“We ate frogs because we were so hungry”

Pak Sool is one of nearly 100 North Korean students at the Yeomyung school in Seoul, a place designed to teach those new to South Korean society. The school is funded largely by donations from Christian groups and all the teachers are Christian, although the curriculum is not religiously focused.

During a recent biology class at the school, the students joked and misbehaved like any group of teenagers, but there were moments that exposed the trauma they have escaped. When the teacher turned to explanations of different types of animals, a picture of a frog flashes on a screen.

“We used to eat that because we were so hungry in North Korea,” one student says. “We don’t just eat the back legs, we eat everything, it’s very delicious.”

It was an unsentimental statement, said matter of factly, but it betrayed a hardship that few of his South Korean counterparts would ever experience.

“They can be smiling and laughing during the day and then at night still be haunted by nightmares,” says Hwang Heui-gun, a teacher at the school. “But they can’t talk about it, it’s too painful.”

Severe economic disparities between the two neighbors also play out in the classroom. Some students are forced to drop out and find work in order to send money to family members back in North Korea or contribute to their journey to the South.

[The Guardian]

Once in South Korea, North Koreans have little chance of getting asylum elsewhere

Jo Hye Kyung beat the odds: She made a dangerous escape from North Korea 20 years ago and eventually made her way to Canada and a new life. But because she initially settled in South Korea, her life in Toronto may soon be uprooted. Jo, 32, is just one of a number of North Korean defectors in Canada who came to the country by way of South Korea and could now be sent back to a place where, they say, they face systemic discrimination.

As soon as North Koreans enter South Korea, they are granted citizenship, but that makes them ineligible to apply for asylum in Canada [or elsewhere] since South Korea is considered a safe country. Which is why they end up applying for refugee status as North Koreans without declaring their South Korean citizenship.

Jo was 12 when she and her family crossed the icy Tumen River from North Korea to China. It was a daring escape on a perilous route that has claimed many lives. Jo, her mother, her father and her little brother made it into China, where Jo says they lived for five years in hiding for fear of being sent back to North Korea.

In 2002, Jo and her family climbed over a barrier into the grounds of the South Korean consul general’s Beijing office and claimed asylum. “I thought, ‘At least they won’t send us back to North Korea’ [like China might]” Jo said.

Jo says she and her family didn’t realize that once on South Korean soil, they would automatically be considered citizens. “Until I came to South Korea, I didn’t know … [if] I became South Korean, … I could not go anywhere else,” Jo said.

In South Korea, her North Korean education wasn’t recognized, which meant that she had to begin her secondary school education from scratch at 18. She says her classmates told her that because she was North Korean, she did not belong in South Korea, and that she should not try to get an education because North Koreans should know their place in South Korean society. Jo’s North Korean dialect left her vulnerable to unwelcome interrogations from strangers.

Kim Joo Eun, a lawyer with the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario in Toronto, says that Jo’s story is a part of a pattern of North Korean defectors who feel rejected by South Korean society and look to emigrate somewhere more welcoming.

“The overall trend is that after going through unbelievable treatment and trauma in North Korea, escaping from there and going through very precarious and dangerous time in China, after arriving in South Korea, a lot of them faced a lot of discrimination – stigma – against them,” Kim said.  Continue reading about Jo Hye Kyung and family 

[CBC]

North Koreans under threat of deportation from Canada

Life for North Koreans who make it to South Korea can be difficult. Defectors report feeling discriminated against by South Koreans. Many report being denied jobs because they speak in dialect or have a North Korean accent or seeing their children bullied at school because of their background. In extreme cases, defectors say they have been threatened or extorted by people claiming to be North Korean agents.

North Korean defector Jo Hye Kyung told CBC that in South Korea, even though she was out from under the repressive, Communist dictatorship of North Korea, she still felt like she was being watched. “We staked our lives to come to South Korea and then found that defectors are assigned police officers,” she said. “I felt like I was being watched by them. It felt like a cage without walls.”

In a statement to CBC News, the South Korean Ministry of Unification, responsible for settlement support for North Korean defectors, said police officers are tasked with protecting defectors and resolving any problems they might face.

Andrei Lankov, the director of NKNews.org, a Delaware-based site covering North Korean news, and a scholar of Korean studies, wrote in 2006 that typically, “defectors, suffering from low income, alienation and real or perceived discrimination, form a sort of underclass that might even become semi-hereditary.”

The prospect of her children facing the same type of discrimination  frightened Jo. “If I had lived alone in South Korea, I could have borne it,” Jo explained, “but with a child, I found myself thinking about his future and his well-being.

After eight years living in Seoul, Jo decided to go to Canada in 2010 along with her parents, her partner, a North Korean defector she met in South Korea, and their four-year-old son. When the family arrived in Vancouver, Jo did not disclose that they had been living in South Korea as citizens. She says she was advised by members of the Korean community in Canada they would have a better chance of staying in Canada if they applied for asylum as North Koreans.

