North Korean Defectors in China
Every year, thousands of North Korean nationals attempt to escape their home country, fleeing from poverty, famine, forced labor and political persecution. Many smuggle into China, as it represents the best chance of escape in comparison to the highly guarded South Korean border. Unfortunately, once in China, defectors are hardly safe. The questionable legal status and vulnerability of these North Koreans make them uniquely susceptible to human trafficking, sex slavery, forced marriages, prostitution and more. These rampant human rights violations in China happen across the country, leaving hundreds of thousands of victims suffering in silence.

Living Conditions in North Korea

For many, the living conditions in North Korea are so grievous that they would rather take their chances in China than stay. According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, North Korea has detained “an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 persons in political prison camps and an undetermined number of persons in other forms of detention facilities, including re-education through labor camps.” Regularly, authorities hold these citizens without any formal criminal charge, trial or conviction. Reports also indicated many cases of detention of accused persons’ family members.

Inside the prison camps, everyone from children to the elderly is “subject to forced labor, including logging, mining, manufacturing or farming for long hours under harsh conditions.” Children get little to no access to education and all prisoners face routine beatings, sexual assault, unhygienic living conditions and insufficient food or medical attention. Closing its borders, North Korea made it impossible to gauge exact numbers, but many do not survive this treatment.

Even outside detention facilities, living conditions are bleak. Since the Arduous March of the 1990s, millions of North Koreans have died from starvation. Largely attributed to a Stalinist economic system and Russia and China’s halted food and oil subsidies to North Korea after the Cold War, this period of sweeping destitution caused a massive spike in migration. Though the estimated rates of defection have slowed since then, starvation is still an issue across North Korea and a prominent reason for an escape to China.

Life in China

The pervasive human rights violations North Korean defectors face in China are appalling. Victims face sexual assault and kidnapping and are often part of perpetually abusive situations. A 2019 report by Korea Future Initiative alleges that tens of thousands of North Korean women and girls become a part of the sex trade and sale–an industry that generates roughly $105 million annually.

This report also revealed that “an estimated 60% of female North Korean refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade. Of that number, close to 50% are forced into prostitution, over 30% sold into a forced marriage, and 15% pressed into cybersex,” according to Forbes.

Prostitution in China reportedly accounts for about 6% of China’s GDP. Cybersex trafficking is becoming a more prevalent issue, with girls as young as 9 years old becoming victims in front of cameras live-streaming to a global audience.

Forced marriage has long been a practice of abusers of this vulnerable population. China’s “long-standing one-child policy and penchant for sons have resulted in a massive gender imbalance, making it challenging for Chinese men to find wives.” The physical and psychological abuse of “bride trafficking” that victims face is often overwhelming.

What is more, victims of these atrocities are unable to speak up. A simple recognition as a North Korean national has dire consequences, primarily due to China’s ruthless repatriation policy. If Chinese authorities discover them, they forcibly return trafficking victims to North Korea, “where they are subject to harsh punishment, including forced labor in labor camps, torture, forced abortions” or even executions, according to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report. Many choose to endure the conditions in China rather than face retribution from their native country.

Legal Gray Area

The legal status of North Korean escapees is a major contributor to their unique vulnerability. They are typically classified between categories in international law that divide migrants into “deserving and undeserving groups–forced or voluntary, political refugee or economic migrant, trafficked or smuggled.”

North Koreans usually want to leave their country, making them arguably complicit with their smugglers. Therefore, many perceive them more like ‘economic migrants,’ defined as “smuggled” instead of “trafficked.”

The U.N. Protocol on Trafficking calls on governments to protect the victims of trafficking. However, as China classifies North Korean defectors as economic migrants, they do not make any protective efforts, instead opting for their notorious repatriation policy.

Refugee protections would almost certainly benefit these defectors. However, the U.N. defines a refugee as a person who has “fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country.” This definition does not include economic migrants, meaning that North Korean defectors do not apply the protections a refugee gets either.

However, according to UNHCR, the same people that China deems “economic migrants” could arguably be considered refugees “sur place” given the “well-founded fear of persecution” and grave consequences they would face upon their return.

All said, there is no perfect classification of North Korean defectors in China, leaving them to fall between the cracks of international law. With no protections, nowhere to turn for help and no resources, their abusers are free to act without consequence.


