Since the division of Korea after the end of World War II and the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), North Koreans have defected for political, ideological, religious, economic or personal reasons. Such North Koreans are referred to as North Korean defectors. Alternative terms in South Korea include "northern refugees" (Korean: , talbukja) and "new settlers" (, saeteomin).
During the North Korean famine of the 1990s, there was an increase in defections, reaching a peak in 1998 and 1999. 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.
The most common 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, is also the largest and continuous aid source of the country. To avoid worsening the already tense relations with the Korean Peninsula, China refuses to grant North Korean defectors refugee status and considers them illegal economic migrants. About 76% to 84% of defectors interviewed in China or South Korea came from the Northeastern provinces bordering China. If the defectors are caught in China, they are repatriated back to North Korea where they often face harsh interrogations and years of punishment, or even death in political prison camps such as the Pukch'ang camp, or reeducation camps such as the Chungsan camp or Chongori camp.
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 (Korean: , "people of new land") instead of talbukja (, "people who fled the North"), a term about which North Korean officials expressed displeasure. A newer term is bukhanitaljumin (Korean: ; Hanja: ), which has the more forceful meaning of "residents who renounced North Korea".
North Korean migrants face psychological difficulties on their journey as defectors that affects them in the long run. During the North Korean famine, the international response included providing food, asylum, and economic development initiatives. Since the famine that caused between 240,000 to 420,000 total deaths, the quality of living conditions has since deteriorated for nearly two decades now, annual fatalities estimated at 600,000 to 850,000 which can attribute to the economic decline Post Cold War era. Since then, however, defectors face challenges from neighboring countries. Some countries accept the defectors with programs to assimilate them, while others believe they do not need to provide them.
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The term "integration" is a conceptual word that attunes itself according to the political climate of the country. There is not a single universal definition of integration in which the international community abides by, turning it into a catastrophic grey area. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has acknowledged this issue, particularly on the account of North Korean defectors. All of the defectors get sent back to North Korea, most are then killedernance|date=2008|volume=14|issue=2|pages=157-187|jstor=27800700}}</ref> It is contested that hegemonic countries must depolarize to create solutions even if there are no incentives in the end.
The UNHCR's definition for protracted refugee situations is:
"one in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile. A refugee in this situation is often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance." 
Although the definition was created on the basis of African refugees, it has the ability to be applied to North Korean defectors. The human security situation in North Korea has fluctuated, with food security being a primary issue, resulting in a large number of migrants from the country. Human rights analysts have begun to propose that human security should be viewed as an alternative perspective from which to examine the problems of North Korean migrants by UNHCR.
Since 1953, 100,000-300,000 North Koreans have defected, most of whom have fled to Russia or China. 1,418 were registered as arriving in South Korea in 2016. In 2017, there were 31,093 defectors registered with the Unification Ministry in South Korea, 71% of whom were women. In 2018, the numbers had been dramatically dropping since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011, trending towards less than a thousand per year, down from the peak of 2914 in 2009.
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. Recently, survey results conducted in 2013 by Johns 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, Liaoning and Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture.
Based on a study of North Korean defectors, women make up the majority of defections. In 2002, they comprised 56% of defections to South Korea (1,138 people), and by 2011, the number had grown to 71% (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. In the first half of 2018, women made up 88% of defectors to the South.
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. 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.
During the mid-1990s, the percentages of male and female defectors were relatively balanced. In early to mid-1990s, male labour was valuable since North Korean defectors could work in Chinese countrysides and factories and secure hideout in return. However, due to rising social security issues including crime and violence involving North Koreans, the value of male labour decreased. Females, on the other hand, were able to find easier means of settlement including performing smaller labour tasks and getting married to Chinese locals (mostly ethnic Korean). 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.
Before 2009, over 70% of female North Korean defectors were victims of human trafficking. Due to their vulnerability as illegal migrants, they were sold for cheap prices, around 3,000 to 10,000 yuan. Violent abuse started in apartments near the border with China, from which 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. After 2009, the percentage of female North Korean defectors with experience of human trafficking decreased to 15% since large numbers of defectors began to enter South Korea through organized groups led by brokers. However, the actual number may be larger considering that many female defectors tend to deny their experience of prostitution.
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, the Chinese government was relatively tolerant with the issue of North Korean defectors. Unless the North Korean government sent special requests, the Chinese government did not display serious control of the residence of North Koreans in Chinese territory. However, along with intensified North Korean famine in the late 90s, the number of defectors sharply increased, which raised international attention. As a result, China stepped up the inspection of North Korean defectors and began their deportations.
In February 2012, Chinese authorities repatriated 19 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 labour camps.
