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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 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

North Korean Defectors
Stories of North Korean defection to South Korea are making headlines in recent years. The brutal stories of defection, whether it be running from the guards at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or escaping capture in transit countries, every North Korean defector has impactful stories of their escape from the hermit kingdom. In 2018 alone, a total of 1,137 North Korean defectors entered South Korea. Eighty-five percent of these defectors were women. These North Korean women are especially vulnerable to human traffickers who aim to sell these women as brides. 

North Korean Defectors’ Arrival in South Korea

The stories of the defectors who succeed in escaping to South Korea do not quite end there. Many defectors who arrive in South Korea face economic, mental and cultural difficulties. While the South Korean government has programs and plans dedicated to helping these defectors, there is still room for improvement.

South Korea’s primary method of assistance includes screening and reeducating North Korean defectors in the Hanawon Resettlement Center. Hanawon’s primary purpose is to educate the defectors about living in capitalist South Korea. Hanawon’s education programs range from everyday activities, such as opening bank accounts or taking the subway, to more practical vocational training.

However, the limited education that the North Korean defectors had in North Korea presents a large knowledge gap in comparison to their South Korean counterparts. Many defectors also say that Hanawon’s programs are not adequate enough to remedy the psychological and physical traumas that many defectors experienced during their escapes. After 12 weeks at Hanawon, defectors can settle into South Korean society. Upon exiting Hanawon, the defectors receive a stipend of around 8 million won, or approximately $6,450 USD, to ease difficulties in resettlement.

Further Improvement Needed in the Resettlement Program

While South Korea is making valiant efforts to curb the challenges of defection, there is potential for improvement. For example, a defector who is a single mother will usually resort to short-term, part-time jobs to support her children.

Defectors face additional difficulties after moving to South Korea. Since Korea’s separation in 1953, both North and South Korea developed a radically different culture and government. For the North Korean defectors, South Korea’s democratic, capitalist society proves to be a great challenge to their resettlement.

The challenge of securing stable employment comes from a variety of factors. If a defector had limited education in North Korea, they are likely to have limited literacy. This not only makes securing employment challenging, but it also makes it harder for them to apply for additional financial aid to the South Korean government.

Discrimination Against North Korean Defectors

South Korean discrimination against defectors further exasperates this particular struggle of securing employment. Son Jung-Hun, a North Koran defector who Vice Media interviewed, shared his challenges when South Korean employers would not hire him after hearing his North Korean accent and seeing his small stature.

In 2019, the death of two North Korean defectors in South Korea made international news. Apartment management staff found Han Song Ok, a 42-year-old North Korean defector, and her 6-year-old son Kim Dong-Jin dead in their Seoul apartment. The coroner’s report suggested that both the mother and the child were dead for at least two months. The investigators found no food in their apartment and Han’s bank account was also completely empty. The coroner found determining the cause of death difficult, although many believe that it is likely they starved to death. Han’s acquaintances told the interviewer that Han had been applying for welfare benefits since the winter of 2018. However, because she could not provide proof of her divorce with her husband in China, the South Korean government continued to refuse her request. 

Clearly, discrimination against defectors is a large factor making it difficult for them to resettle in South Korea. More specifically, many North Korean defectors in South Korea suffer from the feeling of isolation and alienation. For the defectors who left their families in North Korea, the feeling of separation is immense.

The Guardian’s interview with Kim Ryon Hui, a North Korean defector who wishes to return to North Korea, shines a light on the feeling of alienation that many defectors feel in South Korea. Kim told the Guardian that “no matter how affluent you are if you can’t share that with your family, it would be meaningless.” She also added that South Korea considers North Korean defectors second-class citizens, reaffirming the idea of North Korean discrimination.

Poverty in South Korea of North Korean Defectors

Furthermore, North Koreans’ poverty in South Korea is a complicated issue that demands improvements. While organizations such as the Hanawon are assisting the North Korean defectors, it is still not enough. North Korean defectors desire, and need, further assistance and protection from the South Korean government. Considering the journey the North Korean defectors had to take to arrive in South Korea, improving the economic realities for these defectors should be a priority for the South Korean government.

– YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr