Posts

North Korean defectorsNorth Korea ranks among the poorest countries on Earth, with an absolute poverty rate estimated at 60% as of 2020. As a result, more than 30,000 people have made the harrowing journey to escape from the country to seek refuge in South Korea. Many choose to escape as a last resort, feeling that they are facing a choice between certain death and possible survival. The oppressive nature of the North Korean regime and the risk of starvation as a result of food shortages are the most cited reasons given by defectors who made the decision to escape from the North. No matter their reasons for fleeing, the trek from the North to the South is a daunting experience for North Korean defectors, even after they have successfully escaped.

The Escape

North Koreans have two options for managing escape from the country. Defectors can attempt to cross through the long, northern border with China, patrolled by both Chinese and Korean military. Once in China, escapees face the fact that it is illegal for Chinese citizens to assist North Korean defectors. Managing to covertly make it out of China and secure refuge in South Korea can therefore be extremely challenging.

However, the other option is notorious for its difficulty and risk—attempting to cross the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. This is the most heavily guarded and fortified border on Earth, with guards patrolling both sides 24/7, barbed-wire fences, minefields, sensors and a 19-meter-thick concrete wall. The crossing has been even more impossible Since Kim Jung-Un closed the border completely in 2020 to stem the flow of COVID-19, according to CNN.

Therefore, the majority of defectors flee North across the Chinese border. However, no matter which route defectors choose to take, they risk life and limb in pursuit of a better life. The journey is extremely risky.

Arrival in a New World

For those who make it to the South, the struggle is unfortunately not over. North Korea has been insulated from the world and its political and technological progress for more than 50 years. The complete isolation from modernity that North Korean citizens face, in conjunction with distorted propaganda about the outside world, leads to confusion and overwhelm for those who make it out.

North Korean defectors describe bewilderment at things like brightly colored street signs, CNN reports. They have never used a cell phone, utilized public transportation, or had a bank card. The bits and bobs of advanced capitalism and democracy are completely alien to those who escape. As such, the relief they experience upon making it across the border lasts short for many, who realize they still have much to overcome.

However, the South Korean government provides comprehensive integration services for arriving refugees. “Hanawon” and is a three-month resettlement and training school, according to BBC. The program teaches refugees how to use an ATM, ride a bus and use a computer. They receive instructions on democracy and citizenship and advise on how to secure a job. Essentially, they also receive training to adapt to their community.

Afterward, the program provides refugees with a public housing unit, a housing subsidy, settlement benefits and an assigned police officer to check in on them every now and then. Beyond that, they are on their own, BBC reports.

Unexpected Struggles

Once left to fend for themselves, many refugees find that the things they learned in the classroom are inadequate or non-transferrable to the new world around them.

The difficulty and overwhelm can get to be so much that a significant fraction of refugees, a staggering 18.5%, report regretting making the journey to the South at all. They cite cultural differences, isolation, and economic problems as the cause.

This feeling of difference and isolation is largely the result of discrimination toward North Koreans. Identified by their accents, they are actively passed up on job opportunities and are treated with suspicion and contempt.  One defector described their treatment as akin to that of “cigarette ashes thrown away on the street,” The Conversation reports.

Further, refugees have almost universally experienced extreme trauma through their ordeals. Nine out of 10 refugees arrive with PTSD. However, counseling services through Hanawon are limited and need improvement, according to the BBC.

Mental health issues— exacerbated by feelings of isolation and lack of belonging— can blossom in these populations if left unaddressed.

The Fight for Change

Koreans are not content to allow discrimination and a lack of mental health care to fester among these extremely vulnerable refugees. Saejowi is a nonprofit in South Korea that is working to supplement the services of Hanawon and make the transition into the South more successful and painless for refugees.

Saejowi addresses mental health barriers by training and licensing escaped North Koreans to become counselors for their fellow refugees. To date, it has produced more than 220 licensed counselors and is working to expand its impact, according to its website.

Saejowi does not stop there. It also works to reduce cultural barriers and discrimination between North and South Koreans by sponsoring cultural exchange programs, including festivals, plays and potlucks.

Through these vital services, Saejowi is continuing to improve the lives of North Korean defectors that were able to make a miraculous escape from devastating poverty.

– Grace Ramsey
Photo: Flickr

North Korea poverty
Despite constant attempts by the North Korean government to delegitimize critics of the country’s severe living conditions and human rights violations, the dire status of its economy is one of the main causes of the consequent rise of North Korea poverty. Such steep levels of economic discomfort and overall hardship in everyday living stems from two main factors, namely the closeness of North Korean economy, and its strict and draconian political system.

A Closer Look

In a country where one in four children suffer from malnutrition, and episodes of defector citizens with parasites living in their stomach are reported, a closer look to the various economic sectors, industries and social relations can be very revealing. In terms of economic freedom, North Korea has been ranked 180th by the Heritage Foundation in 2018, preceded by Venezuela and followed by no one, effectively making it the least economically free country on the planet.

Moreover, there’s no detectable tax system since the government owns and directs virtually every aspect of the economy. As a result, a massive share of the GDP is in fact produced by the same entity that is supposed to tax it.

Regulatory pressure is also a crucial factor that contributes to increase North Korea poverty by tightening up the economy, which grew at an alarmingly slow rate in 2013 (1.1 percent) and in 2014 (1 percent), and decreased in 2015 (-1.1 percent).

Regulations and Shortages

Since private enterprise is virtually non-existent, strict regulations against any resemblance of a private sector are in place, a move thus rendering starting and managing a business practically impossible. The combination of all these factors makes North Korea very reluctant to produce wealth and increase its living standards, especially with the presence of continuous restrictions in international trade and economic sanctions.

Shortage of food and energy need to be compensated by international parties such as China, to which North Korea has grown increasingly more dependent over the last few years. However, a report from the North Korean Economic Watch observed that rice prices, contrarily to what one might have anticipated, have been remarkably stable over the past year.

With economic sanctions in place, it is well conceivable to expect a significant rise in inflation, especially in an overall and continuously poor economy such as that of North Korea.

Such phenomena led experts to believe that the rise of black markets might be the missing link behind such oddities; this would have reinforced, though, the simple yet harsh truth that the extremely high rate of North Korea poverty is a direct result of an economy that simply isn’t strong enough to provide basic and minimal items such as rice to its citizens and their standards of living.

New Rules

All of these instances occur while the government allocates a large amount of its attention and financial resources to the military and missile and nuclear development. This focus leaves primary industries such as agriculture on their own in addition to the high poverty rate and child malnutrition that North Koreans have to face every day.

Since South Korea officially withdrew its provision of farming fertilizers in 2008, the government started a program that delineates farmers are to use their own feces as fertilizers since livestock has became scarce.

Crop failure is also exacerbated by frequent inclement weather, lack of arable land and poor quality of the soil. Between these hardships and the use of human feces as fertilizer, health hazards have increased to the levels of large parasites growing in people’s intestines as a result of poor health.

The hope is that a significant increase of awareness and improved political and anti-poverty policies will help alleviate the seemingly perennial hardship that North Korean citizens have come to experience as normal.

– Luca Di Fabio

Photo: Flickr