After spending years aggressively barring and deporting North Korean refugees trying to enter Canada, the governing Conservative Party is vowing to welcome defectors from the so-called Hermit Kingdom — but their promise might not be as concrete as they're letting on.
Defense minister Jason Kenney promised on Wednesday that Ottawa would offer refugee status for North Koreans fleeing their country's brutal dictatorship. Kenney is Canada's former immigration minister and currently the point person on campaigning in cultural and immigrant communities during the federal election.
"Our Conservative government's openness to North Korean refugees is in keeping with Canada's best humanitarian traditions," Kenney said in a statement.
"Special immigration measures will be developed in response to a request by the Korean community and will focus on North Korean refugees who are stuck in transit countries in Southeast Asia," Kenney continues.
The statement specifically references private sponsorships as a way to help those who are stranded.
The program would apply only to North Koreans stuck in limbo — residing in China, Thailand, or other nearby countries — and would not give refugee status to any of the thousands of defectors in South Korea. A special program will be put in place to green-light those claims.
The announcement comes just weeks after Kenney's government came under fire for refusing to increase numbers of Syrian refugees accepted by Canada.
Janet Dench, Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, calls the Korean announcement "a real head-scratcher."
For one, she says, Ottawa has spent the past several years leading an aggressive effort to refuse North Korean asylum-seekers government-sponsored refugee status, and to appeal the cases of those who managed to receive it.
Dench also points out that this policy reversal appears to be only for privately-sponsored refugees — a program through which private groups or families can put up the needed resources to resettle refugees, albeit one that has been scaled back in recent years. There's no clear commitment that things will change for government-sponsored claimants.
"I don't know where this is coming form," Dench. "Why would there suddenly, out of the blue, be a focus on North Koreans?"
Part of the explanation may be in the ongoing federal election.
Kenney made the announcement in the Toronto-area riding of Willowdale, home to some 12,600 Canadians of Korean origin — 9 percent of the riding. The story is the same in a handful of other Ontario ridings where the Korean population, both North and South, makes up voting blocs that could change the outcome of the election.
The Korean community has been vocal in their will to see the Canadian government do more, but years of talks and negotiations netted no results.
Statistics obtained by the Canadian Council for Refugees show that Ottawa has cracked down on refugees from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea aggressively in recent years.
Canada deals with relatively few refugee cases from North Korea — between 100 and 300 per year. In 2011 and 2012, it approved over 90 percent of those finalized claims, while roughly a quarter of those claims were abandoned by the person filing for refugee status.
Sometime after then, however, things changed.
The Immigration Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) — an independent tribunal made up of patronage appointments from the prime minister — began rejecting North Koreans en masse, citing the fact that North Koreans also receive citizenship in the Republic of Korea automatically as a reason to determine that they were not, in fact, refugees fleeing a brutal authoritarian regime.
The IRB only deals with government-sponsored refugees.
Part of the impetus for a change in policy may have been due to a spike in applications in 2012 — 719 in that year alone (although only a fraction of those were actually processed that year).
Whatever the reason, Ottawa's refugee officials slammed the door shut.
In 2013, there were just 95 claims — 69 percent were refused.
In 2014, there were 327 claims — only one was accepted.
In the first six months of 2015, 62 refugee claims from North Koreans were either abandoned or rejected outright. Not a single application was approved.
The dramatic reversal — from 100 refugees per year to zero — was the product of clear government policy. Not only did the board clearly refocus its screening of North Korean claimants, the minister of immigration would, thanks to new powers afforded to that office by the current government, seek to overturn any decision that granted a North Korean refugee status.
Any North Koreans who are deported from Canada would be sent to South Korea.
The Conservatives maintain that they're not turning away any legitimate refugees. They say all of those who were refused status were, in fact, South Korean-born, or at least had access to residency in South Korea.
"In cases where North Korean asylum claimants in Canada hold South Korean citizenship, the onus is on the claimant to demonstrate that he/she is facing persecution or harm in both North Korea and South Korea. Otherwise they would be expected to return to South Korea," a government spokesperson told the Toronto Star in 2013.
In the same story from the Star, members of the Korean community in Canada said that it was unsurprising that North Koreans would flee the supposedly-hospitable South. "There is a lot of discrimination in employment. We were bullied because we spoke with a different accent," Minseo Kim told the paper. "We were under constant surveillance because South Koreans think we are all spies."
Kim, mother of an infant, was granted refugee status, only to have it revoked when the Minister of Immigration Chris Alexander appealed her claim, and won.
Media in Canada began picking up on the struggle of those refugees in Canada. NOW Toronto profiled three North Koreans trying to find asylum in Canada. The Walrus magazine profile a similar case. The Star documented another North Korean woman, pregnant, who had her health protections stripped while she waited for a decision on her application, as bureaucrats pre-determined her claim to be unfounded.
The problem goes back more than a decade. In 2004, under a previous government, former North Korean government official Song Dae Ri was refused refugee status — although status was granted for his toddler — even as he feared execution, should he be deported back to the Hermit Kingdom.
In a statement sent to VICE News after this story was published, Ana Curic, a spokesperson for Kenney, the Conservatives contend that these claimants "had obtained refugee protection in Canada after having made fraudulent claims. They did not disclose that they were now South Korean nationals. Typically, these individuals flew on their South Korean passports to the United States, entered Canada on those passports, and then made inland asylum claims, stating that they had never been to South Korea, and that they did not have South Korean nationality."
But Canada is not the only one who has refused North Korean migrants.
Watch The VICE Guide to North Korea - Part 1 here:
More than 26,000 North Koreans have made it South of the demilitarized zone — which breaks down to anywhere from 500 to 2,000 a year. Yet, according to a 2014 brief from the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, socio-economic barriers make it hard for many North Koreans to work and integrate into the South.
And while the government in Seoul does offer assistance to those fleeing the oppressive North, the tough screening and integration process does deter some from entering or staying in the Republic of Korea. Fear of North Korean spies also creates an unwelcoming aura of suspicion.
Beijing also leads an aggressive campaign to root out and return North Koreans back to their home country, meaning that many of the migrants try to continue onto other parts of Southeast Asia. It's estimated 2,500 escaped to Thailand last year — a huge jump from just 46 circa 2004.
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling