Ellie Cha’s father, once a respected vice-president in a North Korean mining company, lost his job. An aunt had fled to China and the family was now regarded as potentially disloyal to the Kim regime.
So in 2012, Cha’s family made the decision to leave North Korea. It was the start of an arduous three-month journey across China and Southeast Asia to reach asylum in South Korea. Much of it was spent in prison cells.
Almost no North Korean defectors cross directly from North Korea into South Korea. The border is too well-guarded and it can be hard for ordinary North Koreans to travel around within their own country. So most people, especially those like Cha’s family who live near the border, cross into China.
But it’s hard for them to stay there. Because China has a relationship with North Korea, fleeing North Koreans are often caught by Chinese authorities and sent back home to face terrible punishments, including work camps or prison.
Instead, North Koreans typically head through China into Southeast Asia to find a South Korean embassy, where they can claim asylum and apply for South Korean citizenship. Read more
Ellie Cha’s family paid Chinese brokers to smuggle them across the North Korean border, one by one. Cha was reunited with her father and 12-year-old brother in China, but their ride wasn’t waiting for them when they arrived. So, Cha’s first night of freedom was spent outdoors, on the side of a mountain. After two days of cold rain on the mountain, their Chinese contact arrived and took the family to meet their mother, then they spent six days driving south through China by bus, eventually reaching Vietnam.
“During that time it was very scary for us, because we knew that if we were caught by Chinese authorities, they would send us to North Korea,” she said. “And strong punishment would await us in North Korea.”
They intended to go to the South Korean embassy in Hanoi, but were arrested by the Vietnamese police before they could get there. They spent three weeks in Vietnamese jail cells. After much confusion, they were sent back to the Chinese border. Cha was afraid.
They were eventually released back into China, and so they tried again. They went through this five times before trying a different route through Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, where they finally ended up in a refugee camp and were able to contact the South Korean authorities.
Cha believes Canadians and Westerners confuse North Korea’s public face – its robotic propaganda and seemingly fanatical devotion to Kim Jong Un — with the North Korean people. “Please remember the people’s lives, people still living under the repressive society.”
Four North Korean defectors have told VOA in video messages intended for U.S. President Donald Trump what they want him to do and say during his visit to South Korea. The messages were delivered ahead of Trump’s departure Friday morning for a 12-day, five-nation tour which is expected to focus on tensions over North Korea’s its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“If [Trump’s] coming to strengthen Korea-U.S. relations, he’s welcome, but if he’s coming to foment a war between the two Koreas, I cannot welcome him,” said Kim Young Soo, a defector and former soldier who arrived in South Korea in 2006. “As a head of state, I think he could be more discreet when talking about a war.”
The defectors want Trump to persuade China, Pyongyang’s only remaining ally, to stop repatriating North Koreans who take refuge there. “While seeking freedom, they are put at risk of being captured by Chinese authorities and being forcibly returned to North Korea,” said Ji Seong-ho, a defector. “They may even face death. So I sincerely would like to ask President Trump to urge China’s Xi Jinping to stop repatriation of North Koreans so that they can attain their dreams of freedom.”
And they want him to keep up the pressure on North Korea with sanctions. “It’ll take an insurgency against the regime to bring about a revolution,” said Ri Sun Kyong, who arrived to South Korea in 2002. “Every single country in the world should … increase pressure so an insurgency takes place.”
North Korean spies infiltrated South Korea to threaten people who had fled the hermit kingdom, South Korea’s Unification Minister said Tuesday.
South Korean Minister Cho Myoung-Gyonto said his country would work to increase protections for defectors in the south, including by putting more limits on who can access the database holding defectors’ personal information. The minister said North Korean spies and hackers may have infiltrated the database to steal the personal data of North Koreans who had escaped.
“There is a real challenge for North Koreans because they usually aren’t well educated, they stand out, their dialect is different and they are smaller,” explained Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. “And there is a long history of North Korea sending people into the south [as spies].”
“North Korean security officials are also visiting defector families and applying pressure to make them talk the defectors into returning home,” a source said.
Despite the dangers in South Korea, North Koreans who have made it south are luckier than many who get stuck in China on their way. This summer, at least 70 North Korean defectors were intercepted in China, held in detention centers and eventually deported back to North Korea. Human rights experts criticize China for repatriating North Korean defectors, but Beijing continues to abide by a 1986 treaty with Pyongyang that includes a repatriation agreement.
China has removed hundreds of South Koreans and closed their churches for allegedly helping North Korean defectors, as part of a clampdown on religious activities by the communist country amid soaring tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The authorities in the three provinces – Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang – had hundreds of South Korean pastors and missionaries living there. A source told The Korean Herald: “As they were sent back home, churches were closed automatically.”
The authorities’ action is also interpreted as a pre-emptive measure before China implements new regulations on religious affairs, which will take effect on February 1 of next year. Under the new directive, organizers of unapproved religious activities in China will face fines of up to £34,084 (300,000 yuan) and anybody providing a venue for “illegal religious events” will face fines of between £2,272 (20,000 yuan) and £22,722 (200,000 yuan).
The new rules, which apply to all religions ranging from Christianity to Buddhism, also allow lower-level authorities to take care of affairs relating to unsanctioned religious activities, which will bring religious groups in China under tighter scrutiny.
China, Pyongynag’s only ally, regularly sends back North Korea defectors despite them facing “systematic” torture under Kim Jong-un’s regime. A report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2016 found: “Accounts from North Korean defectors indicate individuals caught trying to defect or forcibly repatriated from China are severely punished, particularly those believed to have interacted with missionaries or engaged in religious activities.”
