Photo: Seong-ha Joo

Escape from North Korea: A Modern Refugee Crisis

One million troops stand guard on the border between North and South Korea, with 40mm machine guns pointed at each other’s observation posts. Travel between the two nations is limited to a few roads linking the South to a North Korean border city, Kaesong, where South Korean capital meets North Korean labor to produce a rare example of cooperation between the warring nations: a small, dually-managed industrial complex.

North Korean refugees seeking new lives in South Korea must therefore reach the south through a roundabout route beginning in Manchuria and ending in one of the South Korean embassies in either Mongolia or Southeast Asia.

On this route, Chinese police and North Korean intelligence agents actively hunt North Korean refugees. If captured, these refugees risk life imprisonment and are subject to forced labor, rape, and public executions.

Why are North Koreans willing to jeopardize their lives?


Why do thousands of North Koreans risk slow, painful deaths in North Korean prisons?

Reasons abound, but most sources cite the increasing difficulty in gaining everyday necessities, such as food and housing within North Korea. Official statistics from the South Korean government illustrate the rapid increase in the number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea after 1998, when several years of famine killed thousands, if not millions.

Source: North Korean Refugee Foundation


Studies by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), the US Congress, and scholars such as UC San Diego professor Stephan Haggard cite the lack of North Korean sources discussing the 1990s famine. The three studies hence rely on different sources to estimate the death toll, and disagree as to the estimated number of deaths.

The KINU study cites the few North Korean population surveys available from the late 1980s and South Korean sources, whereas the U.S. Congress cites NGOs such as MSF (Doctors Without Borders) and individuals such as former USAID official Andrew S. Natsios.

All studies agree, however, on the lethal nature of the famine and estimate the number of deaths as low as 580,000 and as high as three million. This famine occurred while the North Korean regime maintained an army of over one million under the infamous “son-gun” (military-first) policy.


This prioritizes the military in all public policy matters such as allocation of electricity, food and water. The 1990s famine affected the North Korean civilian population more harshly than the military.

The increasing availability of outside media information is also attributed as another major factor in inducing North Koreans to flee North Korea. Mee-Ri Kim, an employee at the South Korean NGO, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, states: “More and more North Koreans are exposed to outside information sources [such as South Korean television] that show them there is a better world out there.”

Meanwhile, an interesting trend in the statistics is that women comprise over 65% of the number of North Korean defectors to South Korea.

Kim suspects that because of the wider array of economic opportunities available to women in China, more North Korean women flee North Korea than men. Such opportunities include waitress positions and babysitter jobs.

A Newsweek article from August 2012 however offers a darker explanation. Chinese or Korean-Chinese bride-brokers, or matchmakers, attempt to secure North Korean brides for Chinese men, often through trickery.

According to Newsweek, the Chinese one-baby policy combined with traditional Chinese favoritism for sons has now created “an epic surge in bachelors” in rural China, and hence an exploding demand for brides.

These brokers usually shower North Korean women with promises of lucrative jobs and a better education.

Kim, who has worked with North Korean refugees in South Korea for almost ten years, explains that after these women are lured into China, they are then forced into marriage with Chinese men (who pay a fee to these bride-brokers), or in worse-case scenarios, sold into prostitution.

Park Hye Soon, now sixty-one, came to South Korea in 2003 with her three daughters after four years in China. She explains that initially, her family had no intention to defect, or flee North Korea until her oldest daughter had inadvertently found herself in the possession of one of these bride-brokers.
After discovering her predicament, however, the daughter escaped from the bride-brokers and contacted Mrs. Park through a letter, explaining that she was “trapped” in China.

Mrs. Park’s daughter had two options. She could either live as a fugitive or return to North Korea, risking imprisonment in a North Korean gulag if caught by the Chinese police or North Korean border guards.

After learning of her daughter’s fate, Mrs. Park immediately went to China to look for her daughter.

“I was going to find her, and I was not going to come back [to North Korea] until I did,” said Mrs. Park.

Through the help of local NGOs and ethnic Koreans in China, Mrs. Park located her daughter and eventually brought her two younger daughters to China. The four lived fugitive lives in China, continuously fearing deportation to North Korea.

