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South Korea joined the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1992 and recognised its first refugee in 2001. The country grants refugee status to those whose life is threatened by political, religious and other forms of persecution. By 2010, about 2,600 foreigners had applied for refugee status in South Korea. Just 8.7% of them were granted refugee status.

Due to its democratic political system and successful economic growth in the 1980s, South Korea has seen an increase in the number of refugees claiming asylum. However, South Korea‘s refugee status determination process does not yet meet the standards set out by UNHCR. While UNHCR has praised Korea‘s progress, it has also indicated that it expects more from the Korean government.

Those who apply for refugee status are usually from South-East Asia, the Middle East, Central and East Africa. Applicants from Nepal, China, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Bangladesh, the Congo, and Ethiopia are most common. Between 1992 and 2010, South Korea granted refugee status to 202 individuals. The country has also allowed another 126 to stay under ‘humanitarian consideration‘. In March 2010, Korea granted citizenship to a refugee (from Ethiopia) for the first time.


At the end of World War II Soviet and U.S. forces occupied the northern and southern halves of Korea respectively. Escalating Cold War tensions led to the establishment of separate governments and, eventually, Korea's division into two political entities in 1948. Following the Korean War (1950-1953), this division became permanent. The two countries are now separated by a demilitarized zone, remaining technically at war up to the present day.

North Korean Refugees

Since that time, many North Koreans have fled their country. The majority leave for economic reasons, though political and ideological issues are also a factor in some cases.

The South Korean constitution stipulates that all North Koreans are entitled to South Korean citizenship. North Koreans are therefore admitted under a resettlement program that includes basic job training, healthcare services and financial subsidies. Due to this policy, the UNHCR considers North Koreans to be 'persons of concern' rather than refugees. However, it should be noted that the route to South Korea is both complicated and dangerous, and South Korea is not proactive in promoting the exodus of North Koreans. For the South, the main concern is that massive refugee outflows from the North would undermine South Korea's long worked for economic progress and stability. As of September 2010, there are almost 20,000 North Koreans living in South Korea.

On the other hand, North Koreans arrested in China are repatriated back to North Korea, where they face years of punishment or even death. A strong argument can therefore be made that the North Koreans in China are at the very least refugees 'sur place'.


Sun-Woo Park
Graduate School of International and Area Studies
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul


This resource summary highlights a sample selection of web-based resources that focus on Korea. Links are provided to full-text documents, journal articles, external resources, and organizations.

FMO Resources


Selected full-text documents (for more documents search in the Digital Library)


Web Resources

Selected web-based information resources (for more, search the FMO website)

South Korea

North Korea

Relevant Organizations

Contact details for organizations based in Korea (for more, search in the Organizations Directory)


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NANCEN: A refugee from Africa receives counseling about his application for refugee status.

A refugee from Africa receives counseling about his application for refugee status.
© 2010. NANCEN Center for Refugee’s Rights

Location of South Korea

Map showing the location of South Korea

South Korea (highlighted in red) bordered by North Korea.

Location of North Korea

Map showing the location of North Korea

North Korea (highlighted in red) bordered by South Korea, China and Russia.

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Last updated Mar 13, 2012