Some organizations have taken steps to help address these atrocities. The All-China Women’s Federation, an NGO headquartered in Beijing, has established ongoing projects to address and “alleviate the problem, including, in four provinces, the establishment of transfer, training and recovery centers” that have assisted more than a thousand victims to date. China has also hosted a number of Children’s Forums in Beijing to raise awareness for child trafficking, and in 2007, the government agreed to a Plan of Action Combating the Trafficking of Women and Children. 

Nonprofit organizations around the world, such as Crossing Borders and Liberty in North Korea, have done what they can to assist North Korean refugees. However, they are facing pushback due to China’s 2017 Foreign NGO law. The U.N. has called for this law to be repealed, stating it “can be wielded as tools to intimidate, and even suppress, dissenting views and opinions in the country,” E-International Relations reports.

While it is a relief to see governmental and non-governmental organizations taking steps to address this complex and distressing issue, advocates are calling for increased attention and an international response. Some North Korean escapees, such as activist Yeonmi Park, have amassed broad followings by sharing their harrowing stories. By uplifting the voices of these survivors and demanding action, the global community can make a vital difference in the lives of these individuals.

– Carly Ryan Brister
Photo: Unsplash

Mental Health in North KoreaAs one of the most secluded nations on earth, it is no surprise that many aspects of North Korean life remain a mystery to outsiders. However, the lack of psychiatric help for mental health in North Korea is well documented and corroborated by defectors. According to a 2014 South Korean study published in the National Library of Medicine, 76.3% of North Korean defectors suffered from mental illnesses that typically went untreated in their homeland. As opposed to the Western view of mental health as a health problem that should be treated by medical professionals, North Korean society sees mental health issues as a byproduct of the individual’s lack of support for the nation’s “revolutionary” ideology.

5 Facts About Mental Health in North Korea

  1. A medical problem misdiagnosed as political. Among both elites and those in poverty, mental health conditions in North Korea tend to go untreated and there are no counselors and psychotherapists. Instead of clinically treating mental health in North Korea with counseling, compatriots view those who have mental health issues as dissidents who are disloyal to North Korean ideology. As a result of this stigmatization, mental health is a very taboo topic in North Korean society.
  2. Number 49 Hospitals. Although North Korea does not utilize psychiatry or counseling to treat mental illness, those deemed mentally ill are placed in “Number 49 Hospitals” upon their family’s request. These facilities practice antiquated techniques such as insulin-coma therapy, where staff members inject “subjects” with high doses of insulin in order to create a coma-like state that lasts for days. The stigmas surrounding “49” inhabitants also cause North Korean society to brand these individuals as outcasts. As a result of this, families with relatives in “49” facilities often lose sociopolitical status due to stigmas.
  3. Defector’s Trauma. According to Dankook University professor Jin-Won Noh and National Medical Center psychiatrist So Hee Lee’s October 2020 study “Trauma History and Mental Health of North Korean Defectors,” only 5% of adult North Korean defectors did not have exposure to trauma when in North Korea. Out of the 95% who dealt with traumatic events in the North, the most common types of trauma stemmed from witnessing government executions, enduring starvation, starvation-related deaths of family and friends, witnessing extreme physical assaults and “escaping arrest following defection.” North Korean defectors also struggle with assimilating into South Korean society due to cultural and linguistic differences.
  4. Long-Term Effects of the Arduous March. North Korea’s famine in the 1990s caused catastrophic death tolls, with millions of citizens dying from hunger. The international aid given to North Koreans during the Arduous March also directly undermined the North Korean government’s claims of self-reliance and complete isolation. However, its effects on mental health are long-term, with these traumatic experiences linked to drug addiction and mental illness among North Koreans. For example, Lee Kwan-Hyung, a researcher from the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, estimated that 30% of North Koreans used drugs as of 2016, with methamphetamine and opioids the most common. Due to its appetite-suppressing properties, methamphetamine usage spiked during North Korea’s 1990s famine.
  5. Malnourishment’s effect on the brain. Between 2018 and 2020, 42% of North Koreans experienced malnourishment. This extreme food insecurity also has extremely damaging effects on mental health and brain development. For example, malnourishment is linked to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and concentration difficulties.
  6. Organizations that Aim to Help. Due to its isolationist nature, organizations outside of North Korea cannot provide mental health counseling to North Korean citizens living in North Korea. However, there are groups such as Crossing Borders that give assistance to North Korean defectors that cross into China. Although Crossing Borders is a faith-based group, they also perform secular duties such as providing medical support, shelter, counseling and safety for refugees at risk of trafficking or abuse.