Finally after four years in China, Mrs. Park decided to go to the South Korean Consulate in Beijing to seek a better life in South Korea. Because the South Korean Constitution labels the North Korean government illegal, all North Koreans are considered South Korean citizens. Thus South Korean embassies offer legal protection and asylum in South Korea to North Korean refugees who are able to reach South Korean embassies or consulates.

Mrs. Park explained: “We were just so tired of being in constant fear of deportation. We wanted better lives.”

A Tough Multiple Choice Question

North Korean defections to South Korea have steadily increased since the late 1990s, and, consequently, the Chinese government has increased surveillance around the South Korean embassy in Beijing and other consulates in Shanghai and Hong Kong. It is no longer possible for North Korean refugees to simply walk into a South Korean embassy without being sighted by the Chinese police.

According to Mrs. Park, the Chinese police exact fines from individuals discovered housing, employing, or otherwise aiding North Korean refugees, thereby discouraging locals from supporting North Korean refugees. This becomes an additional economic hindrance to the livelihood of North Korean refugees struggling to support themselves and their families.

Mrs. Park also argued that sometimes, corrupt local Chinese authorities would arrest North Korean refugees, asking for a “ransom” price from their families or friends. Once the money was paid, the Chinese authorities would free the refugees, only to arrest them again a few weeks later, to ask for additional ransom payments. Since the alternative to paying these ransom prices is deportation to North Korea, North Korean refugees are forced to pay these prices.

The Chinese police sometimes actively collaborate with North Korean intelligence agents from the State Security Agency (North Korea’s secret police), to seek out refugees. In some cases, North Korean intelligence agents disguise themselves as refugees in China, buying the other refugees’ trusts. These agents then report them to the Chinese police.

Some argue that deportation of illegal immigrants is a natural right of sovereign states, just as the United States government deports illegal Mexican immigrants back to Mexico.

Harry W.S. Lee of the World Policy Journal dismisses such criticisms and questions the already-ailing Chinese human rights record.

“From a purely economic perspective, Beijing is understandably concerned by the potential repercussions of an influx of poor immigrants. The U.S. has similar concerns about the economic effects of illegal aliens, but deported Mexicans don’t return home with the prospect of facing a firing squad.”

Because of these difficulties within China, North Korean refugees are left with a few bleak options.

One option is to live as a fugitive in China under the constant threat of deportation. A second is to return to North Korea and food shortages. The last option is to beg for mercy in the Southeast Asian jungles or the Gobi desert en route to South Korean embassies in Thailand or Mongolia.

The last option requires not only risking dehydration in jungles or deserts, alligator attacks on the Mekong River (the border between Thailand and Laos), and deportation to North Korean gulags, but also the services of another class of brokers who demand money and sometimes sexual services for guiding North Korean refugees across multiple international borders.

Even well-meaning NGOs that offer guide services to North Korean refugees must ask for fees to cover costs. 318 Partners, a United States-based non-profit organization assisting North Koreans trying to reach South Korea, asks for prices ranging from $1300 to over $3000.

In addition to the fees, North Korean female refugees are sometimes put at the mercy of male guides who extract sexual services, threatening to report them to the local authorities if they do not cooperate.

The twenty first century’s Underground Railroad?

Despite these risks, the continued stream of North Korean refugees into South Korea demonstrates that North Korean refugees are willing to risk sexual enslavement, imprisonment in North Korean gulags and even death, to reach South Korea.

The route to South Korea somewhat resembles the Underground Railroad in nineteenth century America when thousands of African Americans attempted to escape slavery.

As bounty hunters and local law enforcement authorities actively arrested runaway slaves, Chinese and North Korean law enforcement authorities likewise actively seek to arrest and deport refugees.

And as slaves returned to miserable lives, deported North Koreans often face forced labor sentences, rape, and sometimes public execution.

The Chinese government justifies such deportations by arguing that an increasing population of poor immigrants may have negative economic consequences.

While the sovereignty of governments to enforce legal and political obligations seems a natural right, in some cases governments lose sight of their obligations to human rights.

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