By Wanyi Liu | May 2, 2019

There is a special group of migrants from North Korea who have received surprisingly little attention on the world stage. These marginalized people are North Korean refugees who, for years, have fled, most often in the face of the ongoing food shortage that began with North Korea’s 1999 famine. Moreover, the number of North Korean defectors is undoubtedly underestimated, in large part due to the failure to collect adequate data. The only relevant statistic measured is the number of North Korean defectors who have fled to South Korea for refuge; according to the Ministry of Unification, 32,147 North Korean Defectors have entered South Korea as of today.

North Korean defectors most often cross the northeastern China-North Korea border, but not all choose to emigrate to South Korea. Some of them remain in Northeastern China, which has a large group of ethnic Koreans. Those who chose to go to South Korea nearly always enter “going north” or “going south”. The former means travelling to Mongolia after by means of China and the latter means travelling from northeastern China to southeastern China. From there, North Korean refugees first enter Vietnam, then South Korea. Regardless, the refugee policies of these surrounding countries are clearly very pertinent and impactful to to the safety and future North Korean defectors’ future.

China has strict laws towards North Korean defectors. The government does not offer refugee status to North Korean defectors; as Mike Kim mentions in Escaping North Korea, China has a “zero tolerance policy” towards North Korean defectors, which means that China will repatriate all North Korean refugees.[1] Police actively search areas with the most dense Chinese-Koreans population with the express aim of detaining, questioning, and deporting North Korean refugees. This policy is in place with the aim of curtailing the influx of people from North Korea because North Korea’s nuclear power threatens China’s border. Moreover, the country serves as a “buffer between China and the American presence in the South”, as Yeonmi and Vollers describe in In Order to Live : A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, and therefore China has an interest in preserving diplomatic relations.[2] This has resulted in the mass dissemination of rhetoric which purports that North Korean refugees have assaulted and stolen from local residences. Kim mentions in Escaping North Korea that this dissemination often occurs in the form of signs, warning people to not assist North Korean refugees, pitched in Chinese border villages. It materializes in the mounting volume of cases of conflict between North Korean refugees and their Chinese neighbors.[3] Accordingly, the Chinese government fails to prevent the epidemic of North Korean labor abuse and human trafficking in China; in fact, they have enacted policy, which states that a Chinese person housing or feeding a Korean refugee can face fines or even arrest.[4] And though Chinese police would often deviate from these discriminatory policies prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and thus allow North Korean refugees to live relatively unencumbered by their immigration status, the world stage the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games entailed effectively ended this tacit agreement. This both makes it more difficult for North Korean refugees to find refuge in China, as well as for these refugees to emigrate from China.

North Korean refugees, therefore, often circumvent China and arrive in South Korea, most often by Vietnam, Thailand, or Laos. In Thailand, North Korean refugees are often jailed by Thai police, who then release a small number of detained people to the South Korean embassy.[5] These prisons are severely overpacked and conditions are unlivable, to the extent that those who survive their experiences there refer to prisons as “the real nightmare.”[6] Similarly, North Korean refugees immigrating to Laos, as well as volunteers and people working for NGOs who aim to assist these refugees, are targeted by the government. They are often fined or detained in a prison exclusively for non-Laos citizens, of which very few are eventually released to the South Korean embassy. Police used every excuse to charge fines from both North Korean defectors and volunteers or NGO workers who helped North Korean defectors. Mongolia’s North Korean refugee policy also resembles that of Thailand and Laos. Mongolian immigration policy allows for North Koreans fleeing their country to enter Mongolia with refugee status. However, Yeonmi attests that a “quiet agreement” exists between Mongolia and South Korea.[7] In her experience, North Korean refugees were immediately questioned by Mongolian border guard, subsequently imprisoned, and eventually transported to South Korea.[8] Yeonmi also asserts that in the last decade, diplomatic relations between Mongolia and North Korea have shifted. The two countries have allied, prompting Mongolia to disallow North Korean refugees from finding massage through the state, and thus depriving these refugees of a much needed avenue to South Korea.

Though the North Korean refugee crisis first appeared on the global geopolitical scene some twenty years ago, it has continued to receive less media attention and political action than other such plights. This might stem from a general lack of refugee policy in Asia. It could also arise from the North Korean refugee practice of concealing identities in order to prevent the endangerment of relatives still living within the bounds of the state, which engenders a gross underestimation of the scale of the crisis. This underestimation must be rectified so that it can no longer serve as a justification for chronic international disregard for North Korean refugees. Hopefully, by drawing more international attention to the issue, a solution can be found, and this grievous wrong can be righted.


[1]Kim, Escaping North Korea, 70

[2]Yeonmi, and Vollers, In Order to Live : A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, 131

[3]Kim, Escaping North Korea

[4]Ibid, 70

[5Hyeonseo and John, The Girl with Seven Names : A North Korean Defector’s Story

[6]Ibid, 202

[7]Yeonmi, and Vollers, In Order to Live : A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom


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