HanVoice, a student chapter of the Canadian advocacy group for North Korean refugees and human rights, hosted a panel to shed light on the gendered experiences of North Korean migration and to highlight the ways that women are disproportionately marginalized.
HanVoice Director of Research Mégane Visette discussed the inherent link between the gender-based experience of refugees and border surveillance regimes between North Korea, China, and other Southeast Asian countries that defectors have to cross to reach South Korea. Visette emphasized some reasons for the gender-based experience of North Korean women defectors, pointing to China’s former one-child policy. In Jan. 2016, the policy was loosened to allow couples to have two children; however, the 36-year long policy created a demand for brides, which also increased mobility opportunities for women.
“Marriage, then, [became] a survival strategy,” Visette said. “When you’re crossing the border, […] you [may] know someone who can make you go through the border if you become the bride [to a stranger].”
Visette concluded by discussing how Southeast Asian countries rationalize their treatment of North Korean refugees by classifying North Korean defectors as economic migrants as opposed to refugees. China, for example, has been able to deny them the protection mandated by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. “The international legal system [offers] such a cookie-cutter sort of interpretation of what a refugee convention [that leaves, which leaves] a lot of people […] in a grey zone,” Visette said. “North Korean refugee women cannot access refugee status in Thailand, which prevents them from accessing] private sponsorship programs in Canada because this is reliant on the UNHCR […] definition.”
The event ended with a video interview of North Korean defector Yeeun Joo, who spoke about her journey from North to South Korea by traveling through China with the help of missionaries who protected her from experiencing any gender-based violence. Joo also described her 20 years living in the one-party state. She dreams of becoming a teacher, with ambitions of creating an education system to teach North Korean children if the two Koreas ever unify.