The Ministry of Unification in Seoul estimates that, as of June 2019, some 33,022 North Korean defectors had entered South Korea. Of these, 23,786 – about 72 percent – were female.
Throughout 2019 though, that trend has increased, with female defectors accounting for 85 percent of the total defector population. Data indicates that 17,566 North Korean female defectors are in the age range of 20-40, and the vast majority are mothers.
During the process of fleeing their impoverished home country, many women are forced into sex and labor trafficking, often are sold to Chinese men and ultimately forced to marry. Many have to leave their children behind as they attempt to carve out a way to survive.
One such mother Jeong Ah has gone on to serve as founder and executive director of Tongil Mom (which translates to “Unification Mom”), an NGO that focuses on issues related to the mental health and well-being of defector mothers. “I gave birth to four children, but, tragically, I only have one child that I am living with. Looking back, I feel that I was abandoned by my own birth parents, and I feel so terrible that I myself did the same thing my parents did to me,” Jeong Ah said. “I feel a great sense of tragedy and sadness that I have done this to my children. That is part of the reason I started this organization, to deal with the hurt and the pain so many other defector women go through in forced separation.”
“The Chinese government does not give North Koreans Chinese citizenship, [but classifies] North Korean defectors as illegal border crossers,” the latest Tongil Mom report states. “They even send them back to North Korea by force.”
Defectors thus live every moment with the risk of being discovered and forcibly returned to North Korea. If pregnant, the defectors also face the threat of a forced abortion on return. The looming fear and routinely brutal living conditions in China propels many women to flee their children and families once again and relocate to South Korea.