Young US-based North Korean Refugees Balance Education and Employment

Have you ever wondered how many North Korean refugees are currently living in the U.S.?

As of November 2016, approximately 400.

The chances of meeting one is extremely unlikely, as they make up a microscopic 0.000001 percent of the total U.S. population.

However, thanks to in-depth interviews conducted in 2016, we have a rare opportunity to gain a better understanding of a few young U.S.-based North Korean refugees.


The American resettlement system emphasizes fast-tracked self-sufficiency, a stark contrast to substantial benefits and assistance provided by the South Korean government. According to a 2016 report by the George W. Bush Institute, North Korean refugees who choose to resettle in the United States rather than South Korea generally express a greater tolerance for risk and hardship. These individuals choose America because they believe that the country provides better prospects for rapid economic and social progress.

At the U.S. consulate, they suggested that [resettling in] South Korea would be much easier because of culture and race, and they questioned why I am choosing to go to America. But ... I want to experience other cultures, and I had the ambition to live in another culture. If I go to America, I can learn a different language and culture and live with people of different races. ... if I’m going to start from zero, it’s better to start in a place where I’m not familiar with the culture ... if I go to South Korea, then I’ll be expected to know the culture and then it will be that much more stressful to adjust because people have expectations of me.
— Male, 29, CA, Arrived in the U.S. 2007


Young refugees see education as an important factor to successful resettlement, prioritizing English-language acquisition first, followed by college and technical skills. However, while being pushed along an expedited path toward self-sufficiency, education prospects are quickly overshadowed by the need to pursue employment. Young refugees attempting to learn English from scratch face the prospect of long hours and low-paying jobs while prioritizing education around their work schedule.

Some friends have dropped out of school. But, if I quit school, what can I do in the future? There will be nothing for me to do. So even though graduating ... is the most difficult thing for me right now, I would say that it is the first duty that I have in America.
— Male, 20, VA, Arrived in the U.S. 2011


For older refugees, an important component of their new life in America is financially helping their relatives in North Korea. Meanwhile, young, unmarried refugees with relatively fewer family obligations have the potential to attend college and pursue their academic aspirations. For many, regardless of how they choose to define success, a sense of personal achievement transcends the disadvantages of their background.

I hope to graduate high school and go to college. I wish to study nursing. However, since there are so many mountains I need to overcome right now, that is not in the immediate horizon. I want to become a nurse because I worked with kids as a kindergarten teacher, and I am interested in helping sick people. I cannot pinpoint a specific reason. It is just something that I hope to work towards.
— Female, 30, UT, Arrived in the U.S. 2015

What can we do?

The sharp trade-off between immediately supporting themselves financially and pursuing an education doesn’t sound too different from the struggles faced by American millennials entering adulthood. HKC has committed to supporting our fellow millennial refugees by doing what millennials do best: raise awareness on social media. We're on a mission to get American millennials aware of the 400 #NKrefugees residing in the U.S., and we can't do it without your help. Like and share #NKrefugees content or simply tag your friends in the comment section. With your help, we can create a more socially conscious generation.