The deaths of a North Korean defector and her young son in their apartment in Seoul have shocked Korea. And the incident is also shedding light on the difficulties faced by South Korea’s overwhelmingly female population of North Korean refugees.
Jung Gwang-il, founder of activist group No Chain in Seoul, said the refugee mother Han slipped through the cracks of South Korea’s support system for resettled North Koreans while struggling with domestic violence and a disabled child.
Han met her “husband,” a Chinese citizen whom she later divorced, after her initial escape to China where she was the target of human trafficking. After Han was granted residence in the South in 2009, her husband followed her, and the couple had a second child. The child was born with disabilities because Han’s spouse beat her during her pregnancy, Jung said, recounting conversations he’s had with other defectors.
Human-and sex-trafficking practices in northeast China explain why the majority of defectors in the South and in China are women. First of all, North Korean women defectors are able to leave their country easier, because women are less noticed when they go missing, defectors have said. And in China there is a high demand for women of reproductive age in rural areas, where male Chinese nationals buy undocumented “wives”.
Jung, who survived abuses at a North Korean prison camp, said “almost all” North Korean women fall prey to trafficking or choose to be trafficked due to poverty. Han was no exception.
Han was found dead in Seoul on July 31. The woman and her son may have died of starvation at least a month before local authorities entered her apartment and found their decomposing corpses, South Korean media reported.
“These are people who left North Korea because they were hungry,” Jung said. “To come all the way to South Korea and then to starve — that doesn’t make any sense.”