Looking Ahead

North Korea’s failure to properly diagnose and treat mental illnesses with psychiatric care has caused the problem to fester over time. Historical traumas dating back to the nation’s strict rule and history of famine have made the problem endemic in North Korean society. However, other issues connected to mental health in North Korea, such as stigmatization of those in need of help, are not necessarily unique to North Korean society, with similar problems occurring in Western countries as well.

– Salvatore Brancato
Photo: Flickr

renewable-energy-in-north-koreaNorth Korea’s chronic energy crisis is threatening the quality of life of its citizens, especially those living in rural areas, by restricting the quality of and access to essential energy-powered resources. Prioritizing the development of off-grid renewable energy in North Korea, such as solar panels and wind turbines, near under-electrified rural areas will provide a more significant number of North Koreans with access to energy.

About North Korea’s Energy Challenges

North Korea’s energy sector requires a lot of attention. North Korea struggles to meet energy demands as domestic energy production and consumption have been generally declining for years. As of 2020, 48% of the North Korean population did not have access to electricity, and in 2016, only 10.8% had access to clean fuel for cooking. The elites in the capital city Pyongyang consume the majority of energy resources, forcing rural populations to go without.

North Korea relied heavily on the Soviet Union for subsidized oil, and the country’s energy production and consumption rates dipped following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The absence of these energy subsidies, aging infrastructure and a poor national grid system caused North Korea’s energy sector and economy to fall behind.

North Korea’s lack of energy poses a threat to human security. The country’s unstable electricity rates cause frequent blackouts, depriving residents of lighting and other services. The lack of energy is a threat to public health since hospitals and clinics are dependent on electricity access. Access to clean fuel is necessary for sanitation practices and safe cooking habits. Furthermore, North Korea’s energy shortages threaten its agricultural sector and lower its food supply. Electricity and fuel are necessary to produce fertilizer, power irrigation systems, manufacture machinery and transport crops. Thus, improving its energy supply and providing greater access can significantly benefit the well-being of the average North Korean citizen.

North Korea is focusing on initiating renewable energy sources to address its energy crisis. Research has found that renewable energy consumption positively correlates with energy poverty reduction, which is where people lack access to energy sources.

How Renewable Sources Can Alleviate Energy Poverty

Under Kim Jong Un, investing in renewable energy in North Korea has become a priority. The percentage of total energy consumption from renewable energy increased from around 7% in 1992 to close to 25% in 2015. In addition, North Korea adopted various policy measures such as the Renewable Energy Law in 2013.

As North Korea continues to invest in renewable energy sources, increasing access to energy in rural communities should be of special concern. The majority of North Korea’s population lives in rural areas, which are regions with scarce access to electricity and other energy supplies. A survey that occurred in 2014 found that rural households significantly lacked electricity compared to urban households.

Furthermore, North Korea’s focus on hydroelectric power as a main renewable energy source is not ideal for mitigating energy poverty in rural North Korea. Hydroelectric plants do little to power rural areas; the North Korean government controls the available energy from hydropower and it prioritizes electrifying large military facilities over rural residential communities.

Solar Power and Wind Turbines

Small-scale renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines are ideal for powering rural residential areas, thus providing more people in North Korea with access to energy. Solar panels and wind turbines are off-grid energy sources, meaning that their generated energy will be able to power nearby rural communities rather than large military and industrial sites.

This will be especially helpful to improve the living standards of North Korea’s rural residents. Additionally, off-grid energy systems are economically favorable, making them ideal investments in the midst of North Korea’s economic lull.

The importation and use of solar panels in North Korea have significantly increased, especially following the 2012 Pyongyang International Trade Fair. In 2015, North Korea began building small scale wind turbines that generate between 100 and 300 watts of power.

Reports claim that the North Korean government is encouraging production plants to erect and make use of wind turbines.

– Ashley Kim
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

dangerous ideology of North Korea The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has remained an enigma on the world stage for decades. The Kim dynasty, which has ruled since September 1948, transformed the economic outlook of the country with its oppressive and totalitarian regime. The unstable, elusive and dangerous ideology of North Korea makes it increasingly difficult for foreign aid to promote social, economic and political progress.