Human-rights organizations have compiled a list of hundreds of North Korean defectors repatriated by China. 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 stolen boat carrying 13 North Koreans washed ashore in Fukui Port in Fukui Prefecture and then continued to South Korea via Taiwan. 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. They later settled in South Korea. In September 2011, the Japan Coast Guard found a wooden boat containing 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 and thought they had arrived in South Korea. They were found in good health.
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 North Korea, which Chongryon hailed as a "paradise on earth". Some of the Koreans who were repatriated, including Kim Hyon-hui, a student of Yaeko Taguchi, revealed evidence about the whereabouts of Japanese citizens who had been kidnapped by North Korea.
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. However, using this route requires navigating the unforgiving terrain of the Gobi Desert. Also, tighter border control with China has made this route less common.
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. There may also be an unknown number of North Korean refugees that have blended into the South Korean community in the Philippines. The country has been hard to reach due to the fact refugees have to cross China and get on a boat to the island chain nation.
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. 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.
In 2014, 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. Citing UNHRC statistics, the report identified North Korean communities in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
As of 2015, 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, which is already notable for its significant South Korean community.
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 Centers that help defectors in their day-to-day life for a more smooth transition into South Korean society. The number of defectors since the 1950-1953 Korean War is more than 26,000.
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) to ?10,000,000 ($8,636). 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.
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.
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. 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. Another organization, PSCORE, runs education programs for refugees, providing weekly English classes and one-on-one tutoring.
|Status of North Korean defectors entering South Korea (2017)|
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Results of a survey conducted by the North Korean Refugees Foundation show that approximately 71% of North Koreans to have defected to South Korea since about 1998 are female. The percentage of female defectors has risen from 56% in 2002 to a high of 83% in 2017.
As of February 2014, age demographic of North Korean defectors show that 4% were ages 0-9, 12% were ages 10-19, 58% were ages 20-39, 21% were ages 40-59, and 4% were over 60. More than 50% of defectors come from North Hamgyong Province.
The employment status of defectors before leaving North Korea was 2% held administrative jobs, 3% were soldiers (all able-bodied persons are required to serve 7-10 years in the military), 38% were "workers", 48% were unemployed or being supported by someone else, 4% were "service", 1% worked in arts or sports, and 2% worked as "professionals".
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. Recognizing this, many North Koreans will in fact surrender themselves to the Thai police as soon as they cross the border into Thailand.
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.
On 5 May 2006, unnamed North Koreans were granted refugee status by the United States, 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. Between 2004 and 2011, the U.S. has admitted only 122 North Korean refugees and only 25 have received political asylum. A number of North Koreans have entered illegally, estimated at about 200, and generally settle in the ethnic Korean community in Los Angeles. An aunt and uncle of Kim Jong-un have lived in the United States since 1998.
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. Though Vietnam remains an officially socialist 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. 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". Following the airlift, Vietnam tightened border controls and deported several safehouse operators.
North Korean asylum seekers and defectors have been rising in numbers in Canada since 2006.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, Former 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."
North Korean defectors experience serious difficulties connected to psychological and cultural adjustment once they have been resettled. This occurs mainly because of the conditions and environment that North Koreans lived in while in their own country, as well as inability to fully comprehend new culture, rules, and ways of living in South Korea.
Difficulties in adjustment often come in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is essentially a mental disorder that develops after a person has experienced a major traumatic event. In the case of North Koreans, such traumatic events and experiences include brutality of the regime, starvation, ideological pressure, propaganda, political punishments, and so on.
Some studies have found the direct connection between physical illness and PTSD. PTSD serves as an explanation of the link between the exposure to trauma and physical health: exposure to trauma leads to worsening of the physical health condition because of PTSD. PTSD-related symptoms include disturbing memories or dreams relate to the traumatic events, anxiety, mental or physical distress, alterations in the ways of thinking.Depression and somatization are two of the conventional forms of PTSD, both of which are diagnosed among North Korean defectors with females having larger statistic numbers of the disorder diagnoses.
According to a recent survey, about 56% of the North Korean defectors are influenced by one or more types of psychological disorders. 93% of surveyed North Korean defectors identify food and water shortages and no access to medical care and, thus, constant illness as the most common types of their traumatic experiences preceding PTSD. Such traumatic experiences greatly influence the ways North Korean defectors adjust in new places. PTSD often prevents defectors from adequately assimilating into a new culture as well as from being able to hold jobs and accumulate material resources.
Traumatic events are not the only reason why North Koreans experience difficulty adjusting to the new way of living. Woo Teak-jeon conducted interviews with 32 North Korean defectors living in South Korea and found that other adjustment difficulties that are not related to PTSD occur due to such factors as the defector's suspiciousness, their way of thinking, prejudice of the new society, and unfamiliar sets of values. In many instances, North Korean defectors seem to be unable to easily adjust to the new way of living even when it comes to nutrition. According to research conducted by The Korean Nutrition Society, North Koreans used to consuming only small portions of food in North Korea daily, continue to exercise the same type of habits even when given an abundance of food and provision.
