North Korean defectors

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North Korean defectors
Hangul 탈북자
Revised Romanization Talbukja
McCune–Reischauer T'albukcha

Since the division of Korea after World War II and the end of the Korean War (1950–1953), some North Koreans have managed to defect for political, ideological, religious, economic or personal reasons.

Starting from the North Korean famine of the 1990s, more North Koreans have defected.[1] The usual strategy is to cross the border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces in northeast China before fleeing to a third country, due to China being a relatively-close ally of North Korea. China, being the most influential of few economic partners of North Korea while the country has been under U.N. sanctions for decades,[2] is also the largest and continuous aid source of the country. To avoid worsening the already tense relations of the Korea Peninsula, China refuses to grant North Korean defectors refugee status and considers them illegal economic migrants.[3] About 76% to 84% of defectors interviewed in China or South Korea came from the Northeastern provinces bordering China.[4] If the defectors are caught in China, they are repatriated back to North Korea to face harsh interrogations and years of punishment, or even death in political prison camps such as Yodok camp or reeducation camps such as Chungsan camp or Chongori camp.[5][6]

Even though the number of North Korean defectors reached its peak in 1998 and 1999, the estimated population is believed to have declined since then. Some main reasons for the falling number of defectors especially since 2000 are; strict border patrols and inspections, forced deportations, and rising cost for defection.[7] During the mourning period of Kim Jong-il 's death on December 17, 2011 and the start of the Kim Jong-un regime, the movements of people were tightened and strictly controlled. This included requiring families living near the border areas to take turns standing guard [8] as well as having strong official warnings that three generations of a family would be destroyed if caught defecting, also having the defector being executed on-site. The number of North Korean defectors have dramatically decreased as a result.

A prominent defection occurred in April 2016 by 13 North Korean restaurant workers in Ningbo, Zhejiang province of China.[9] This group defection is significant to the human rights and forced repatriation issues of North Korea since the workers have decided to defect in a group instead of monitoring each other. They also legally crossed the border between North Korea and China with official passports and visa issued from the North Korean government. After being educated on security and South Korean social issues, all 13 North Korean defectors were supported for social resettlement in August 2016. An interview request from Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) regarding whether the defect was voluntary or not was ignored and rejected.[10]


Different terms, official and unofficial, refer to North Korean refugees. On 9 January 2005, the South Korean Ministry of Unification announced the use of saeteomin (, lit. "people of new land") instead of talbukja (탈북자, "people who fled the North"), a term about which North Korean officials expressed displeasure.[11] A newer term is bukhanitaljumin (hangul: 북한이탈주민 hanja: 北韓離脫住民), which has the more forceful meaning of "residents who renounced North Korea".[12]


Since 1953, 100,000–300,000 North Koreans have defected, most of whom have fled to Russia or China.[13] As of December 2016, some 30,000 have defected to South Korea.[14]

Starting from 2008, especially after the Kim Jong-un regime in 2011, the number of North Korean defectors fell between 20,000 and 400,000.[15]

Professor Courtland Robinson of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University estimated that in the past the total number of 6,824 and 7,829 children were born to North Korean women in the three Northeastern Provinces of China.[16] Recently, survey results conducted in 2013 by John Hopkins and the Korea Institute for National Unification (also known as KINU) showed that there were about 8,708 North Korean defectors and 15,675 North Korean children in China’s same three Northeastern Provinces which are Jilin, Lioning and Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture.

Based on a study of North Korean defectors, women make up the majority of defections. In 2002 they comprised 55.5% of defections to South Korea (1,138 people) and by 2011 the number had grown to 70.5% (2,706 people). More women leave the North because, as the bread-winners of the family, they are more likely to suffer financial hardships. This is due to the prevalence of women in service sector jobs whereas men are employed in the military—33% of defectors cited economic reasons as most important. Men, in contrast, had a higher tendency to leave the country due to political, ideological or surveillance pressure.[17]

By destination[edit]

Typical routes to South Korea by North Korean defectors are through China and South-East Asia.


As of 2012 there were an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 North Koreans hiding in China[18] making them the largest population outside of North Korea. According to the State Department estimates, 30,000 to 50,000 out of a larger number of hiding North Koreans have the legal status of refugees.[19] These refugees are not typically considered to be members of the ethnic Korean community, and the Chinese census does not count them as such. Some North Korean refugees who are unable to obtain transport to South Korea marry ethnic Koreans in China and settle there; they blend into the community but are subject to deportation if discovered by the authorities. Those who have found 'escape brokers', try to enter the South Korean consulate in Shenyang. In recent years, the Chinese government has tightened the security and increased the number of police outside the consulate.

