A rough life as a North Korean refugee

North Korean defectors who make it across the border to China find they have no rights and cannot legally find jobs in China, so they must scrape by on the margins of society — which is still less risky than trying to get out of China. Some estimates suggest that there are hundreds of thousands of North Koreans living this way in China.

Most defectors simply want to pass through China and start a new life in South Korea or another country that will provide them with legal protection.

For those defectors from North Korea who reach South Korea, they automatically become South Korean citizens after a mandatory three-month transition that is part debriefing, part re-education.

On the positive side, refugees received a few thousand dollars to start their new lives and learned skills most people take for granted: grocery shopping or using an ATM.

On the flip side, most North Korean defectors in the South stand out. They have distinct accents, and are often shorter and slighter with darker, sallow skin from years of malnutrition. It’s hard to avoid South Koreans’ prejudice and suspicions that North Koreans are spies.

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