North Koreans really began escaping from North Korea in the 1990s when a severe famine struck and claimed over a million lives. Since the 90s, the number of defecting North Koreans has steadily increased. There are an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 North Korean refugees in China, the immediate destination for any North Korean escaping the country since crossing the DMZ is not an option. Making the decision to leave is not an easy one because of the physical hardship and risk of arrest. Defecting is a crime punishable by death and the defector is immediately branded as a traitor.
The 21st Century Underground Railroad
Americans can never forget the Underground Railroad that African-American slaves used in the 19th century to escape to freedom. The memory of the Underground Railroad should forever remind us that freedom has to be fought for. This “Underground Railroad” is now being used by thousands of North Korean refugees in their odyssey to find freedom. North Korean refugees’ journey to freedom is “underground” because the Chinese government has yet to recognize them as refugees. The absence of a protective refugee status means North Korean refugees must hide from place to place until they reach a South Korean or foreign embassy. NGOs and Christian missionaries work underground to provide a safe network for these refugees to move in. However, this journey can even extend thousands of miles. Many refugees have to cross through China to seek asylum in Mongolia or Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam.
There are currently over 25,000 resettled North Korean refugees in South Korea alone. North Korean refugees are automatically recognized as citizens of the Republic of Korea under the Constitution. Once they complete a three-month education and training period at Hanawon, they are resettled in government-paid homes. However, many resettled refugees require more assistance. South Korea’s capitalist society is often daunting and overwhelming, to mention a few: the cultural barrier (their first time living in a democratic and capitalistic society with cut-throat competition); the education gap; prejudice; and the language barrier (for countries other than South Korea).
A smaller number of North Korean refugees have resettled in the United States, as well as other countries. There are currently around 150 North Korean refugees resettled in the United States. ENoK’s mission is to provide services that will ease their resettlement in American society.