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.