The Destructive Nature of Juche

North Korea’s unique ideology, coined ‘juche’ by the late Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung, is a set of beliefs that focuses on self-reliance and finding strength without foreign assistance. In 1982, the revised Constitution accepted this as its authoritative doctrine. By adopting this isolationist ideology, North Korea’s inadequate economic planning soon plunged large portions of its population into extreme poverty and contributed to the deaths of millions from famine.

While the damage of juche is difficult to measure, its endorsement exacerbated the devastating North Korean famine of the 1990s as juche disregarded the potentiality of foreign aid to relieve the effects of the disaster.

As North Korea continued its isolation, the government’s distribution of the food supply began to favor the political and social elites rather than the majority of the population. In addition, the climate and land quality in the country was inadequate and when fuel aid from the USSR ceased, North Korea was unable to continue producing the fertilizer that helped its land provide higher crop yields. The subsequent famine killed millions.

The Inequality of Songbun

‘Songbun’ accompanies ‘juche’ as one of the discriminatory ideologies in the country that disproportionately impacts North Korea’s poor. ‘Songbun’ is a socioeconomic classification scheme that categorizes the population based on their loyalty to the regime. Upon its creation during the regime’s infancy, 28% of the population was considered in the “Core” or related to war heroes or peasants, 45% was considered “Wavering” and 27% was considered “Hostile”.

This system leads to egregious inequality specifically among the North Korean lower class, hindering this group in regard to education and employment.

For example, North Koreans are not able to choose their occupation or educational opportunity as their songbun ranking and government decide this for them.

Discrimination and Atrocity

Extreme gender discrimination within North Korea greatly hinders the prospect of girls and women in every aspect of life. Every day, women and girls fall victim to tremendous levels of sexual assault and persecution, including forced labor, forced marriage and food deprivation. A July 2020 report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) observed that North Korean women deported from China were often unable to obtain a fair trial and were wrongfully imprisoned, where they would suffer multiple tortures including rape, infanticide and unlivable prison conditions.

Diplomats worldwide struggle with the predictability of the dangerous ideology of North Korea. As juche, songbun and gender stereotypes and discrimination provoke a greater socioeconomic divide among the North Korean people, poverty worsens within the country. Due to North Korea’s isolationist nature, some previous attempts at sending foreign aid have not been able to adequately advance North Korea’s development.

How Organizations Alleviate North Korean Poverty

Sending aid to North Korea has been difficult in the past due to the country’s intense self-reliance philosophy. However, in the past, the United States has supplied over $400 million in energy assistance as well as $700 million worth of food assistance since 1995 and 1996, respectively.

During times of crisis, many organizations step up to provide life-saving aid. For example, in 2019, with the support of donors, aid from the UN and INGOs reached 2.5 million people in North Korea. The Needs and Priorities Plan of 2020 proposed further aid, which would help give 5.5 million people better access to health services, 1.3 million with food assistance and more.

Although it is challenging for governments to determine whether or not aid is reaching those who need it the most, organizations that focus on serving those in poverty have continued to assist North Koreans for years.

Caroline Zientek
Photo: Flickr

north korea defectorsNorth Korea’s refugee outflow started in the 1990s when North Koreans began fleeing a devastating famine. From then until 2020, more than 33,000 North Koreans defected to South Korea with others dispersed throughout the world. Defectors continued to leave because of food shortages and grave human rights violations. However, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea’s border security tightened considerably, making the possibility of escape incredibly difficult. But, some North Korean defectors who have made it to freedom are now dedicating their lives to raising awareness for the millions of people still locked within North Korea. Here are the stories of three North Korean defectors who became human rights activists.

Kim Seong-Min

Born in 1962, Kim Seong-Min served 10 years in the North Korean military before working as a propaganda writer for the totalitarian regime. In a harrowing journey, he fled to China in 1996 only to face capture, repatriation and an execution sentence. Miraculously, he managed to escape once again and arrived in South Korea in 1999.

Seong-Min became one of the first and most active North Korean defector-turned-human rights activists. Most notably, he founded Free North Korea Radio (FNKR) in 2004. FNKR broadcasts news into North Korea and counters the regime’s propaganda. Only North Korean defectors now living in South Korea produce and voice the station. The station’s programming includes defectors’ personal narratives as well as news related to North Korea and knowledge about the outside world.