Canada granted the family asylum. Then in July, living in Toronto now with two more children, Jo’s family received a notice alerting them that their refugee status could be vacated. They have a hearing scheduled for October 19, and if their refugee status is vacated, Jo, her firstborn son, now 10, her husband, and her parents will go through a pre-removal risk assessment and have the opportunity to file an appeal to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Around 135 North Koreans were in the process of removal as of July although it was unclear how many of those held South Korean citizenship, according to the Canada Border Security Agency.

[CBC]

Many less North Korean defectors under Kim Jong Un

The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power seven years ago. Park Byeong-seug, a South Korean lawmaker citing data from the South’s unification ministry, said there had been 1,127 defections last year – compared with 2,706 in 2011.

Mr Park said tighter border controls between North Korea and China and higher rates charged by people smugglers were key factors. China regards the defectors as illegal migrants rather than refugees and often forcibly repatriates them.

Relations between the North and the South – who are still technically at war – have markedly improved in recent months. This came after June’s historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore, when they agreed in broad terms to work towards the nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

But on Saturday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho blamed US sanctions for the lack of progress since then. “Without any trust in the US, there will be no confidence in our national security and under such circumstances, there is no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first,” Mr Ri said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York.

[BBC]

Financial lifeline between North Korean defector in the South and their families in the North

China is a lifeline for North Korean defectors living in the South, allowing them to send money back to their families. Contact is usually brief and dangerous, with relatives traveling to the hermit kingdom’s border and using smuggled Chinese SIM cards to tap into telecommunications signals across the Yalu River.

A 2016 survey of 200 defectors by the Seoul-based Chosun newspaper found that about 60 per cent of the respondents sent US$900-US$1,800 each year via agents in China and North Korea, while one person reported sending US$9,000 a year. About 70 per cent said they transferred money regularly.

One mother in her 50s told the South China Morning Post that she remitted money to her son in North Korea. She said her son used a Chinese SIM card to make brief phone calls to her several times a year to confirm the transactions, and there was little time to ask him about his life.

“We cannot send text messages and the calls have to be short,” she said.

She said the money was sent via a network of trusted Chinese and North Korean brokers, including smugglers who carried the cash across the border, together with other smuggled Chinese goods. The operations are illegal and dangerous in both countries so the brokers take a heavy cut, usually 30 per cent of the total, according to defectors.

Another defector said food prices were soaring in North Korea and many of her relatives were not getting paid. She said 1kg of corn imported from China cost the equivalent of five months’ pay for a worker at a state factory.

“The country is in a mess,” she said.

[South China Morning Post]

Where have all the North Korean refugees gone?

Starting from the North Korean famine of the 1990s, North Koreans have usually defected to China, most often  to the border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces in northeast China, before then fleeing to a third country. About 76% to 84% of defectors interviewed in China or South Korea came from the Northeastern provinces bordering China.

Anywhere between 100,000–300,000 North Koreans have defected over the years, most of whom have fled to Russia or China, as well as many now in South Korea.

China: 80–90% of North Korean defectors residing in China are females who settled through de facto marriage; a large number of them experience forced marriage and human trafficking. The total number of North Korean refugees in China is estimated to be between 50,000 and 200,000.

Russia: Roughly 10,000 North Koreans live in the Russian Far East, according to a study by Kyung Hee University. Many are escapees from North Korean work camps there.

Europe: In 2014, research by the human rights organization the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea claims that there are around 1,400 North Korean refugees in Europe.

United States: Since 2006, less than 200 North Korean refugees have been officially admitted to the United States. An estimated 200 other North Koreans have entered the US illegally, for a estimated total of less than 400.

Canada: According to the 2016 census, there are about 970 people in Canada who were born in North Korea. North Korean asylum seekers and defectors have been rising in number. Radio Free Asia reports that in 2007 alone, over 100 asylum applications were submitted, and that North Korean refugees have come from China or elsewhere with the help of Canadian missionaries and NGOs.

South Korea: As of 2017, there were 31,093 defectors registered with the Unification Ministry in South Korea, 71% of whom were women.

From the start of Kim Jong-un’s rule in 2011, the movements of people has been tightened and strictly controlled, resulting in less than a thousand defections per year, down from just under 3000 in 2009.

If the defectors are caught in China, they are repatriated back to North Korea where they often face harsh interrogations and years of punishment, or even death in political prison camps.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Where are all the defectors from North Korea?

Escaping North Korea is a journey that is almost always a perilous one — thousands of miles on buses or motorcycles or sneaking on foot through mountains and valleys amid falling snow or torrential rain — in the desperate quest to evade border police and reach the frontier of a new life. Some pay a broker to traffic them out, some are too poor and bear the burden alone, and some are granted temporary visas to work in China but never return to their native land.

So how many North Korea defectors are there, and where do they go?

Since the hostilities of the Korean War ended in 1953, an estimated 300,000 North Koreans have defected from the tightly controlled hermit country.

Defectors use obscure routes to other Asian countries in the region — including Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Laos — but these are often used as transit points before moving to a third country such as South Korea.

South Korean law grants those from the North automatic citizenship following a mandatory three-month transition that involves debriefing and education to prepare them for their new lives in a much more open society. Official statistics published by the Ministry of Unification have documented just over 30,000 defectors since 1998.

