that these individuals and families can flourish.

But focusing solely on domestic policy misses a key opportunity. The global nature of the North Korean diaspora—and the presence of anchor communities in liberal democracies in Europe and North America—has become a critical and unique asset in advocacy efforts for North Korean human rights, in which transnational connections often strengthen and reinforce domestic advocacy and domestic political representation. For example, one of the four defectors thus far to have won a seat in the ROK National Assembly is Ji Seong Ho, whose international human rights advocacy helped propel his domestic political career. Another activist, Jihyun Park, was a human rights advocate for North Koreans before standing for election in the UK.

As the South Korean government designs and convenes events like its proposed International Dialogue on Unification Cooperation, therefore, it should find positive ways to engage and include not only government actors but also civil society organizations and members of resettled North Korean émigré communities around the world. North Koreans have already served as witnesses to the repression that Pyongyang has sought to conceal from the world. They can also be representatives of the North Korean people who are denied a voice in the present, as well as stakeholders in Korea’s future. 

In survey research conducted for my book, I found that North Koreans in the United States have a strong civic pride in their status as American citizens. This civic identity co-exists with—rather than undermines—strong and continued communal attachment to these individuals’ Korean homeland and families who remain on the Korean peninsula. The same survey data show that North Koreans have internalized the democratic values of countries where they resettle, including the United States, and are actively engaged citizens who vote and participate in other forms of democratic politics at comparatively high rates. 

Even the political diversity and fragmentation of this community, sometimes spoken about ruefully as a drawback, has its advantages: it means that the North Korean human rights movement can draw support from democratic governments worldwide across the political spectrum, from conservative governments focused on Reaganesque and anticommunist ideas of political freedom to more progressive governments interested in inclusivity through an emphasis on disability rights, human security, or gender-based violence (the latter of which is a significant issue among North Korea’s majority female refugee population).

A Foundation for Progress

July’s inaugural day for North Korean defectors provides an important opportunity for South Korea to honor these individuals’ contributions and memorialize their sacrifices. It also provides a longer-term opportunity to unite and advance the domestic and foreign policy priorities articulated by the South Korean government. Strengthening the global dimensions of policies toward North Korean refugees and defectors creates global support for a better future for the people of North Korea and demonstrates the importance of South Korea’s emphasis on values-based leadership. 

No one expects that such celebrations or changes will lead to the near-term collapse of the North Korean regime and unification of the Korean peninsula. Distance and hardened authoritarianism combine to make political change inside North Korean particularly difficult. But in a world where diasporic activism is one of the only meaningful forms of opposition possible, North Korean émigrés have taken full advantage of the rights and freedoms afforded by the democracies where they resettle to advocate for themselves and their homeland. North Korean Defectors’ Day is a positive step to recognize that foundation—and to build on it moving forward. 

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.