Today there are new ways of getting into South Korea. One is to follow the route to the Mongolian border; another is the route to southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, who welcome the North Korean defectors.[20]

During the mid 1990s, the percentages of male and female defectors were relatively balanced.[21] In early to mid-1990s, male labor was valuable since North Korean defectors could work in Chinese countrysides and factories and secure hideout in return.[21] However, due to rising social security issues including crime and violence involving North Koreans, the value of male labor decreased.[21] Females, on the other hand, were able to find easier means of settlement including performing smaller labor tasks and getting married to Chinese locals.[21] As of today, 80-90% of North Korean defectors residing in China are females who settled through de facto marriage; a large number of them experience forced marriage and human trafficking.[21][22]

Before 2009, over 70% of female North Korean defectors were victims of human trafficking[22] Due to their vulnerability as illegal migrants, they were sold for cheap prices around 3,000 to 10,000 yuan.[22] Violent abuse started in apartments near the border with China, from where the women are then moved to cities further away to work as sex slaves. Chinese authorities arrest and repatriate these North Korean victims. North Korean authorities keep repatriates in penal labour colonies (and/or execute them), execute the Chinese-fathered babies "to protect North Korean pure blood," and force abortions on pregnant repatriates who are not executed.[23] After 2009, the percentage of female North Korean defectors with experience of human trafficking decreased to 15% since large number of defectors began to enter South Korea through organized groups led by brokers.[22] However, the actual number may be larger considering that many female defectors tend to deny their experience of prostitution.[22]

China refuses to grant refugee status to North Korean defectors and considers them illegal economic migrants. The Chinese authorities arrest and deport hundreds of defectors to North Korea, sometimes in mass immigration sweeps. Chinese citizens caught aiding defectors face fines and imprisonment. In the early to mid-1990s, Chinese government was relatively tolerant with the issue of North Korean defectors.[24] Unless the North Korean government sent special requests, Chinese government did not display serious control of the residence of North Koreans in Chinese territory.[24] However, along with intensified North Korean famine in the late 90s, the number of defectors sharply increased which raised international attention.[24] As a result, China stepped up the inspection of North Korean defectors and began their deportation.[24]

In February 2012, Chinese authorities repatriated North Korean defectors being held in Shenyang and five defectors in Changchun from the same location. The case of the 24 detainees, who have been held since early February garnered international attention due to the North's reported harsh punishment of those who attempted to defect. China repatriates North Korean refugees under a deal made with North Korea, its ally. Human rights activists say those repatriated face harsh punishment including torture and imprisonment in labor camps.[25]

South Korean human rights activists are continuing to stage hunger strikes and appeal to the U.N. Human Rights Council to urge China to stop the deportation of the refugees.[26][27][28]

Human rights organizations have compiled a list of hundreds of North Korean defectors repatriated by China.[29][30] For some of them the fate after repatriation to North Korea ranges from torture, detention, prison camp to execution. The list includes humanitarian workers, who were assassinated or abducted by North Korean agents for helping refugees.


There have been three cases of North Korean defectors who have escaped directly to Japan. In January 1987, a small boat carrying 13 North Koreans washed ashore in Fukui Port in Fukui Prefecture and then continued to South Korea via Taiwan.[31][32] In June 2007, after a six-day boat ride a family of four North Koreans was found by the Japan Coast Guard off the coast of Aomori Prefecture.[33] They later settled in South Korea.[34][35][36] In September 2011, the Japan Coast Guard found a wooden boat carrying nine people, three men, three women and three boys. The group had been sailing for five days towards South Korea but had drifted towards the Noto Peninsula.[37]

Japan resettled about 140 ethnic Koreans who managed to return to Japan after initially immigrating to North Korea under the 1959-1984 mass "repatriation" project of ethnic Koreans from Japan. This supposed humanitarian project, supported by Chongryon and conducted by the Japanese and North Korean Red Crosses, had involved the resettlement of around 90,000 volunteers (mostly from South Korea) in the DPRK, which Chongryon hailed as a "paradise on earth".[38] Some of the Koreans include Kim Hyun Hui who is student of Yaeko Taguchi who were repatriated revealed evidence about the whereabouts of Japanese citizens who had been kidnapped by North Korea.[39]


A much shorter route than the standard China-Laos-Thailand route is straight to Mongolia, whose government tries to maintain good relations with both North and South Korea but is sympathetic to North Korean refugees. North Korean refugees who are caught in Mongolia are sent to South Korea, effectively granting them a free air ticket.[40] However, using this route requires navigating the unforgiving terrain of the Gobi Desert.