While it is impossible to track FNKR’s exact audience numbers, research consistently ranks it as the most popular broadcast in North Korea. Many listeners also covertly spread the broadcast’s news to their neighbors by word of mouth, creating a significant “secondary audience.” Seong-Min’s numerous awards include the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award and the Reporters Without Borders’ Media Award.

Ji Seong-ho

As a teenager in the 1990s, Ji Seong-ho helped his family during the famine by hopping on coal trains, taking pieces of coal and trading them for food. At one point, falling from a coal train onto the tracks, a train crushed his left hand and foot. Several sections of his limbs were amputated, leaving him dependent on crutches. At age 24 he escaped to China, nearly drowning in the Tumen River in his attempt. From there, he traveled on crutches thousands of miles to freedom through China, Laos and Thailand before finally reaching South Korea.

Ji Seong-ho founded Now Action & Unity for Human Rights (NAUH) in 2010. The organization reaches out to North Koreans to inform them of their rights and helps prepare both North and South Koreans for the peninsula’s future unification. As of July 2019, NAUH had rescued 450 North Koreans and brought them to South Korea. Once in South Korea, NAUH  provides education on democracy, human rights and leadership development. The organization runs a number of national and international campaigns geared toward raising awareness of North Korea’s human rights violations. It also broadcasts a radio program targeting North Korean youth. Ji Seong-ho received the 2017 Oxi Day Foundation Oxi Courage Award for the work he and NAUH continue.

Yeonmi Park

Yeonmi Park fled North Korea with her mother in 2007 when she was 13 years old, only to discover that her brokers were human traffickers. After several years of bondage in China, she and her mother walked across the freezing Gobi Desert to Mongolia. From there, she moved to South Korea, and eventually, the United States.

Park debuted as a human rights activist at the 2014 One Young World Summit in Dublin. She gave a widely popular speech detailing her experiences. After that, she published her memoir, became a sought-after speaker on North Korean human rights issues and conducted countless interviews.  Perhaps most impactful is her YouTube channel, which, as of January 2022, claims more than 81 million views and is the leading English-speaking channel hosted by a North Korean defector. She was also selected as one of the BBC 100 Women 2014, and in 2017, the Independent Institute awarded her the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for her contributions to liberty as the foundation of free, humane societies.

Fighting for Freedom

The lives and missions of these three North Korean defectors demonstrate their incredible tenacity and the many different ways that activists can bring awareness to human rights issues. Whether through radio broadcasts, education, direct rescue missions, speeches and even Youtube channels, human rights activists can reach millions and change the world for the better.

-Andria Pressel
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19 and Poverty in North Korea
North Korea has not reported a single case of COVID-19. According to NPR, the government has tested only 30,000 of the country’s 25 million people for the virus and has not reported any infections. Without any data to examine, global health experts and the international community have little understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in North Korea.

Yet, North Korea’s longtime despot Kim Jong-un recently announced that the country is amidst a “Great Crisis.” Jong-un cited the government’s failure to establish appropriate pandemic measures as the principal cause of the crisis. Jong-un’s statements have raised considerable questions about the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in North Korea, questions which have largely gone unanswered.

North Korea Before the Pandemic

Before the pandemic, North Korea’s population faced significant economic hurdles. The Heritage Foundation created an Index of Economic Freedom in 1995 that analyzes a country’s levels of various economic freedoms such as government spending, labor freedom, trade freedom and others, by using a score that falls between one and 100. The Foundation then ranks the country globally and regionally using an overall score. According to the Foundation’s 2021 report, North Korea’s economy has received a classification of “repressed” and has ranked lowest in the world on the Foundation’s Index since the year it began.

North Korea’s starving population bolsters the Heritage Foundation’s findings on economic freedom. North Korea has suffered yearly food shortages for decades, and in the year leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation expected still worse food shortages than usual. Poor harvests and international sanctions battered the North Korean economy as the U.N. reported that 40% of North Koreans would need food aid and more than 10 million were in “urgent need of assistance.”

The “Hermit Kingdom’s” Response to COVID-19

Once the COVID-19 pandemic began, North Korea quickly imposed strict measures to fight it. In one of the most comprehensive and swiftest responses to COVID-19, the government sealed its borders from virtually everyone, including China, its largest trading partner.

