North Korean Refugee Entrepreneurship

Updated: Jul 26


In this project, I study how entrepreneurship can support successful resettlement of political refugees. I conducted a team ethnography of North Korean refugee entrepreneurship in South Korea. From 2018 to 2019, we were deeply immersed in two South Korean nonprofits that support North Korean refugees in their journey to reboot their lives in the new country via entrepreneurship. We conducted participant observation of more than 120 events (over 700 hours) and over 60 ethnographic interviews with both North Korean and South Korean participants.


Our emergent findings suggest that refugee entrepreneurship can be marked by a fundamental tension between nurturing independent entrepreneurship among refugees and mitigating inherently higher risks due to refugees’ lack of knowledge, networks, and status in the host country. In one paper (Yun et al., see below), we find that failures in considering this tension led an. Initially successful program to the ultimate failure. Instead of nurturing independent and viable refugee entrepreneurs, the program ended up producing ‘dependent entrepreneurs’ who increasingly imposed unbearable cost to the organization.


In another paper (Pak et al., see below), we also document that the tension manifests in the dual relational frames between the refugees and the host country supporters. South Korean trainers perceived North Korean refugees simultaneously as independent future entrepreneurs and as incompetent and untrustworthy beneficiaries. Similarly, North Korean refugees perceived South Korean trainers as both wholehearted supporters and exploiters of their cheap labor and cultural identity. We find that interactions between the two parties were affected by whether or not matching relational frames were enacted, and the accumulation of successful/unsuccessful interactions ultimately shaped each North Korean refugee’s growth trajectory during the program. With entrepreneurship becoming an increasingly prevalent tool for refugee resettlement, our findings illuminate important complexities in the emerging phenomena.


Pak, Y., Kim, S., Lee, H., & Yun, S. Need, Merit, and Script: How a Social Enterprise Molded Refugee Entrepreneurship. Preparing Manuscript.

(Topic: the role of cultural scripts on determining the success of North Korean refugee entrepreneurs in South Korea)


Yun, S., Kim, S., Lee, H., & Pak, Y. An Inevitable Failure of “Entrepreneurship That Does Not Fail” for North Korean refugees. Analyzing Data.

(Topic: unraveling complex entanglement between refugee entrepreneurship and host country’s social entrepreneurship)

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