President Donald Trump, in unprecedented fashion, has been able to get the Chinese government to turn the screws on North Korea in hopes of getting Kim Jong Un to halt military provocations, according to a former diplomat who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents.
“The Chinese have done more under President Trump’s prodding than any other American president. They signed on to the UN sanctions. There are now individual Chinese sanctions; the central bank governors instructed banks in China to wind up loans to North Korea,” Nicholas Burns told CNBC.
“The Chinese are clearly frustrated with the North Koreans. The Chinese don’t want a war on the Korean Peninsula. They want trade,” said Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO and was the State Department’s third-ranking official during George W. Bush’s presidency. He also advised the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was just given a major governing mandate, will be “eager to cooperate” with Trump, said Burns, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “The president [Trump] has obviously gone slow on any kind of major [trade] sanctions against China because he’s prioritizing the North Korean issue. The Chinese understand that.”
Burns said the best scenario for Trump on his upcoming Asian trip would be to persuade North Korea’s Kim through a unified international alliance to agree to negotiations.
It’s unknown whether Trump will visit the DMZ. “I think it may too provocative. Given the fact that the president is not disciplined and his advisors never know what he’s going to say or not say,” Burns said.
After Choi Kwanghyuk escaped from his native North Korea to neighboring China, he heard how the general image of North Korean defectors was not positive among those in South Korea.
“So, I applied for asylum in the U.S.,” he told Fox News.
Choi was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2013. He first lived in Dallas before eventually moving to Los Angeles where he now lives.
Choi said that as a result of injuries he received while being tortured, he is unable to work but has committed himself to telling the world about the human rights abuses in his native land.
“First of all, every human must have the right to freedom,” he said. “There is no freedom in North Korea. By law, they have the freedom of religion and the freedom of the press, but the reality is very different.”
And despite the hardships he may face, Choi said that life in the U.S. is a vast improvement. “There is an enormous difference between my life in North Korea and my life in the U.S,” he said. “The life in North Korea is hell … life in America is heaven.”
In the decades following the Korean War, there were a handful of high-profile defections from North to South Korea and vice versa, but the total number of people who voluntarily resettled from one state to the other was very small.
During the late 1990s, as North Korea experienced famine and economic collapse, a growing number of North Koreans fled to China to secure their livelihoods, with some eventually making it to the South. The number of North Koreans arriving in the South reached a peak in 2009.
After 2011, the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea dropped by about 50% from this peak. Some cite tightened border security as the primary reason for this downturn, although relatively improved economic conditions in North Korea and an anti-defection propaganda campaign within North Korea may also be contributing factors.
The majority of North Koreans who have resettled in the South have been women, who currently account for about 70% of the North Korean population in South Korea. The lower participation rate of women in North Korea’s formal labor force may account for some of this gender imbalance.
Click following link for charts: North Korean Resettlement in South Korea
The defector’s trip usually starts with bribes to officials and payments to brokers who help them leave North Korea. They take their chances crossing rivers and mountains by foot. There’s even an underground railway — a network of safe houses through China — designed to dodge authorities. The lucky ones make it to Laos, Myanmar or Thailand and on to Seoul with the help of NGOs, Christian groups and South Korean diplomats abroad.
The government in the South offers help once they arrive. There is a modest allowance of about $1,000 a month as well as grants of up to $20,000 for things like a down payment on a house.
Defectors go through several months of socialization at government centers, and often they need classes to reach South Korean levels of education. NGOs like the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights offer tutoring in English, math and other skills needed in a competitive market economy.
But no matter how much they feel at home in the South, most still worry about the people they left behind, especially when there are threats of “total destruction” flying between Pyongyang and Washington every day and news of missile tests and underground nuclear explosions.
A former money man for the Kim regime, who served as a dedicated civil servant for more than 30 years before becoming disillusioned, suggests the North Korean economy is on the ropes.
“I don’t know if North Korea will survive a year [under] sanctions. Many people will die,” Ri Jong Ho, a former official in charge of securing funds for the regime, revealed at his first public speaking event in the U.S. at the Asia Society in New York, according to CNBC. “There is not enough to eat there” and the sanctions have “completely blocked” trade, he asserted.
The UN has imposed strict sanctions on the rogue regime, cutting off 90 percent of its exports, restricting key imports, and shutting down illicit trading and smuggling networks. The U.S. has also imposed unilateral sanctions to increase the pressure on North Korea and its supporters. “The sanctions that the White House has imposed on North Korea are of a historic level,” Ri explained. “Never before has the country faced such tough sanctions.”
He added that the rogue regime desires a functional relationship with the U.S., especially as ties with China hit “the very worst point of their relationship,” he stressed. There is reportedly a great deal of distrust and contempt between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Kim called Xi a “son of a bitch” during a meeting with senior North Korean officials, Ri revealed.
It is unclear exactly what type of relationship North Korea desires with the U.S., but evidence suggests the North wants recognition as a nuclear-armed state and a peace treaty effectively ending America’s so-called “hostile policy” towards the regime. The North’s provocative behavior is, according to Ri, an attempt to force the U.S. to engage North Korea diplomatically on the regime’s terms.
Ri served the Kim regime as a dedicated civil servant for more than 30 years before becoming disillusioned. He decided to flee the country with his family after Kim began purging senior officials by the hundreds.