Starting from the North Korean famine of the 1990s, North Koreans have usually defected to China, most often to the border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces in northeast China, before then fleeing to a third country. About 76% to 84% of defectors interviewed in China or South Korea came from the Northeastern provinces bordering China.
Anywhere between 100,000–300,000 North Koreans have defected over the years, most of whom have fled to Russia or China, as well as many now in South Korea.
China: 80–90% of North Korean defectors residing in China are females who settled through de facto marriage; a large number of them experience forced marriage and human trafficking. The total number of North Korean refugees in China is estimated to be between 50,000 and 200,000.
Russia: Roughly 10,000 North Koreans live in the Russian Far East, according to a study by Kyung Hee University. Many are escapees from North Korean work camps there.
Europe: In 2014, research by the human rights organization the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea claims that there are around 1,400 North Korean refugees in Europe.
United States: Since 2006, less than 200 North Korean refugees have been officially admitted to the United States. An estimated 200 other North Koreans have entered the US illegally, for a estimated total of less than 400.
Canada: According to the 2016 census, there are about 970 people in Canada who were born in North Korea. North Korean asylum seekers and defectors have been rising in number. Radio Free Asia reports that in 2007 alone, over 100 asylum applications were submitted, and that North Korean refugees have come from China or elsewhere with the help of Canadian missionaries and NGOs.
South Korea: As of 2017, there were 31,093 defectors registered with the Unification Ministry in South Korea, 71% of whom were women.
From the start of Kim Jong-un’s rule in 2011, the movements of people has been tightened and strictly controlled, resulting in less than a thousand defections per year, down from just under 3000 in 2009.
If the defectors are caught in China, they are repatriated back to North Korea where they often face harsh interrogations and years of punishment, or even death in political prison camps.