Some believe that the government’s isolationist policies were necessary. “North Korea’s all-of-government, comprehensive approach and the repeated holding of large-scale public gatherings suggest that it may have prevented any major outbreak,” said Harvard Medical School’s Kee B. Park.

However, the coronavirus and the government’s response have only bludgeoned an already starving people. According to Radio Free Asia, starvation has caused deaths, and those who cannot receive support from family have resorted to begging. Though the number of people infected is unclear, the increasing number of starving people in an already malnourished nation shows the tremendous impact of COVID-19 on poverty in North Korea.

Despite the worsening situation, North Korea still rejected deliveries of nearly 3 million Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines and more than 2 million Astrazeneca vaccine shipments. The government has expressed concerns about the viability of the vaccines it rejected.

Signs of Progress

Though there is a dearth of information regarding the impact of COVID-19 in North Korea, there have been moments that warrant optimism. For Instance, Kim Jong-un has now acknowledged the food shortages plaguing the country and has even signed an order that may open wartime food supplies to the North Korean people. In addition, the North Korean government has started to ease its closures by accepting shipments of medical supplies including health kits and medicine from the WHO, U.N. and other agencies.

– Richard J. Vieira
Photo: Flickr

Flooding Devastates North KoreaIn August 2021, more than 1,100 homes in the Asian country of North Korea were swept away by flooding. The flooding threatens both crops and access to food supplies. As flooding devastates North Korea, both state and world media depict homes flooded up to the roof, along with bridges and dikes washed away. According to Ri Yong Nam, deputy head of the State Hydro-Meteorological Administration, parts of North Hamgyŏng recorded more than 500 millimeters of rain in three days, while in South Hamgyŏng, some areas had more rain in three days than in an average month. Much of the flooding began due to the widespread collapse of rivers. Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, described the situation as “tense,” attesting that many are depending on the year’s harvests. He has ordered the military to enter the worst-affected areas to undertake relief work.

Isolation and Restricted Foreign Aid

While severe flooding is devastating for any nation, the nation’s isolation exacerbates the problems flooding presents for North Koreans. This isolation is in part self-imposed, restricting foreign aid due to fears of a COVID-19 outbreak. The country has, for example, imposed a three-month quarantine on all goods entering its borders, increasing food supply-based uncertainty.

The nation attempted to prepare for the flooding, but due to its poor infrastructure, the country was unable to do so adequately. This is, in part, a result of severe sanctions that countries such as the United States imposed. On August 6, 2021, Jeong Ui-Yong, South Korea’s Foreign Secretary, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed foreign aid to North Korea, but details were not public.

North Korea already has a precarious situation when it comes to agriculture and these floods simply exacerbate it. While flooding devastates North Korea like it does all other nations, it only takes more minor disasters, like a bad harvest, to upset the balance of the agricultural system.

Aid From China

North Korea has so far rejected aid from countries such as its capitalist neighbor, South Korea. However, North Korea receives a great amount of assistance from China, especially foodstuffs and fertilizer to help ease the burden of the agricultural sector. The regime relies heavily on this aid from its more prosperous neighbor to stave off famine.

It is not just the Chinese government that provides a struggling North Korea with aid. Chinese residents do so at a more grassroots level and even North Korean dissenters. Groups of Christians in China who escaped from North Korea, a country that tops the world’s list of the most dangerous places to be a Christian, sometimes smuggle “holy rice” across the border to feed their starving fellow countrymen.

Looking to the Future

While the flooding devastates North Korea, its effects merely exacerbate the more long-term disruptions of the nation’s struggling agricultural sector. It is uncertain whether sanctions will relax or whether the leadership will ease their distrust of offers of aid from capitalist countries. But, nevertheless, aid from both governments and grassroots groups provides hope to struggling North Korean citizens.

– Augustus Bambridge-Sutton
Photo: Flickr

UnivocaNorth Korean defectors are Koreans who have fled North Korea seeking asylum in South Korea or other nations, mainly due to “political, ideological and economic reasons.” When North Korean defectors flee to South Korea, one particular challenge they endure is the language barrier. The two Koreas once shared a common language, but after years of conflict, the languages today are much different. The Univoca app, designed in South Korea’s capital city of Seoul, is a South Korean-North Korean translator app that has proven useful for learning new vocabulary to helps bridge the linguistic divide. Bridging the linguistic divide helps North Korean defectors better transition to living in South Korea.

