Travel and Culture writer Charlotte Brill shines a light on the dark stories of defectors who flee North Korea.

Unimaginable. This is one of the few words that can sum up the experience of North Koreans who defect from the land of ‘Our Great Leader’ through China. North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeon-mi Park was only 17 when she escaped in 2007. This was only the start of a long, perilous and heart-wrenching journey. While fearfully living in secret, she witnessed the death of her father, but there could be no funeral. Instead, she had to hold in her emotions and stealthily hide his body in the dead of night; something no person, especially someone so young, should ever have to do. If you think this is enough hardship for one person, you are unfortunately mistaken. Not only was she trafficked for two years, she was also separated from her older sister for seven years, without any way of knowing if she was even still alive. 

Yeon-Mi’s case is not unique or isolated. Stories like hers are in abundance and each account is as harrowing as the next. Most North Korean defectors left in the 1990s during the great famine that killed over one million people. ‘’Hunger means death in North Korea…it was the only option for us’’, Yeon-Mi said at a TED talk in 2019. Even in these dire times, they believe their country is the best in the world because they have little-to-no knowledge of the ‘outside world’. Since then, underground markets have grown, where they can access foreign goods, such as USBs with illegal information or films on. These outside influences insight new motivations to escape by raising awareness of the freedom they are denied, creating a new generation of North Korean refugees.

Defectors cannot simply reach South Korea via the direct border, through the Demilitarised zone (DMZ), because it is heavily guarded and near impossible to penetrate. You may remember the viral video of a North Korean soldier miraculously making it across this border, but not before being shot several times by his fellow North Korean soldiers. Most defectors escape via the Tumen or Amrok rivers into, and through China, to a third country where they can reach a South Korean embassy. Simple as it seems, North Koreans are illegal immigrants in China and are routinely detained and repatriated to a gruelling fate. They must meticulously hide their identities and hope their presence remains concealed from Chinese authority. 

Bribes and Brokers are frequently used by North Korean refugees to facilitate their escape. Given the incredible risk, brokers often have a vested interest when they ‘help’ people into China, especially when it comes to women. Brokers commonly have ties to illegal trafficking rings and trick these desperate and vulnerable women into them, commoditising them. Women are routinely tricked into illegal ‘sex-cam’ operations where they must perform humiliating live pornographic acts. These women have not truly escaped. They have merely been transferred from one repressive situation to another, more demeaning alternative. If not to the sex-cam operation, they are countlessly sold as illegal brides to Chinese men at distressingly low prices. The acceptance and naturalisation of such occurrences is a poignant testament of how lowly North Korean women are regarded in China. 

Sex-trafficking undeniably causes deep mental scarring for the women dehumanised and sold, but the issues do not stop with them. These women, whether through rape or eventually consensual sex, have children who must bear the heavy weight of their mothers’ history before they are even old enough to truly understand or sympathise with it. The lives and futures of these children are automatically fraught with precarity as they live on the periphery of society, often unable to obtain legal citizenship. As if they had not already been dealt such a poor hand in life, many of these children also experience the abandonment or repatriation of their mother, never to see them again.

Even if defectors survive the treacherous journey and reach South Korea, their ordeal is not entirely over. After years of separation from the rest of the world, defectors suffer from a severe education gap, and in order to assimilate and be granted citizenship they must complete a government mandated re-education programme. For someone who has gone through extensive trauma and is so behind this can be extremely overwhelming. Although they are all Korean, they also face discrimination for being born on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, a prejudice deep rooted since the brutality of the Korean War. Consequently, it is common for defectors to suffer from anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They are, in part, failed by certain aspects South Korean sociality which does not give them the community ethos they need to be nourished and supported in this comparatively alien world. This is truly an under-represented humanitarian crisis, but with the looming threat of North Korea’s nuclear weaponry, political backlash is out of the question for the world’s state leaders. The number of North Korean refugees speaking out about their stories is rising, and it is these people who we can help and protect. At a Ted Talk, now settled defector, Hyeonseo Lee highlighted the importance of this by explaining how they (successful escapees) can ‘’act as a bridge between the people inside North Korea and the outside world’’ by keeping in contact with their families and by sending them information and small amounts of money. In this way, they can begin to develop North Korea and improve the lives of those inside, albeit only marginally, from the outside. They are also success stories which can potentially give those suffering in China hope and inspiration to continue their fight for freedom and justice.

Photo credits: Gage Skidmore

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