A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care Foundation, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea dropped to its lowest
in nearly two decades last year, Seoul said Monday, continuing a downward trend
as Pyongyang tightens controls on movement.
About 1,047 North Koreans arrived in the democratic South last year, down
from 1,137 in 2018, according to data released by the unification ministry.
This was the lowest figure since 2001. (This number 1,047 relates specifically
to those arriving in the South, rather than those leaving the North.)
The vast majority of defectors from the impoverished North go first to
China. They sometimes stay there for several years before making their way to
the South, often via a third country.
Arrivals to South Korea peaked at 2,914 in 2009, but have mostly declined
since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came into power in late 2011.
Women account for the lion’s share of defectors, making up around 81 per
cent of last year’s arrivals. It is easier for women to leave the North as men
all have assigned jobs, making any absence easier to spot for the authorities.
In its 652-page ‘World Report 2020’, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries, including North Korea.
Among other things, the report points out that in 2019, the South Korean government prioritized diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over human rights advocacy.
President Moon did not raise human rights when he met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in February 2019, in keeping with his approach in earlier meetings with Kim in 2017 and 2018. And in a troubling move in October, Moon’s government deported two North Korean fishermen to face murder charges in North Korea, where they most likely face torture and execution. In November, the government then dropped its traditional co-sponsoring of a resolution condemning North Korea’s horrific rights record at the United Nations General Assembly.
“President Moon Jae-in, who started his legal career fighting for human rights, is in several ways failing to promote them now,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“President Moon needs to abandon his flawed North Korea
policy, which is based on the hope that overlooking Pyongyang’s crimes will
increase inter-Korean engagement and dialogue,” Sifton said. “The North Korean
government is never going to improve its human rights record unless the world demands
it, and South Korea needs to lead the rallying cry for that to happen.”
Since 1978, Canadians have sponsored around 280,000 refugees, either through
organizations or groups of individual citizens. Not only does this approach put
responsibility for looking after refugees on passionate volunteers — and away
from sluggish government departments — it automatically gives them a community
to latch on to.
“The community is already actively engaged at the start, in terms of the
integration process,” says Sean Chung, the director of lobbying and strategy at
HanVoice, a Toronto NGO that fights for the right of North Koreans to settle in
“It’s not the government that’s telling the newcomers where they should
register their kids for primary school. It’s the community, at the very start,
that’s organizing the transportation at the airport, bringing them into their
homes, and welcoming them.”
Clearly, the United States has a very different political culture to Canada,
but Chung argues that the protests that shadowed the travel ban show that many
Americans realize “refugees are fleeing their countries because they have no
Not that a Canada-style approach in America seems likely anytime soon. Lindsay Lloyd, director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, thinks it’s an interesting idea but isn’t sure “it’s practical right now” — especially given the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Barely a week into his presidency, officials huddled by his side, Donald
Trump signed Executive Order 13769 into law. The bureaucratic title sounds
harmless enough, but many Americans quickly learned to call it by another name:
the Muslim ban.
Already arriving in small numbers, at that point the flow of North Koreans migrating to America then slowed to a crawl.
Back in 2004, the Bush administration pushed the North Korean Human Rights
Act through Congress, promising to provide “assistance to North Korean
refugees, defectors, migrants, and orphans outside of North Korea” and bolstered
by $20 million in annual funding, and a promise to classify North Korean
escapees as proper refugees.
Yet the numbers of North Koreans coming to America remained low. “Over the
past 13 years, there have been a dozen, maybe two-dozen, people coming every
year,” says Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director at Liberty in North Korea, an NGO.
According to statistics compiled by the Refugee Processing Centre (RFC), an
average of 20 North Koreans refugees were admitted to the United States each
year in the decade to 2016.
In 2017, the first year after the election of President Trump, only a single North Korean refugee landed on American shores.
Sources in China told Seoul-based online newspaper Daily NK that Beijing had strengthened its efforts to crack down on North Korea defectors flocking to China.
The number of defectors increased notably in April and May last year when the weather became warm enough that people could cross the Yalu River or hide in the forest more easily, according to the source.
The source added that even brokers, who help North Koreans to defect in
exchange for money, are reluctant to help defectors these days due to the
rising number of arrest cases by the Chinese authorities.
Chinese authorities are reportedly working with some brokers while tracking the history of mobile phone usage to locate defectors, the source added.
Another source in China told Daily NK that there had been an increasing number of cases of the Chinese authorities investigating defectors instead of repatriating them back to the North. The authorities even collected the personal details of defectors in a move to store and manage them as if they were Chinese citizens., taking photos and collecting fingerprints.
The eight women and three men were caught by border guards in northern
Vietnam in late November after crossing from China, and had been held in the
northeastern border city of Lang Son.
Peter Jung, who heads the group helping the refugees, Justice for North Korea, said they were freed and on their way to South Korea last month. Multiple European organizations played a key role, he said. He declined to identify them due to the diplomatic sensitivity but said they included a non-government group.
But Jung said he was unaware of any U.S. contribution. South Korea’s foreign
ministry said that the WSJ report was “not factual”, but said the government
had made immediate efforts to prevent the defectors from being forcibly
repatriated. It refused to elaborate.
“The European institutions acted after we published a video of the refugees
making desperate appeals for freedom,” Jung said. “South Korea’s foreign
ministry got also involved later.”
