The plight of North Korean refugees / defectors

I’ve always wondered about the escape routes for North Korean defectors. For most of them, would South Korea be the final destination? And if so, how do they end up getting to South Korea? Would it be via China, Yanji and then to South Korea? Or do they take a longer route?

When North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un severely tightened border controls along the Tumen and Yalu borders with China in December 2011, there has been a sharp decline in the number of defectors from 2,706 in 2011 to 1,276 in 2015, the least since 2002. And as of 2015, there has been a total of 28,795 North Korean defectors that have crossed over to the South Korean border since the end of the Korean War in 1953. (Source: Forbes, Donald Kirk, 9 April 2016)

After North Korean defectors reach Yanji, China, most of them end up transiting at major transit hubs such as Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.


Staying in China is usually deemed unsafe because there is higher chance of these defectors getting caught by the Chinese authorities and repatriated to North Korea. And the relative geographical proximity of China to North Korea further buttresses the possibility of repatriation.

Usually reaching Southeast Asia would mean that defectors have more or less got through the worst, by avoiding getting arrested by Chinese authorities and being sent back home, and the typical outcome is freedom – in the form of political asylum and safe passage to South Korea.

Unfortunately, this trend seems to be changing in recent years.

Some of these Southeast Asian countries have chosen to deport these North Korean defectors, handing them over to China / North Korea, subjecting these defectors to uncertain but surely perilous outcomes in the form of gulags, torture and death.

One such country would be Vietnam, who forcibly deported 9 North Koreans to China end of October last year.

Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps refugees seek asylum, said that repatriated defectors face torture simply “for having the audacity to hope for a fuller and freer life.”

“This case is tangible proof of just how hard it is for North Korean refugees,” he said. “These nine people have escaped from the most closed country in the world and have traveled undetected for thousands of miles through China into Vietnam, only to be caught there and sent back to China to face repatriation and punishment at the hands of the North Korean authorities for trying to escape.”

The plight of North Korean refugees is indeed an uncertain and dangerous one, and escaping North Korea does not guarantee their freedom. Their freedom ultimately hinges upon the people they meet, and whether the countries they are transiting in are willing to provide them temporary asylum, and safe passage to South Korea.

Moreover, most North Koreans are excluded from the social security net / legal recourse. As such, North Korean refugees become easy prey for human traffickers and are vulnerable to forced repatriation.

In light of this, human rights activists have also been lobbying the South Korean government to more aggressively seek custody of North Korean defectors from the governments of these countries like China and Southeast Asian countries.

I came across this video which I thought nicely summed up the journey a North Korean defector would likely have to go through.

“Location Video: A North Korean defector’s story”


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Currently living and pursuing my undergraduate studies in South Korea.

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