The Philippines has in the past been used as a transit point for North Korean refugees, often arriving from China and then being sent on to South Korea.[41] There may also be an unknown number of North Korean refugees that have blended into the South Korean community in the Philippines.[42]


A study by Kyung Hee University estimated that roughly 10,000 North Koreans live in the Russian Far East; many are escapees from North Korean work camps there.[43] Both South Korean diplomatic missions and local ethnic Koreans are reluctant to provide them with any assistance; it is believed that North Korea ordered the assassination of South Korean consul Choi Duk-gun in 1996 as well as two private citizens in 1995, in response to their contact with the refugees. As of 1999, there were estimated to be only between 100 and 500 North Korean refugees in the area.[44]


Research by the human rights organisation the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea claims that there are around 1,400 North Korean refugees in Europe as of 2014. Citing UNHRC statistics, the report identified North Korean communities in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.[45]

The largest North Korean community in Europe resides in New Malden, South West London. Approximately 600 North Koreans are believed to reside in the area,[46] which is already notable for its significant South Korean community.[47]

South Korea[edit]

South Korea's Ministry of Unification is a government organization that is in charge of preparing for a future reunification between North and South Korea. It is responsible for North-South relations including economic trade, diplomacy, and communication, and education of reunification, which involves spreading awareness in schools and among the public sphere. The Ministry of Unification is thus the main organization that manages North Korean defectors in South Korean territory by establishing admission processes and resettlement policies. It also has regional sub-organs called Hana Center within the ministry that helps defectors in their day-to-day life for a more smooth transition into the South Korean society.[48] The number of defectors since the 1950-1953 Korean War is more than 26,000.[14]


In 1962, the South Korean Government introduced the "Special law on the protection of defectors from the North" which, after revision in 1978, remained effective until 1993. According to the law, every defector was eligible for an aid package. After their arrival in the South, defectors would receive an allowance. The size of this allowance depended on the category to which the particular defector belonged (there were three such categories). The category was determined by the defector's political and intelligence value. Apart from this allowance, defectors who delivered especially valuable intelligence or equipment were given large additional rewards. Prior to 1997 the payments had been fixed in gold bullion, not in South Korean won—in attempts to counter ingrained distrust about the reliability of paper money.

The state provided some defectors with apartments, and all those who wished to study were granted the right to enter a university of his or her choice. Military personnel are allowed to continue their service in the South Korean military where they were given the same rank that they had held in the North Korean army. For a period of time after their arrival defectors were also provided with personal bodyguards.

In 2004, South Korea passed controversial new measures intended to slow the flow of asylum seekers as it has become worried that a growing number of North Koreans crossing the Amnok and Duman Rivers into China will soon seek refuge in the South. The regulations tighten defector screening processes and slash the amount of money given to each refugee from ₩28,000,000 ($24,180.08) to ₩10,000,000 ($8,635.743). South Korean officials say the new rules are intended to prevent ethnic Koreans living in China from entering the South, as well as stop North Koreans with criminal records from gaining entry.[49]

Defectors past retirement age receive Basic Livelihood Benefits of about ₩450,000 per month, which covers basic necessities, but leaves them amongst the poorest of retirees.[50]


North Korean refugees arriving in the South first face joint interrogation by authorities having jurisdiction including the National Intelligence Service and the National Police Agency to ensure that they are not spies.[51] They are then sent to Hanawon, a government resettlement center.

There are also non-profit and non-governmental organizations that seek to make the sociocultural transition easier and more efficient for the refugees. One such organization, Saejowi, provides defectors with medical assistance as well as an education in diverse topics ranging from leadership and counseling techniques to sexual violence prevention and avoidance.[52] Another organization, PSCORE, runs education programs for refugees, providing weekly English classes and one-on-one tutoring.[53]


Approximate total number of defectors to South Korea from 1953 to June 2014: 26,854

Status of North Korean Defectors entering South Korea (2015.12)[14][edit]
Criteria / Year ~1998 ~2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Total
Male 831 565 510 474 626 424 515 573 608 662 591 795 404 369 305 251 8,503
Female 116 478 632 811 1,272 960 1,513 1,981 2,195 2,252 1,811 1,911 1,098 1,145 1,092 1,025 20,292
Total 947 1,043 1,142 1,285 1,898 1,384 2,028 2,554 2,803 2,914 2,402 2,706 1,502 1,514 1,396 1,276 28,795
Female Percentage 12% 46% 55% 63% 67% 69% 75% 78% 78% 77% 75% 70% 72% 76% 78% 83% 70%

Results of a survey conducted by the North Korean Refugees Foundation show that approximately 70% of North Koreans to have defected to South Korea since about 1998 are female.[14] The percentage of female defectors has risen from 55.5% in 2002 to a high of 78.3% in 2008.[17]

As of February 2014, age demographic of North Korean defectors show that 4% were ages 0–9, 12.2% were ages 10–19, 57.8% were ages 20–39, 21.2% were ages 40–59, and 4.4% were over 60.[14] More than 50% of defectors come from North Hamgyong Province.[54]

