The Victims of Communism Foundation's Blog

Five Things You Need to Know about North Korean Refugees

Five Things You Need to Know about North Korean Refugees

For those with even a basic knowledge of what North Korea is like, it comes as no surprise that many people inside the country wish to flee. Yet most Americans know little about the lives of North Korean refugees. Through the testimony of refugees like Yeonmi Park, the author of “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” their stories are slowly becoming more familiar to the world at large. Still, most people cannot imagine the level of risk that defectors take on nor the types of lives that follow even a successful escape. Here are five basic facts about North Korean refugees that everyone needs to know:

  1. Who are the North Korean refugees?

Though they are defectors from a communist state, most North Korean refugees do not flee for purely political reasons. In 2011, 50.7 percent of the refugees claimed that they fled because of “economic hardship.” In other words, many flee simply to escape starvation and find a way to feed their children. Women make up the majority of North Korean defectors—as of 2011, around 70.5 percent. Defection is easier for women because they have lower status than men and are therefore less tightly controlled by the government. Defectors tend to lack formal education: only seven percent of refugees have a college degree. Occupationally, most defectors are housewives, farmers, or unemployed, and only five percent describe themselves as professionals or managers. Geographically, most of the defectors come from areas near the North Korea-China border rather than Pyongyang.

  1. Where do North Koreans refugees end up?

Most North Korean defectors end up in either China or South Korea, with China representing the overwhelming majority. Defectors usually cross into China with the intention of reaching South Korea or Southeast Asia, but for various reasons many remain stuck in China. Other countries that North Koreans have defected to in the past include Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Russia, the US, and Canada. Traditionally, Southeast Asian countries like Laos and Thailand were considered safe haven for the defectors, although these destinations have also become more dangerous in recent years.

  1. How many North Korean refugees are there around the world?

There are no precise and uncontroversial statistics on the total number of North Korean defectors worldwide. After all, the Chinese government claims there are only 10,000 North Koreans in China, while some NGOs estimate that there are over 300,000. In South Korea, most estimates assume there are between 27,000-30,000 refugees. By contrast, a little less than two hundred North Koreans entered the US between 2002 and 2015. While North Koreans have been continuously defecting since the 1950s, the first mass exodus to China happened during the early 1990s, during North Korea’s Great Famine, and reached its peak in 1998-1999. In 2015, Kim Jong-un dramatically increased the security of the North Korean border with China in order to curtail the defection problem. The number of defectors has fallen slightly since then.

  1. What are refugees’ lives like?

North Koreans refugees in China must remain in hiding. The Chinese government, despite international disapproval, still forcefully deports defectors back to North Korea. Upon return, they face torture, prison camp sentences, or public execution. Many who remain in China end up as victims of sexual trafficking, especially since their tenuous legal status makes them vulnerable to blackmail. Meanwhile, refugees who make it to South Korea may eventually gain citizenship if they pass the lengthy debriefing process, but they usually struggle economically. As of 2014, their incomes were only half the South Korean average, and 9.7 percent were unemployed, three times the national average. Based on these difficulties, Kim Jong-un has recently started a campaign to attract “double defectors”—North Korean defectors have been bribed up to $45,000 to return and criticize South Korea in the media. Some former victims of sexual trafficking in China who escape to South Korea also are also denied access to and custody of the Chinese-born children they are forced to leave behind.

  1. How are things changing?

While the total number of defectors has fallen, high-profile defections have recently risen. According to a Korean Unification Ministry survey, the percentage of “middle-class” defectors rose from 19 percent in 2001 to 55.9 percent after 2014. One of the latest high-profile defections occurred in August 2016, when North Korean ambassador Thae Yong-ho defected to South Korea. Group defection is also becoming more common: a group of 13 restaurant workers who left North Korea in April 2016 is one famous example.

These five basic topics present only the barest sketch of the plight of North Korean refugees, but vividly illustrate the many dangers and challenges they face. Until North Koreans enjoy freedom and prosperity in their own country, defection will remain an attractive option, even with all its perils.


Editor’s Note: Want to hear more about life as a defector from North Korea? Join VOC Monday, December 12 for a conversation with Kang Cheol-Hwan, a North Korean defector and a former prisoner of North Korea’s prison camps. Mr. Kang spent 10 years in Yodok Concentration camp, but escaped to South Korea in 1992, where he established North Korean Strategy Center US Inc. Register Here