Psychological and cultural adjustment of North Koreans to the new norms and rules is a sensitive issue, but it has some ways of resolution. According to Yoon, collective effort of the defectors themselves, the government, NGOs, and humanitarian and religious organizations can help make the adjustment process smoother and less painful.
The non-profit NGO Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), has received positive recognition for aiding refugees' adjustment to life outside of North Korea. According to their website, TNKR's mission is to empower North Korean refugees to find their own voice and path through education, advocacy, and support. Their primary focus is to assist North Korean refugees in preparing for their future and transitioning to life outside of North Korea by providing free English learning opportunities. TNKR also hosts bi-annual English public speaking contests for North Korean refugees and holds public forums that offer first-hand accounts of life in, escape from, and adjustment outside of North Korea. TNKR was founded in 2013 by Casey Lartigue Jr. and Eunkoo Lee, who currently co-direct the organization. Lartigue Jr. and Lee gave a joint TEDx Talk in 2017 that tells the history of TNKR and offers practical lessons for making the world a better place.
According to a poll by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, around 50% of defectors said they had experienced discrimination because of their background. The two major issues were their inability to afford medical care and poor working conditions. Many complained of disrespectful treatment by journalists. According to the World Institute for North Korea Studies, a young female defector who does not attend university has little chance of making a living in the South.
With limited government-sponsored programs for migrants, North Koreans face vocational, medical, and educative difficulties assimilating in South Korea and rely on nongovernmental organizations. In addition to the traumatic circumstances of their homeland, North Koreans may face social exclusion. In a survey of over 24,000 of North Koreans who migrated to South Korea between August and December 2012, 607 identified as suffering from depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. Due to mistrust between both North and South Koreans, evidence from a study of 182 defectors reveal that defectors are unable to receive medical coverage from doctors. Intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations have repeatedly urged recipient nations of North Korean defectors to increase the efforts in identifying defectors who are at high risk for poor mental health and provide appropriate medical services and social support. Neither public nor private providers have been convinced to support due to identity politics.
Identity politics play a monumental factor in the cultural division among North and South Koreans. Contrary to popular belief, South Koreans and North Koreans share the same sense of nationalism and patriotism; however, most South Koreans harbour negative attitudes towards their Northern neighbors. In 2010, the Korean General Social Survey (KGSS) conducted face-to-face research of over 1,000 South Koreans on their perspectives on the ethnic identity of North Korean defectors assimilating into South Korea. The results reveal that North and South Koreans are both in agreement about not supporting the reunification of the Koreans. This is because some South Koreans have grown suspicious of defectors and their true intentions of migrating. South Koreans' antagonism against North Korea is mainly targeted at its Communist regime and a strict division of national identity. In comparison to North Koreans, South Koreans are more likely to harbor negative attitudes towards migrants and are less likely to believe in the reunification of the Koreas. The outcome from the KGSS survey rules that the idea of "one nation, two countries" does not exist anymore.
In some cases, defectors voluntarily return to North Korea. Exact numbers are unknown; however, in 2013, their number was reported to be increasing. Double defectors either take a route through third countries such as China, or may defect directly from South Korea. In 2014, the Unification Ministry of South Korea said it only had records of 13 double defections, three of whom defected to South Korea again. However, the total number is thought to be higher. A former South Korean MP estimated that in 2012 about 100 defectors returned to North Korea via China. In 2015, it was reported that about 700 defectors living in South Korea are unaccounted for and have possibly fled to China or Southeast Asia in hopes of returning to North Korea. In one case, a double defector re-entered North Korea four times.
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 ($44,000), and a public appearance on TV. It was reported in 2013 that North Korea had 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. In November 2016, North Korean website Uriminzokkiri aired an interview with three double defectors who complained that they had been treated as second-class citizens.
In 2013, a re-defector was charged by South Korea upon return. In 2016, defector Kim Ryon-hui's request to return to North Korea was denied by the South Korean government. In June 2017, Chun Hye-sung, a defector who had been a guest on several South Korean TV shows using the name Lim Ji-hyun, returned to the North. On North Korean TV, she said that she had been ill-treated and pressured into fabricating stories detrimental to North Korea. In July 2017, a man who had defected to the South and then returned to the North was arrested under the National Security Act when he entered the South again. In 2018 a defector was arrested in South Korea and charged with sending rice to North Korean secret police prior to an attempted return.
Ji Hyeon A, who was repatriated three times by China, told the room of diplomats and civil society representatives that she was brutally beaten at detention centers and forced to undergo an abortion. She also witnessed abuses such as harsh forced labor and babies dying "without ever being able to see their mothers."
But she's not just any immigrant. She's an aunt to Kim Jong Un, the young North Korean leader who has threatened to wipe out New York with a hydrogen bomb.