The employment status of defectors before leaving North Korea was 1.6% held administrative jobs, 2.6% were soldiers (all able-bodied persons are required to serve 7–10 years in the military), 37.7% were "workers", 48.4% were unemployed or being supported by someone else, 3.9% were "service", 0.8% worked in arts or sports, and 2.0% worked as "professionals".[14]


Thailand is generally the final destination of North Koreans escaping through China. While North Koreans are not given refugee status and are officially classified as illegal immigrants, the Thai government will deport them to South Korea instead of back to North Korea. This is because South Korea recognizes native Koreans from the entire Korean Peninsula as citizens. These North Korean escapees are subject to imprisonment for illegal entry; however, most of these sentences are suspended.[55][56] Many North Koreans will in fact surrender themselves to the Thai police as soon as they cross the border into Thailand.[57]


Although Southeast Asia was once seen as a safe haven for North Korean defectors, some countries have recently altered their policies toward the defector situation. In 2013 nine defectors were arrested and sent back to North Korea after being tricked, causing international outrage. One of the defectors is the son of a Japanese abductee.[58][59][60][61]

United States[edit]

On May 5, 2006, unnamed North Koreans were granted refugee status by the United States of America, the first time the U.S. accepted refugees from there since President George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act in October 2004. The group, which arrived from an unnamed Southeast Asian nation, included four women who said that they had been the victims of forced marriage. Since this first group of refugees, the U.S. has admitted approximately 170 North Korean refugees by 2014.[62] Between 2004 and 2011, the U.S. has admitted only 122 North Korea refugees and only 25 have received political asylum.[63] A number of North Koreans have entered illegally, estimated at about 200, and generally settle in the ethnic Korean community in Los Angeles.[64]


Many defectors who reach China travel onwards to South-east Asian nations, especially Vietnam. The journey consists of crossing Tumen River, either when frozen or shallow in summer, in camouflage, and then taking the train secretly across China. From there, they can either work illegally, though often exploited, or attempt to travel to South Korea.[65][66] Though Vietnam remains an officially communist country and maintains diplomatic relations with North Korea, growing South Korean investment in Vietnam has prompted Hanoi to quietly permit the transit of North Korean refugees to Seoul. The increased South Korean presence in the country also proved a magnet for defectors; four of the biggest defector safehouses in Vietnam were run by South Korean expatriates, and many defectors indicated that they chose to try to cross the border from China into Vietnam precisely because they had heard about such safehouses.[67] In July 2004, 468 North Korean refugees were airlifted to South Korea in the single largest mass defection; Vietnam initially tried to keep their role in the airlift secret, and in advance of the deal, even anonymous sources in the South Korean government would only tell reporters that the defectors came from "an unidentified Asian country".[68] Following the airlift, Vietnam tightened border controls and deported several safehouse operators.[67]

On June 25, 2012, a South Korean activist surnamed Yoo was arrested for helping the North Korean defectors to escape.[69][70][71]


North Korean asylum seekers and defectors have been rising in numbers in Canada since 2006.[72] Radio Free Asia reports that in 2007 alone, over 100 asylum applications were submitted, and that North Korean refugees have come from China or elsewhere with the help of Canadian missionaries and NGOs. The rapid increase in asylum applications to Canada is due to the limited options, especially when receiving asylum is becoming more difficult. On 2 February 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper met Hye Sook Kim, a North Korean defector and also received advice from Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, "Canada can persuade China, among others, not to repatriate the North Korean refugees back to North Korea but, instead, let them go to South Korea and other countries, including Canada."[73]

Double defectors[edit]

In some cases, defectors voluntarily return to North Korea. Exact numbers are unknown,[74] but as of 2013, their number is thought to be increasing. Double defectors either take a route through third countries such as China or may defect directly from South Korea.[75] The Unification Ministry of South Korea has publicly acknowledged only 13 double defections. Three of those have since defected to South Korea again,[76] at least one of whom was charged by South Korea upon return.[77] However, the total number is thought to be higher than 13. A former South Korean MP estimates that in 2012 about 100 defectors returned to North Korea via China.[76] About 700[78] defectors living in South Korea are unaccounted for and have possibly fled to China or Southeast Asia in hopes of returning to North Korea.[75] In one case, a double defector re-entered North Korea four times.[74]

North Korea under Kim Jong-un has started a campaign to attract defectors to return with promises of money, housing and employment. According to unconfirmed reports, government operatives have contacted defectors living in South Korea and offered them guarantees that their families are safe, 50 million South Korean won ($45,000),[74] and a public appearance on TV.[76] North Korea has aired at least 13 such appearances on TV where returning defectors complain about poor living conditions in the South and pledge allegiance to Kim Jong-un.[76][79]

In 2016, Kim Ryon-hui's request to return to North Korea was denied by the South Korean government.[80][81]

Fiction and non-fiction works[edit]

See also[edit]


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