NK 101

Who Are North Korean Defectors?

Since the famines of the mid-1990s, tens of thousands of North Koreans have been crossing the North Korean-Chinese border in search of food and economic opportunities in China. However, North Koreans are not safe in China. The Chinese government has yet to extend refugee status to North Koreans despite the harsh punishment they face upon repatriation- torture, imprisonment, and in some cases execution. The immediate motivation for crossing into China may be “economic” but North Korean defectors are not only “economic migrants” but “refugees.” The virtual lack of freedom in North Korean society and the brutal treatment upon repatriation or being caught at the border warrant their status as refugees under the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which China is a signatory state. The lack of refugee status renders North Koreans very vulnerable to arrest, fraud, trafficking, and other abuses.

On the other hand, crossing into China gives North Koreans the opportunity to permanently defect. However, due to their illegal status in China, North Korean refugees travel thousands of miles through China to reach a South Korean embassy in one of the Southeast Asian nations. The journey is often called the “underground railroad” of the 21st century because refugees must travel in secrecy from one point to another.

The current number of North Korean refugees in South Korea exceeds 23,000. There are smaller communities in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and elsewhere as well. Unfortunately, resettlement has not been an immediate happy ending for many North Korean refugees. Despite government initiatives and efforts by NGOs, they continue to face social and economic discrimination from South Koreans, educational gap, physical and mental problems, language barrier, and more. Successful resettlement of North Korean refugees is not only a humanitarian undertaking but one that plays a critical role in preparing for a future reunification of the Korean peninsula. It is ENoK’s belief that North Korean refugees will play the most important roles in unifying the two societies of the Korean peninsula. The success of North Korean refugees in South Korea, U.S. or abroad will allow them to champion the rights of their compatriots at the societal, national, and international levels. Therefore, ENoK’s vision is to support North Korean refugees in the United States because we see them as partners- not just beneficiaries- in the campaign to end injustice in North Korea and reunite the Korean people.