T he Korean border is a forbidding spectacle. Around 250 kilometres of razor wire, mines, and thousands of guards separate North and South. This is broken only by the Joint Security Area (JSA), a jointly administered village used for treaty negotiations. Soldiers patrol their zones day and night in a state of readiness for a war merely paused in 1953. Earlier this month, an elite North Korean JSA guard known only as Oh chose here to make his escape.
Around 31,000 people have defected from North to South Korea between 1998 and 2016, averaging 1,700 persons per year.
“I was cut off from the rest of the world and brainwashed to obey the state,” Jihyun Park, a human rights activist and defector from North Korea, recalled to The World Weekly. Her account corroborates the general picture about childhood indoctrination in North Korea. “I went through school believing that North Korea was the greatest country on earth and knew nothing about the atrocities carried out against its people,” Ms. Park testifies.
Successful escapees recount how the harsh reality of daily life broke through this ideological façade. Ellie Cha told Canadian media that her family fled in 2012 because her father had lost his senior job at a mining firm after her aunt defected. “My parents realised that for my family, there is no future anymore.”
This is no less true for members of North Korea’s political and military elite. Despite their relatively comfortable lives, Kim Jong-Un’s routine firing and executions of top officials has put their status on uncertain ground.
Thae Yong-Ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, defected to South Korea in 2016. In an interview he described how he always ensured his reports to Pyongyang kept a “kind of line of loyalty to the system, and regime”. Commenting on why he defected, he said: “I did not want to let my sons lead a life like me.”
Escaping can also be a matter of survival. Famine struck North Korea from 1994 to 1998, ravaging the countryside, and reportedly leaving upwards of three million people dead.
"The stomachs of little children on our street were distended from starvation," describes Ms. Park. She recalls how her relatively comfortable early life “collapsed” as food rations dried up, and she watched family members die before her eyes. “We were forced to forage for whatever food we could find in forests.”
The 1990s formed the refugee dynamic we see today, writes Jae Ku in the Asia Experts Forum. Thousands of others joined Ms. Park in fleeing for their own survival into China, with the previous “trickle” of defections becoming “a flood”.
Continued socio-economic deprivation has encouraged a thriving black market. Along with food and essential supplies, these illicit traders bring news from the outside world and have flooded North Korea with USB sticks filled with foreign movies and entertainment.
“This may foster internal change,” Terence Roehrig, director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the US Naval War College, told TWW, “as leakage of information from the outside challenges the narrative the regime has maintained for years.”
“I watched Chinese, Indian and Russian movies, and lots of South Korean soap operas,” one escapee told the Washington Post, “I thought that if I got to South Korea, I could do anything I wanted.”
Female defectors particularly follow this trend. Women constituted around 71% of defectors to South Korea between 1998 and 2016. In part this reflects that their lower status in society actually affords them greater mobility than men. Liberty in North Korea, an international NGO that works with North Korean defectors, has also found that watching films of empowered women from other countries encourages North Korean women to aspire beyond North Korea’s strict patriarchal society, “and were a significant factor in their decision to escape.”
The China Question
Soldier Oh is one of the exceptional few to have successfully fled across the militarised border. The overwhelming majority cross into China and journey through Southeast Asia until they can access a South Korean embassy.
Then they can claim South Korean citizenship, as South Korea’s constitution regards North Korea as an illegal rogue state obstructing its lawful claim to the whole Korean peninsula. North Korean refugees are, therefore, simply claiming a nationality they have been entitled to from birth.
Yet obstacles remain. Many of the countries along the route are not signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1968 Refugee protocol, denying escapees the protection of international law. They are left in the vulnerable position of moving illegally and relying on networks set up by NGOs, missionaries, and brokers.
At the heart of it all is China. Despite being a signatory to both UN refugee agreements, China regards North Korean refugees as “illegal economic migrants” and routinely returns them to North Korea.
A 2014 UN report on human rights in North Korea sharply criticised China, highlighting that returnees faced torture in North Korea and accusations of treason. As a consequence, North Korean refugees are “entitled to international protection”.
China has rejected such criticisms. It continues to pour resources into stopping illegal migration from North Korea; some commentators suggest that this is all in preparation for a refugee crisis on its border if the North Korean regime collapses.
Estimates place the number of North Koreans living illegally in China anywhere between 50,000 and 300,000 people. Unwilling to approach state officials for fear of deportation, many are exploited by traffickers.
Amidst a majority female refugee population, the 2014 report calls trafficking “one of the gravest human rights abuses against [North Korean] women and girls.”
“I was sold to a Chinese man for 5000 yuan (around $750).” Ms. Park’s experience echoes the pattern of female refugees being pressured into ‘marrying’ Chinese men. She likens it to slavery. In the area where she stayed, North Koreans were forced to work all day and denied “basic needs and rights as women” by the Chinese villagers. This extended even to not congregating outside. “They thought that we would encourage each other to escape.”
Capture by Chinese authorities only compounded refugees’ mistreatment. Ms. Park - who was detained after being reported to Chinese authorities - faced a daily ordeal where guards “stripped naked” female detainees and “ordered them to squat up and down repeatedly to search for money that might have been in their rectal or vaginal cavities.” Testimony in the 2014 report suggests this type of physical and sexual violence is routine in Chinese detention centres.
“The treatment of me was though I was below human,” Kim Song-Ju told UN investigators, hinting at the brutal treatment of defectors who are returned to North Korea. Interrogators are said to starve and mutilate repatriated defectors to extract confessions. They are left at the whim of North Korea’s vast political prison system; Amnesty International estimated that 120,000 people were imprisoned across four known complexes in 2016.
‘People over Politics’
“I lived in a dark tunnel with no light at the end.” Ms. Park found unprecedented freedom when she eventually settled in the UK. “For all my life, I had been running. Now I am able to take a break.”
But integration can be a difficult process. South Korea’s Institute for National Unification found that 63% of North Korean defectors living in South Korea have experienced various forms of discrimination. Marked out by a distinctive accent, North Koreans report being shunned and denied employment. For an isolated few, this is enough to make them want to “return home to the North.”
Leaving North Korea remains a daunting task. In recent months, China and North Korea have reportedly expanded the scale of obstacles to movement on their border, and the number of successful defectors has subsequently fallen.
This is particularly significant given the current conditions in the country. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN reported that droughts in April and June limited 2017 main season crop growth. As a result, North Koreans faced continued “borderline or poor food consumption rates”. This only exacerbated existing stress on food consumption from the international sanctions instituted after North Korea’s recent nuclear tests.
North Korea has ignored all international reporting on this issue. State media solely blames “barbaric” international sanctions, and uses them to justify pushing ahead with its nuclear programme. The population meanwhile is expected to produce more supplies themselves.
Options on the table over these tests range from more sanctions to military action. Whilst US administration officials have paid heed to the humanitarian struggle in North Korea, this week’s launch of a missile capable of hitting anywhere in the US stirred combative rhetoric in Washington DC. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated it simply to CNN: “If we have to go to war to stop this, we will.”
Yet voices of moderation remain. “By focusing so much on traditional security we play to North Korea’s strengths and reinforce their siege mentality,” Sokeel Park, South Korea country director of Liberty in North Korea, told TWW. It is far more fruitful, he argues, to “accelerate change” in North Korea by consolidating networks of “money, resources and information” sent back by successfully resettled defectors. The mantra is simple: “people over politics.”
How ever the geopolitical game between Washington and Pyongyang ends, 25 million North Koreans face a difficult future.