Invisible among Invisibles: North Korean Defectors Never Truly find Refuge

Last month, seven defectors were gunned down by North Korean border guards as they crossed the frozen Yalu river along the country’s border with China. Five of them were killed instantly; the other two were dragged, wounded, back across the border with permission from Chinese authorities. This incident is reportedly the first of its kind – observers say that North Korean border guards have never shot refugees once they made it to the Chinese side – and may indicate that border guards have been ordered to crack down on the rapidly increasing numbers of defectors.

From the time of the Korean armistice to the early 90s, there were few known defectors from North Korea, and most of these were either military personnel or political figures. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, there were an estimated 14,000 defectors between 1953 and 2005, and only 607 of those escaped before 1989. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, however, North Korea lost its largest trading partner, which set off a period of industrial decline, and the subsequent decline of its communist neighbors made the problem worse. This also took its toll on the country’s input-heavy agricultural system, whose output began to decline at an alarming rate. Then, when a series of natural disasters (including severe flooding and a major drought) hit the country during the 90s, leading to widespread famine. The pace of defection began to pick up in 1994 and has increased steadily ever since as food insecurity and economic decay continues to plague the country. Videos obtained by the Sunday Telegraph with footage from North Korea, show harrowing footage of people starving and fed up with corrupt officials.

For those who flee, there are few options, and they never truly feel safe. Even among refugees, who are already overlooked and marginalized, North Koreans are invisible. China, where the vast majority of defectors flee, considers them illegal economic migrants; refugee agencies such as UNHCR are denied access to them, and it is illegal to even try to count them. Chinese citizens who provide assistance to them are harshly punished. Many of those who flee remain in the border areas, hiding in safehouses or with family members. Others work to save up enough money to flee to neighboring Thailand, or to make it to a South Korean embassy, where they will be granted amnesty and allowed to settle in South Korea. They are hunted the entire way by Chinese authorities, who deport as many as 300 defectors per week. Even when they are resettled, whether in South Korea close by or even as far away as the U.S. (which has officially resettled 100 or so North Korean refugees), defectors are guarded and work tirelessly to keep their identities hidden, as family members who stay behind are often punished if the regime discovers that a relative escaped.

As long as the North Korean regime remains what it is, little stands to change for defectors in any kind of major way. There are, however, some concrete ways to make the transition substantially easier for those who choose to leave. While South Korea accepts asylum seekers from the North and is the leading country for resettlement, the South Korean government is reluctant to make moves that risk provoking the North; in light of last year’s sinking of the Cheonan and the January shelling Yeonpyong, it is not difficult to understand why. Also, both China and South Korea maintain that a large exodus of asylum seekers would destabilize North Korea and force them to deal with the economic consequences, citing the re-absorption of East Germany as an example. If both of these countries started small, however, coordinated with other nations and emphasized resettlement as a humanitarian initiative (rather than a political move), then they could diminish the risk of angering the North and would greatly relieve the suffering of a population that has suffered under the repressive burdens of the Kim regime. Unfortunately, it does not look like China will be changing its tune any time soon. While the status quo is maintained, defectors will continue to brave the dangers and take their chances to obtain a shaky freedom – and those who stay behind will be left behind.

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