The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, remains one of the most severe dictatorial regimes in the world, and about 24 million people live under the control of its secretive and repressive government. Since the creation of North Korea in 1948, many have fled the country for political, ideological, religious, economic or personal reasons. As the country has become an important piece in East Asian politics and the dire situation in the country has continued, here are some facts about its situation as well as how to help North Korean refugees.
North Korean Refugees
People also call North Korean refugees “North Korean defectors” because of the political weight the cold war between North and South Korea caused. This other term, “defectors,” is important to know, as there is a constant stream of articles and news stories about North Korean defectors. As of 2017, some sources estimate that over 1,000 North Koreans escape every year.
From the end of the 20th century to today, one of the main causes of North Korean defection has been the lack of food. The drastic lifestyle change from North Korea to their new countries often shocks refugees. One refugee living in Seoul was so hungry as a child that he could not even find the words to describe it, but today has almost any food imaginable available with a quick online order.
Reports in 2017 showed that 85 percent of North Korean refugees were women. Women made up 71 percent of refugees in South Korea, a very common destination for North Korean refugees. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, there have been about 31,000 North Korean refugees that have fled to South Korea’s capital city of Seoul and the surrounding region of Gyeonggi.
However, the majority of North Korean refugees go to China. Some sources estimate that between 50,000 and 200,000 North Korean refugees are currently living in China. For some refugees, China is the first stop of their journey to other Asian countries. After all, China is North Korea’s main ally, and the Chinese border is much easier to cross than the heavily-monitored DMZ with South Korea. However, under Kim Jong-un’s heightened border security and crackdowns on smugglers, the number of refugees successfully escaping the country has decreased in recent years. While there were 2,706 defections to South Korea in 2011, this number dropped to 1,127 in 2017.
Challenges of Leaving North Korea
Sex trafficking is a big issue for female North Korean refugees in areas such as China, South Korea and Russia. In China, traffickers traffick about 80 percent of female refugees through black markets for the purpose of becoming North Korean brides. With the vast majority of refugees being female, entering a new country when going to the police or other authorities likely means repatriation back to North Korea, these women are extremely vulnerable to human trafficking and abuse.
Leaving North Korea is incredibly hard. Even travel within the country receives strict regulation, and leaving the country is an act of treason, with the punishment being a minimum of seven years at a North Korean concentration camp. These concentration camps, with estimated 80,000-120,000 prisoners, systematically starve, torture and work people to death. The journey of a successful North Korean defector is extremely hard and takes a great number of risks.
In 2016, approximations determined that up to 30,000 half-North Korean children living in China were the result of forced marriages between North Korean refugees and Chinese men through sex trafficking. Many mothers end up arrested or dead, and the often poor Chinese fathers struggle to provide resources to support their children. These children, struggling to survive in their own unfortunate circumstances, are vulnerable to abuse without any immediate family to care for them. Organizations, such as Crossing Borders, work to help these children gain a stable life.
Organizations Helping North Korean Refugees
Crossing Borders is a Christian nonprofit based in China, which commits itself to helping refugees live a better life by securing safety and stability for them. Refugees’ delicate legal status leaves them in a position to suffer exploitation, trafficking and even murder, but Crossing Borders is determined to provide support to them. Crossing Borders has two main programs to help North Korean refugees: Refugee Care and Orphan Care. These have provided safety, medicine, financial aid and counseling to North Korean refugees in China.
Liberty in North Korea is an organization committed to getting North Koreans to safety through charitable donations. It has gathered information about escape routes throughout China and Southeast Asia and has formed relationships with individuals that will help move refugees safely across borders. It has rescued 1,000 refugees so far. Its team includes individuals located in the U.S., South Korea and Southeast Asia.
Based on the Korean peninsula, Helping Hands Korea works to raise awareness of North Korean refugees and help refugees in crisis. Helping Hands Korea has delivered food, medicine and clothing to vulnerable groups in North Korea and has assisted children separated from their mothers by providing foster care or money to grandparents to help care for them.
While fewer North Koreans are successfully escaping the country today, their desperate situation continues to draw concern and aid. For those who want to know how to help North Korean refugees, supporting and donating to organizations such as Crossing Borders, Liberty in North Korea and Helping Hands Korea will help ensure that these people are safe and living in stable conditions.
– Natalie Chen