A group of U.S. diplomats, including some involved in disarmament talks with the Kim Jong Un regime, intervened after videos surfaced showing two female detainees wrapped under blankets following failed suicide attempts. Both women had feared being repatriated to the North where they likely would have faced the regime’s gulags or worse.
American diplomats in Washington and Asia pressed Vietnamese officials to
not hand over the North Korean escapees to Chinese or North Korean officials,
according to the people familiar with the episode. It’s uncommon for American
officials to get involved in cases pertaining to ordinary North Korean
escapees. It’s rare for such interventions to become public.
The 13 refugees didn’t seem to be aware of the U.S. help behind the scenes,
according to a person directly involved in the episode. That’s because such a
diplomatic role is typically handled by South Korea. Mintaro Oba, a former
official at the State Department’s Korea desk, said: “To the Moon
administration, [the 13 North Korean refugees were] probably at best a serious
irritant at a time when they’re hyperfocused on inter-Korean relations.”
Experts say U.S. officials took a diplomatic risk in helping activists guide
the refugees to safety, as such moves could upset North Korea and complicate
already stalled nuclear negotiations.
When North Koreans defect to and resettle in South Korea, they often find themselves looked down upon in what they thought would be their land of promise. Combatting the prejudice and the hurdles, some North Korean resettlers in South Korea have managed to find a way into a soft landing in the business world.
Heo defected from the place of his birth in 2008, and became a video content creator in Seoul with over 100,000 YouTube subscribers. He set his sights on becoming an entrepreneur.
What gave him, along with dozens of other North Korean defectors, a taste of being an entrepreneur was the four-month program Asan Sanghoe, financed and supported by the Hyundai-backed nonprofit organization Asan Nanum Foundation. Before Asan Sanghoe, a majority of North Korean defectors had little chance to know where to start, or to explore whether they are even fit for entrepreneurship to achieve a personal goal.
According to a survey last year of 130 North Korean defectors by a nonprofit organization that helps escapees resettle, 66.9 percent responded they were willing to found a company, 17.7 percent said they had started working on a startup and 3.1 percent said they had already founded one. But the same survey showed that nearly 97 percent did not respond when it comes to startup items they had prepared or source of information or advice for entrepreneurship they can rely on.
Participants in Asan Sanghoe take part in lectures, mentorship sessions and workshops three times a week. North Korean resettlers are given chances to team up with South Korean or foreign participants. The program also features a two-week overseas trip to Germany, where the social innovation scene has been on the rise.
“Asan Sanghoe built
a strong fence around the new community to protect us, so my confidence could
be built,” Heo says.
Cho Kyung-ja (alias), a 33-year-old North Korean defector,
is busy operating an espresso machine, preparing four cappuccinos, grinding,
temping, frothing and sometimes wiping away beans that scatter here and there.
As she lays the four cups down on a table, she shyly smiles.
At a glance, it looks like a run-of-the-mill coffee shop, but Cho is completing a two-month-long job training program arranged by a state-run agency supporting the resettlement of North Korean defectors in South Korea. She passed a barista test weeks earlier and now her last remaining hurdle that she has to overcome is the latte art test. Cho is one of a growing number of North Korean defectors eyeing job opportunities in coffee on the hope of landing a more stable and better-paying job, as well as better working conditions, than the manual and labor-intensive work many other defectors have to do to make ends meet.
In South Korea, coffee is closely interwoven in daily life. In sharp contrast in North Korea, buying a coffee would have been a luxury in a country where the per-capita annual income stands at a little over US$1,200.
Getting used to the new culture might be hard but it can be done with the passage of time. A much harder challenge for North Korean defectors aspiring to become baristas might be to develop a “taste” and getting necessary “skills” both for making coffee and dealing with customers, none of which they had done before in their former communist homeland.
This is where the South Korean government comes in and provides various forms of job training. This barista-training course was arranged by Hana Foundation, a state-run resettlement agency in partnership with Hanjoo College of Culinary Arts, a civilian job training institute.
Another North Korean defector, Lee Kyung-min (alias), who is also attending the program is aiming higher than most trainees. She plans to run her own shop in the near future.
According to government data, only about 12 percent of the
32,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea run their own business,
mostly in lodging, restaurant and transportation sectors, though it remains
unclear how many have been successful.
Joseph Park, 38, serves as a role model for North Korean defectors by showing what it takes to run a business. Fleeing North Korea in 1999 and staying for years in China before entering South Korea in 2004, Park spent around two years preparing to launch a business of his own after graduating from college.
He launched Yovel Inc., a social enterprise intended to help North Korean defectors, like him, find jobs and become economically independent. He opened his first coffee shop on the outskirts of Seoul in 2014 inside a branch of a local bank, employing five North Korean defectors as his entire staff. He later launched one more in-house office and recently opened another independent coffee shop in Chungju, some 150 kilometers south of Seoul.
“Opening a business is just like conducting an orchestra,” he said. “It is not enough to do only one thing well. You have to be able to do many things that require long-time preparations and training. It also requires a network for funding and financing, which North Korean defectors lack.”
No less important, he said, is emotional stability North Korean defectors many also be lacking, due to trauma they had to go through in the process of fleeing their home country and leaving their loved ones behind. “When I considered opening a company, the suicide rates for North Korean defectors were very high with many of them struggling to stand on their own in their livelihood,” he said. “I wanted to find solutions on those matters.”