Hiding behind the Screen: Mobile use among North Korean migrant women in South Korea

12/10/2017 (Thursday) 13:00-14:00 E21-G002

Every year hundreds of North Koreans cross the Tumen River running through the Sino-Korean border in the search for a better life elsewhere. While some stray in China, Russia or Southeast Asian countries, others manage to enter South Korea. This study analyzes the migratory experiences of North Korean women who found their way into South Korea. Transposed from the world’s most digitally-disconnected societies to one of the most digitally-oriented societies, these North Korean migrants call for scholarly documentation and analysis of their experiences. They also propose an interesting case for scholars in the field of ICTs for Development (ICTD) regarding the role of ICTs in the course of their escape and resettlement. Based on qualitative interviews with North Korean women settled in South Korea, the study finds clandestine mobile use across the migration trajectory including restricted and dangerous access to mobile phones, via smuggled Chinese mobile phones in North Korea, as part of the escape journey. Also, analyzing the extent to which mobile phones facilitate their resettlement process in South Korea, it discusses that mobile phone usage in the affluent digital environment in South Korea has not only led to greater informational capabilities of North Korean women but also facilitated their isolation, deception and social segregation caused by perceived discrimination by the dominant group. More specifically, the data suggested that North Korean migrants use ICTs strategically to avoid direct interaction with South Koreans by hiding behind computer-mediated communications. ICTs assisted their strategic use by enabling their behaviors of 1) seeking help online anonymously; 2) hiding their identity via text-based communications; 3) managing a manipulated identity on social media. Consequently, this can lead to further segregating themselves from the host society. The study argues that empowering migrants via ICTs is not a sufficient condition and further efforts should be made to change how the host society embraces new settlers.