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The North Korean Refugee Policy of the Lee Myung-bak Government: Nationalism and Multiculturalism

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The expanding population of North Korean refugees in South Korea presents a challenge to policymakers in Seoul. North Korean refugees are in many ways cultural outsiders, often lacking the skills and socialization necessary to succeed in South Korea’s dynamic capitalist economy. At the same time, the rhetoric of ethnic solidarity shapes much of the public discourse on North Korean refugees, and their integration into South Korean society is seen by many as a precursor to the challenges that unification will ultimately present. South Korean government agencies have therefore dealt with North Korean refugees as both one more migrant group in an increasingly multicultural society, and as ethnic kin in a category of their own. This paper examines the tensions between these two policies, analyzing the Lee administration’s approach to the subject by looking in detail at three ministries involved in North Korean refugee support.

Narae Choi is a first-year M.A. student at SAIS, concentrating in both Korea and Japan Studies. Her research interests include examining immigration, changing demographics, “ethnic purity,” and nationalism in the Koreas and Japan. Narae completed her B.A. in International Relations with a concentration in East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her diverse internship experience includes the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment; the Korea Women’s Hotline; and the Library of Congress, where she helped catalogue and classify North Korean literature.