Korean Dialects

The North Korean language has always remained the same. It is known as Chosŏnŏ, whereas Hangugeo is the language of South Korea. The alphabet is the same but there are visual variations in terms of spacing, connection and appearance. Some words look completely different but most of the difference is in the dialect and pronunciation.

The developing democratic nation of South Korea frequently pokes fun at the northern dialect in comedy acts for seeming “quaint or old-fashioned. The government of the north, is of a hereditary nature as it is a family dictatorship that some often call a “hereditary dictatorship.” North Korea does not allow anything to stray from its traditional and conservative history. Defectors that have fled to South Korea often flee in a desperate attempt to leave their pasts behind them and begin a new life that does not involve dictatorship. Univoca, short for unification vocabulary, helps bridge linguistic barriers.

After the arduous journey to South Korea, many defectors describe the struggle with the language to be one of the biggest hardships. North Koreans can only understand about half of the language in South Korea. Defectors compare the transition to learning an entirely new language. Although they are eager to start a new life, the language barrier makes transitioning difficult.

The Univoca Translation App

South Korean teachers are hopeful that the Univoca app will help new defector students better understand their learning material. This, in turn, should help them progress in their educational endeavors. Univoca offers some independence from constantly relying on others to teach and translate the language.

The developers of Univoca’s dictionary deliberately and considerably chose the first 3,600 words of Univoca’s dictionary. Co-developer, Jang Jong-chul said, “We first showed this typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words.” The creators also consulted older North Korean people to help with producing accurate translations.

Univoca users are able to type in the unknown word or scan a photo of it with a cellphone camera. The app then produces the appropriate translation. Univoca also offers commonly used phrases to guide users through basic activities such as ordering food off of a menu or asking for directions. Subscribers are able to add suggestions of words that they would like Univoca to add to the dictionary. This leaves room for a continually growing translation app.

The Univoca translation app is a simple solution with a tremendous impact. Univoca helps North Koreans transition to life in South Korea by offering assistance with the linguistic barriers that present themselves.

Sarah Ottosen
Photo: Flickr

Human trafficking in North Korea
North Korea’s government has done nothing to aid victims of human trafficking. Forced labor is a pillar of North Korea’s established economic system. Adults and schoolchildren must work in various sectors, such as logging, mining, factories, agriculture, infrastructure work, information technology and construction. Adults who do not participate in these forms of labor suffer from withheld food rations and imposed taxes. Here are five facts about human trafficking in North Korea.

5 Facts About Human Trafficking in North Korea

  1. Child Exploitation: The North Korean government is paying schools for child labor while the children are under their care. Teachers and school principals exploit students for personal gain. The effects of child exploitation can cause physical and psychological injuries, malnutrition, exhaustion and growth deficiencies.
  2. Challenges of Leaving: The law criminalizes leaving North Korea without permission and criminalizes moving to a third-party country. Those seeking asylum are subject to indefinite imprisonment, forced labor and death.
  3. Labor Camps: The North Korean government runs regional, local and sub-district level labor camps. Those imprisoned work hard labor while receiving little resources and experiencing physical abuse. North Koreans who are not registered as employed for longer than 15 days are at risk of being sent to labor camps for at least six months.
  4. Poverty, Famine and Health Care: Repression of North Korea’s people forces North Koreans to remain in poverty. Food famine prevents a vast majority of North Korean’s from feeding themselves and their families. Another example of how North Korea represses its people is through the health care that it provides. While North Korea’s government has claimed to provide universal health care, the majority of the health care system collapsed in the 1990s. Health care is only available to those who can afford it.
  5. Migration to China: Without their basic needs met, hundreds of thousands of North Korean’s flee to China’s borders. Those fleeing from North Korea are desperate and are more vulnerable to human trafficking. In fact, traffickers capture 60% of women fleeing from North Korea to China and force them into sex work and forced marriages. While the U.N. Protocol on Trafficking calls on governments to protect the victims of human trafficking, China sees these victims as migrants and returns them to North Korea where they face extreme punishment.

