Escaping North Korea

North Korea is not an undeveloped nation.[11] It has high-rise buildings, a railway, and even electrical grids across the country, albeit most are no longer used. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea had lost support from the new Russian government.[1] Shortly, its economy collapsed.
Life in North Korea is harsh. According to CNN columnist John D. Slutter, North Korea is now the world's slavery capital.[2] People are oppressed and do not have much freedom. Everyone is careful and would rather keep their opinion to themselves. One wrong move could land them in a prison camp. The most difficult part is the constant hunger. The late Kim Il Sung had promised his people that they would eat rice every day, but his promise was not met.[3]
In the 1990's, a massive famine hit the country. Food rations became fewer and less frequent. Ordinary citizens stopped receiving rations at all after the Public Distribution System, or the distribution of goods, collapsed in 1994.[12] People were dying from malnutrition and starvation. On the other hand, a small percentage of the population, the elite, still got to enjoy an abundance of supplies.[12]
The dire situation in North Korea had forced hundreds of people to flee the country each year. Despite the threat of getting shot or arrested by the border guards, people still risked their lives crossing the river to China. The promise of food on the other side is enough to lure North Koreans out of the country. However, most of them are unaware of the dangers they could face in China.
Based on the accounts of many defectors who have made their way to South Korea, these are some challenges many refugees face while on the run.
Hyesan City

Hyesan viewed from Changbai, China. The Yalu River separates North Korea and China.

China Repatriates North Korean Refugees

China does not exactly welcome North Korean refugees. To curtail the influx of refugees, Chinese authorities are constantly patrolling cities near the border to arrest North Korean defectors.[12] Those who are caught are deported back to North Korea where they face torture, imprisonment, and sometimes, execution. Jang Jin-Sung and Park Yeonmi, both escaped from North Korea in 2004 and 2009 respectively, say that they were planning to commit suicide had they been caught by the authorities.[12][13]

Park Yeonmi

Park Yeonmi, a girl from Hyesan, defected when she was only thirteen. 

Escaping from North Korea is Costly

Some refugees hire brokers to help them cross the border into China.[4] Brokers are so expensive that most North Koreans cannot afford them. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, the cost of defection has significantly increased.[5] Aside from the brokers, defectors also have to bribe the North Korean border guards.[11] Between 2001 to 2005, defectors only needed to bribe the border guards.[5] In his escape in 2005, Shing Dong Hyuk had bribed his way to China by offering packs of cigarettes to border guards.[14]
After their escape to South Korea, defectors would find themselves deep in debt,[7][11] making it harder for them to start anew. Some are being harassed by the debt collectors.[14]
Border Guards
Roman Harak |
Defectors have to bribe border guards to escape.
Shin Dong Hyuk

Shin Dong Hyuk is a former prisoner in the infamous Camp 14, a total control zone. North Korea denies the camp's existence.

Most Refugees are Victims of Human Trafficking

Statistics show that majority of North Korean refugees are women.[4] In North Korea, women are considered lower than men. Their escape would be of less gravity than men, and when caught, their punishment would not be as severe.[8][13]
Women may have a higher chance of escaping, but once they reach the border, they are vulnerable to human traffickers. Most "escape brokers" are human traffickers themselves.[6][15] In some Chinese villages, there is a shortage of women.[12][13] Human traffickers take advantage of this by kidnapping helpless refugees who are unaware that they are about to be "sold as pigs."[12] In her book, defector Park Yeonmi reveals that most of the victims are raped by several human traffickers before being sold to their new husbands. Women who end up with abusive husbands escape, only to be caught again by human traffickers. Some have unfortunately died in their attempt to run away.[13]
Hair Salon in China

Some human trafficking victims are forced to work in brothels, which are disguised as hair salons.

Defectors Have a Hard Time Getting a Job

In China, defectors are illegal immigrants. Without an ID, getting a job would be next to impossible.[13] Most of them would find a job in Koreatown, but their earnings are not enough to get them to South Korea. Those who managed to get a fake ID are still not safe from Chinese patrols. Staying in one place is risky.[13] They have to move from job to job to avoid the authorities.

Shenyang Koreatown
Prince Roy via | CC BY-SA 2.0
Most refugees hide in Shenyang's Koreatown, where most Korean-Chinese live.

South Korean Consulates Cannot Help Refugees

In his memoir, Jang Jin-Sung, a former North Korean propagandist, recounts how he had asked for help from the South Korean consulate in Shenyang. To his dismay, he was told that they did not issue visas to North Korean refugees, and he could only go to the South Korean Embassy in Beijing. From Shenyang, it would take eight hours to reach Beijing by bus.[12]

Foreign Embassies and Consulates in China are Heavily Guarded

To prevent North Korean defectors from seeking asylum in South Korea, foreign embassies and consulates in China are heavily guarded by policemen.[14] To avoid deportation, some defectors choose to take the longer route via Mongolia or Southeast Asian countries where North Korean refugees are welcome.[4]

Mongolia Map

Some refugees cross the treacherous Gobi Desert into Mongolia.

North Korean Defectors Face Long Interrogations by South Korean Agents

North Koreans who found their way to Seoul have to undergo intensive interviews by the National Intellligence Service.[14][16] This is to make sure that they are really asylum seekers, not North Korean spies,[15] assassins,[14] or Korean-Chinese posing as North Korean defectors to obtain South Korean citizenship[15]  After months of interrogation, defectors are then transferred to a government resettlement facility known as Hanawon, or House of Unity. They would spend three months learning about life in society, like using the ATM and shopping for clothes.[11] After graduation, defectors would receive a stipend from the government to help them start their life.

Defectors Struggle to Adjust in South Korea

South Koreans are very competitive. They value education, which determines one's social status.[15] For this reason, many North Koreans find it hard to fit in.[8] Most North Korean refugees have little education and lack skills that are useful in South Korea.[8][11] Many end up in low-paying jobs. Younger defectors struggle academically. In North Korea, the education is substandard.[9] Many things are not taught in North Korean schools. Defectors have to spend months reeducating themselves to catch up. This results in high drop-out rates.[9] In contrast, older defectors have an easier life and become much more well-adjusted than other age groups.[11]


© Rainy Kua 2016