Looking about the Asian Human Rights Commission website, I found this appeal to stop the deportation of nine Burmese National League for Democracy (NLD) members, whose refugee applications have been rejected by the Korean government. This led me to wonder about just how many political refugees had been accepted into Korea; I was sure it wasn't many. This article, from earlier this year, has a good summary and is recommended reading.
Of course, a distinction has to be made between refugees from North Korea and those from other countries. As this article from a few months ago by David Scofield makes clear, South Korea's constitution declares all North Korean citizens to be under the jurisdiction of the South's government. Therefore, any North Koreans who arrive on South Korean soil must be accepted as citizens. As the article states, "more than 6,000 North Koreans have arrived in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In, 2004, however, 1,890 defected to the South, an increase of 50% increase over 2003. Earlier this year, the South, in an effort to appease (yes, I think that is the right word) the North and perhaps deal with its own fears about too many refugees arriving (it's a well known fact that North Korean refugees in South Korea are generally not treated well by South Koreans), announced that no more mass deportations from China or third countries would be encouraged or carried out.
Of course, this kind of spineless policy ('Jellyfish Diplomacy', perhaps?) is nothing new. In September 2002, Seoul city officials cancelled an awards ceremony for the winner of an online policy debate contest when it was discovered the winner was Chinese dissident Xu Bo. Xu had been here since 1999 and had applied for refugee status. Later that month he was allegedly threatened with deportation by immigration if he continued his pro-democracy activities in Korea, and another article stated "The Korean government has refused to recognize him as a refugee apparently out of concern that doing so may strain its ties with China."
But I digress. Unlike North Koreans, people from other countries must apply for refugee status, and only a handful have been accepted.
South Korea became a signatory of the International Convention on Refugees in 1992, but did not admit any refugees until February 13, 2001, when it recognized a 26-year-old Ethiopian man, who feared persecution at home for his anti-government activities, as a refugee. At that point, a total of 104 people had sought asylum in South Korea since 1992.
Forty-five of them had been denied refugee status, 11 had withdrawn their applications, and deliberation was still then underway for 47 others. Due to this, Korea was facing international criticism, and some observers thought the man was admitted just to save face, especially considering how the government announced its decision and even publicized the man's name. Soon after this the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged changes to Korea's admission process and wondered why 4 others had been denied refugee status that month when two of them had cases similar to the man who was accepted.
Two months later, in April 2001, UNHCR opened a liaison office in Seoul, while in June a group of lawyers and human rights activists launched the nation's first legal aid group for foreign asylum seekers. In a December, 2001 interview, Seoul UNHCR mission head James Kovar said Korean immigration officials tended to think asylum-seekers were economic migrants, rather than those who had left their countries for political reasons.
An August, 2002 article makes this connection between migrant workers and asylum seekers clear:
"Korean officials asked us to submit forms that can prove that we have been fighting for democracy in Burma," says Mr. Kyaw, known as "Sharin" to his friends. "But how can we obtain such forms when we are not even allowed to go back to our own country?"
Technically, Mr. Kyaw is an illegal resident in Korea; his visa was granted only for a six-month stay when he entered the country in July 1994 as an industrial trainee, a program the government launched to ease the labor shortage in industries Koreans shun because the work is considered dirty or dangerous. He worked at several companies in Incheon for a couple of years. Now he works part-time jobs in the nearby Bucheon area. He says he is committed fully to the democracy movement in his country.
It was not until late December 2002 that a second person was granted refugee status in Korea, this time a Congolese dissident. In late January 2003, 4 more people, three from Myanmar and one from Cameroon, were recognized as refugees. By July 2003, the number had grown to 12, with 2 more being accepted by the end of the year; 17 people were accepted in 2004, bringing the total to 31. According to the aforementioned article from this past January, 360 people have applied to stay in Korea as political refugees. Fifty-one have withdrawn their applications, while the government has rejected 61; thus out of 92 cases which have been considered, one third have been accepted. Of course, if you consider that in February 2001, 46 cases had been heard and only one accepted, but that by early this year, 46 more cases had been heard, and out of those, 30 had been accepted, it's obvious the odds have gotten much better. I should note that this is based on information current in January - as the appeal above states, 12 more people were recently accepted.
I've posted links to many of the relevant articles, but if you're want to learn more, you can browse around the Korean UNHCR website's article board (many articles are in English). If you read Korean and are interested, 2 decisions can be found here.