The United States’ Recommendations

The United States ranked North Korea as a Tier-3 country in the 2020 Trafficking in Persons report for the 18th year in a row, due to not eliminating human trafficking and not making significant efforts to do so. It prioritized recommendations calling for the end of state-sponsored forced labor, including North Korean workers abroad and the prison camps that the North Korean government uses as a source of revenue and a tool of repression. The United States recommends criminalization of sex trafficking and labor trafficking, investigating and prosecution of trafficking cases and conviction of traffickers, allowing international human rights monitors to evaluate the living and working conditions of workers in North Korea and to allow North Koreans to choose and leave their employment at will.

Countries that rank as Tier-3 according to the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report will experience more than just shame. In fact, they will face financial penalties along with the United States’ opposition to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank granting North Korea with assistance.

The consequences of a bad ranking on the TIP report has forced countries to adopt anti-trafficking measures before. However, time will tell whether North Korea will do the same.

– Mckenzie Staley
Photo: Flickr

Women's Rights in North Korea
Women’s rights is a global issue that never fails to persist. Gender equality is not something that countries can easily gain and even the most progressive governments cannot always ensure fair treatment. Many know North Korea as one of the most repressed countries in the world, with the United Nations Commission of Inquiry having determined that it systematically and egregiously violated human rights in 2014. The investigation found that the State was guilty of torture, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances and systemically denying basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Many of these countless violations occurred at prison camps or detention centers with North Korean women as the most common victim. Here is some information about women’s rights in North Korea.

The Situation

While the State established a Women’s Rights Act in 2010 in response to international scrutiny, as a politically isolated country, the implementation of such policies is doubtful. Investigations by the UN COI proved not only that North Korea had not implemented the policies, but that circumstances might have even become aggravated in recent years.

A report from the Citizens Alliance of North Korean Human Rights determined there were no practical changes in terms of women’s access to labor, wages, social safety, medical care or education. Many of these resources remain restricted to those who cannot pay fees, making typical things such as childcare or higher education only available to women employed by the State. Even when employed, women often experienced intense discrimination in the workplace and had to quit in favor of providing for their families.

The Prevalence of Sexual Violence

Patriarchal culture exists in North Korea socially and politically. Female dominated trades experience heavy restrictions and are vulnerable to incessant fees. It is very difficult for women to make an independent income, and many are often completely dependent on their husbands or families. Employed women are often subject to sexual violence by their male coworkers or employers, and do not receive protection from the State. Circumstances are even direr in detention facilities and prisons, where sexual assault is a common practice. Guards, police agents and fellow inmates often force women in these facilities into submission. When assaulted, victims also frequently receive the blame for the violence enacted upon them.

The reality of women’s rights in North Korea does not correspond to the country’s policy efforts at gender equality. The DPRK 1946 Law on Sex Equality is one of the earliest examples of a comprehensive gender equality law, yet North Korean women have consistently struggled to maintain independence throughout their country’s history.

A legal analysis of the 2010 North Korean Women’s Rights Act shows that the State does not have true determination to enforce gender equality. The language of the document itself is far too vague to ensure the implementation of policy. It fails to define gender equality or the current issues plaguing women in North Korea and focuses on formal equality rather than anything of substance. The document has no clear statements on the prohibition of sexual harassment, reliable access to healthcare, rights to abortion, equal rights to participate in non-government organizations or the removal of gender stereotypes in education and media. Without clear policy, it is challenging to ensure women’s rights in North Korea.


There are no specific organizations solely advocating for the betterment of women’s rights in North Korea, but awareness alone can lead to change. Political isolation has enabled North Korea to ignore matters of equality, but supporting the stories of its women prevents the erasing of the problem. Following the investigations by human rights organizations, such as the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, is a good way to ensure the implementation of policy and the recognition of the current issues that affect North Korean women.

Another good organization to support is Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). Reports in 2017 determined that more than 1,000 North Koreans defect every year. The experience of trying to leave the State can be highly traumatic for female defectors, and their experience of others smuggling them across borders presents many safety issues. North Korean women trying to defect often end up in detention centers or fail to find safe refuge. LiNK not only provides support for refugee rescue and resettlement but is also actively working to change the narrative of North Korea. By drawing focus away from the government, which dominates the country’s image, LiNK works to bring attention to the experiences of North Korea’s people.

One must encourage change by uplifting the voices of North Korean women and actively listening to their stories. Once that happens, women’s rights in North Korea can improve.

– Ida Casmier
Photo: Unsplash