Read caption A young girl looks out of the bus carrying a group of North Korean asylum seekers to courtrooms in Thailand's Chiang Rai Province, May 11, 2007. The group of about ten female asylum seekers spent two years traveling through China, Myanmar and Laos to Thailand, hoping to seek refuge in South Korea. Photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters/Scanpix NTB

Ten things you should know about refugees from North Korea

Richard Skretteberg|Published 16. Feb 2018
While North Korea's cheerleaders perform in the stands of the South Korean Olympic city of PyeongChang, many North Koreans flee from their country, embarking on a dangerous escape.
Take a break from watching the Winter Olympics for a moment, and read up on 10 things you should know about those who flee from the neighbour in the north:

 

#1. Food shortages and oppression led to flight

The main causes for the increasing number of refugees near the end of the 20th century and since the millennium have been a dire lack of food and medicine, as well as political persecution.

 

#2. More than 30,000 North Koreans are refugees

No nation in the world has gone further than North Korea in their policies of locking their people in and shutting the world out. But even for the North Korean regime, it eventually became impossible to keep everyone confined. Since 1999, an increasing number of North Koreans have managed to cross the border rivers of Tumen and Yalu and into China. By the beginning of 2018, 31,339 North Koreans had arrived in South Korea. 

 

#3. There has been a decrease in the number of refugees in recent years

In 2017, 1,127 North Korean refugees arrived in South Korea. That is a 21 percent decrease from 2016, and the lowest number since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011.

 

#4. Security is tightening on both sides of the border

The reason for the decrease is tougher security and electric fences along the Tumen river marking the border to China. Very few have managed to flee through the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea. Most people make it to South Korea through China.

 

#5. North Korean refugees are hiding in China

The number of North Korean refugees hiding in China is estimated to be between 50,000 and 200,000. Even though China has signed the UN convention relating to the status of refugees, the Chinese government sees these people as migrants without residence permits, and they are not allowed to apply for asylum. All who are caught are returned to North Korea, where they are, at best, at risk of facing several years in labour camps, and at worst, death.

 

#6. The majority of the refugees are women

About 70 percent of the North Korean refugees in South Korea are women. This number has been steadily rising over the past few years, and in 2017, 85 percent of the refugees were women.

 

#7. North Korean refugees are victims of human trafficking

Many refugees marry Chinese men and are thus able to pass under the radar of the Chinese government. Others are recruited for sex trafficking or cheap labour.

 

#8. Long escape routes through China

A small number of people manage to travel directly from China to South Korea, using false identification papers provided by a network of Koreans with Chinese citizenship. Many, however, have taken a long journey through China to Mongolia, or countries in south-east Asia, where they have been able to contact South Korean embassies.

 

#9. The refugees are given entry vetting and cultural integration training after arrival in South Korea

Upon arrival in South Korea, all North Korean refugees have to go through lengthy interrogation, intended among other things to hinder infiltrators from slipping through. In addition, they have much to learn – spanning from the South Korean version of the Korean War to practical skills such as using an ATM.

 

#10. North Korean refugees suffer from trauma

Many are very traumatised upon their arrival in South Korea. The process of integration is difficult, and many feel guilt for leaving their family members behind in North Korea.

Facts about North Korea

Area: 120,540 km2

Capital: Pyongyang, three million inhabitants, belongs to the elite

Population: 24.5 million

Life expectancy: 66 years (men), 72 years (women)

The humanitarian situation: According to the UN, two out of five people are malnourished. About 18 million depend on humanitarian aid. Drought, as well as sanctions imposed in 2017, have made the conditions even worse.

North Koreans abroad: According to the UN, at least 50,000 North Koreans are guest workers abroad, most of them in Russia and China. They are legal residents in the countries they work in and are sending much-needed foreign currency back to North Korea. With the new sanctions imposed, these people may risk having to go back home.

Refugees: By January 1,  2018, a total of 31,339 North Korean refugees had arrived in South Korea. Between 50,000 and 200,000 people are living in hiding in China. They are not permitted to seek asylum even though China has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention.