New pilot program allows Canadians to privately sponsor North Korean refugees

Sam Kim’s first two escape attempts with his family from North Korea were unsuccessful. 

He first left at the age of six with his mom and grandmother. 

Both times, Kim, now 27, says his mom was sent to a labour camp, where she was interrogated constantly, punished and tortured.

The family was successful only after attempting to escape a third time. Today, Kim is now a permanent resident, after living in Canada for 14 years. 

Now, he says he’s hopeful a new pilot sponsorship program launching in Canada can help others like him. 

“When Canadians help North Korean escapees, they’re helping someone like my mom, my grandma and myself,” Kim said. 

A soldier is pictured on a guard tower on the banks of Tumen River, in Namyang Workers’ District of North Hamgyong province, North Korea. After failing two attempts to escape, Sam’s mother was sent to a labour camp and punished. (Jacky Chen/Reuters)

Program lets North Korean escapees ‘start a new life’ 

Launched by HanVoice, a Canadian non-profit focusing on North Korean human rights, the new pilot program will allow Canadians to privately sponsor and resettle certain North Korean refugees. 

The group will be working in partnership with the Canadian government, through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

The only other countries that currently accept North Korean refugees include the United States and South Korea. Though according to HanVoice, Canada is the only country that allows refugees to resettle through a private sponsorship mode. 

According to Sean Chung, executive director of HanVoice, this move comes after eight years of lobbying the federal government. 

“For a group that is fleeing a regime that has deprived them of choice, I think the best thing that we can offer is more choices and where they want to start a life,” he said. 

North Korean refugees and their family members bow to respect for their ancestors. Many refugees end up resettling in South Korea. Now, Canada is allowing private citizens to sponsor North Korean escapees. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

In a statement sent to CBC Toronto, the IRCC said most North Koreans have been able to find a home in South Korea, which is why Canada does not normally resettle North Koreans. However, the immigration minister has the authority to approve a public policy, which would enable the department to consider North Korean cases. 

As a result, a small number of North Korean women and their families outside North Korea may be considered for resettlement to Canada, it said.

The IRCC added that once cases have been referred to the department by HanVoice, individuals will still need to meet admissibility criteria to enter Canada. That includes health, criminality and security screening. 

“Once in Canada, these individuals would be supported by HanVoice for their first year. HanVoice will be responsible for providing emotional and financial support to applicants and their families,” the IRCC said. 

Metro Morning6:14“They’re helping someone like my mom, my grandma and myself:” New sponsorship program aims to bring North Korean refugees to Canada

Sam Kim, who escaped from North Korea when he was a young boy, is now working with the non-profit HanVoice to help sponsor other North Korean refugees. 6:14

According to a press release sent by HanVoice, 80 per cent of North Korean refugees are women and their children, who are often at significant risk of sexual and gender-based violence. 

Chung adds that the goal for the pilot is to raise $250,000 and sponsor five families within two years. 

“We’re hoping that this can be a spark that opens up new pathways around the world for North Koreans,” Chung said. 

‘Being a bridge’ 

Today, Sam Kim is a third year psychology student at York University, and hopes to have a successful banking career. He says he plans to continue advocating for North Korean human rights. 

Having lived life on the run as a child, he says he often felt lonely and miserable after being separated from his mother multiple times. But to this day, Kim says he still remembers the efforts and sacrifices his mother made to search for freedom. 

“I realized that she didn’t give up on us, but rather she worked hard to save our family’s life. So she was the cornerstone,” he said. 

Kim remembers that final attempt to escape from North Korea. His mother left for neighbouring China first, and for months worked jobs to earn enough money for a broker to get him and his grandmother out of North Korea. 

In order to reunite with her, Sam remembers crossing a lake, barely knowing how to swim.

“I just remember reuniting with her. Crying, embracing her arms. That was a special moment,” he said.

Now years later, Kim says he’s grateful for the Korean community in Toronto for helping him settle down in the country, and for the education he’s been able to receive. He says he hopes to “be a bridge” for other North Korean refugees. 

“It’d be amazing to see many North Korean families make it here in Canada and make Canada their home and have that opportunity to enjoy their lives and find that opportunity to flourish.” 

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