“Most defectors head to China … [where they] either live their lives under the radar or make the harrowing trip to South Korea,” said Vernon Brewer, founder and president of World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization that supports the defectors.

China, which borders North Korea, is host to the majority of defectors, though official statistics are hard to come by and many are deported back to their origin if discovered.

[Fox News]

Matchmaking helps North Korean defectors find spouses

Born and raised in Cheongjin, located in the northeastern part of reclusive North Korea, Park Myeong-hee escaped her home country in 2012, leaving behind all of her beloved family and friends.

[Among her challenges] it was hard to meet somebody in South Korea. She didn’t have anyone who could fix her up on a blind date. It was when she happened upon an online site exclusively intended for matchmaking between North Korean women and South Korean men that she made headway.

Park is one of the steadily increasing number of North Korean defectors seeking to find their lifelong partners in the South through matchmaking companies, whose business has been growing fast in recent years. There are no official figures, but industry experts say that the number of matchmaking companies stood at around 10 in the early 2010s but now has risen to around 70.

Small business owners, office workers and even public servants are signing up. Recent TV programs featuring North Korean women dating South Korean men seem to be of great help in removing any negative images attached to the women from the communist north.

North Korean women are known for their strong commitment to the family. Adding to that, since many have lost everything in the North by opting to defect, they tend to cherish their marriage no matter what.

[Business Standard]

North Koreans defect due to disillusionment not hunger

During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, almost all the North Koreans who fled their country were escaping out of hunger or economic need. But the explosion of markets has improved life for many. Today, more people are leaving North Korea because they are disillusioned with the system, not because they can’t feed their families. Following are excerpts of testimonies of recent defectors:

The accordion player: “I was ambitious. … I left because I didn’t have the freedom to do what I wanted to do.”

The doctor: “I hoped to work abroad as a doctor in the Middle East or Africa. But to work overseas, you have to pass security screening to make sure you’re ideologically sound and aren’t going to defect. I am a very capable person, and I was a party member, but even I couldn’t make it.”

The construction worker: “I worked [on a coveted, overseas job] for three and a half years, but I made only $2,000 during that time. We were allowed to work overseas for five years maximum, and I was hoping to save $10,000 and return home proud. I realized it wasn’t going to happen, so I started looking for a chance to escape.”

The bean trader: “I wanted to progress in life, I wanted to go to university, but because my mother had defected to China, [as part of the penalty I couldn’t.] … I felt like I didn’t have any future in North Korea. That’s why I decided to leave.”

The meat delivery guy: “We were told in school that we could be anybody. But after graduation, I realized that this wasn’t true and that I was being punished for somebody else’s wrongdoing. I realized I wouldn’t be able to survive here. So for two years I looked for a way out. When I thought about escaping, it gave me a psychological boost.”

The university student: “I was so disgusted with the system. I didn’t have freedom to speak my mind, or to travel anywhere I wanted, or even to wear what I wanted. It was like living in a prison. We were monitored all the time by our neighborhood leader, by the normal police, by the secret police. If you ask me what was the worst thing about North Korea, I’d say: Being born there.”

[Washington Post]

Brutal treatment in North Korean political prisons

Escapees from North Korea’s gruesome political prisons recount brutal treatment, including medieval torture with shackles and fire and being forced to undergo abortions by the crudest methods. Human rights activists say that this appears to have lessened slightly under Kim Jong Un. But severe beatings and certain kinds of torture — including being forced to remain in stress positions for crippling lengths of time — still appear commonplace throughout North Korea’s detention systems, as are public executions. Starvation is often part of the punishment, even for children.
Following are excerpts of testimonies of recent defectors from North Korea:

The money man: “In 2015, a money transfer went bad — the woman I’d given the money to got caught and she ratted on me — and I was put in detention. I spent two months there. I wasn’t treated like a human being — they beat me, they made me sit in stress positions where I couldn’t lift my head. Two times they slapped my face and kicked me during interrogation.”

The teenage prisoner: “I was interrogated repeatedly by the secret police as they wanted to know about my mother’s business. They were slapping me around the face, and pushed me so hard against the wall that I had blood coming from my head. I still get a headache sometimes.
“[Once imprisoned] we got up at 6 a.m. every day and went to bed at 11 p.m., and in between we would be working the whole time, shoveling cement or lugging sacks, except for lunch. Lunch was usually steamed corn. I was too scared to eat. I cried a lot. I didn’t want to live.”

The phone connector: “Even though we were working so hard in prison camp, all we got to eat was a tiny bit of corn rice and a small potato. By the time I got out, I was so malnourished I could hardly walk.
“[Concerning life in North Korea] if you speak out against the system, you will immediately be arrested. And if you do something wrong, then three generations of your family will be punished. Once I heard there was a going to be some kind of coup launched in Chongjin and that all of the people involved were executed. When you hear about cases like this, of course you’re scared. So instead of trying to do something to change the system, it’s better just to leave.”

The university student: “The secret to North Korea’s survival is the reign of terror. Why do you think they block all communications? Why do you think North Korea has public executions? Why do you think North Koreans leave, knowing that they will never see their families again? It shows how bad things are. All our rights as people have been stripped away.”

 [Sources of quotations: The Washington Post]