SEOUL, South Korea – When she crossed the border from North Korea to China, Ann Kang understood it was only a temporary feeling of freedom, one that could be taken away in an instant.
The real difficulty, she knew, lay ahead in crossing into Laos and Thailand, where true freedom awaited.
It’s a similar story for the estimated hundreds of thousands of North Koreans now living illegally in China, and as legal citizens in South Korea.
“I had to slide down a mountain I’d climbed with four others to reach Laos from China. It was very dangerous, but I reached the Mekong River and a boat took us to Thailand,” said Kang, a 29-year-old now among the 30,000 North Korean defectors living in Seoul, South Korea’s capital.
Escape from North Korea
Friends inside North Korea gave Lee the phone number of a Chinese man who facilitates defections to South Korea. To North Koreans, these men are known simply as brokers, arranging the safe passage to third countries, mainly to Southeast Asia or Mongolia.
According to South Korea’s constitution, any Korean can be recognized as a South Korean national and receive Republic of Korea (South Korea’s official name) citizenship.
Thailand allows the South Korean embassy to intervene to help North Korean refugees, like Kang, reach their final destination, Seoul.
“I spent ten days in a Thai jail until I was allowed to leave for the South Korean embassy. I had to wait my turn to leave. It took 40 days until I was able to leave for Seoul,” Kang said.
The process for Kang was much quicker than for most defectors reaching South Korea. Her family’s status may have spared her the long vetting process of other North Koreans. But like all new defectors to South Korea, a three-month-long integration program begins.
“North Korean and South Korean people aren’t different. The only difference is in North Korea there are no human rights. When I was younger I had no idea about freedom. Not until I left did I realize there’s really no freedom in North Korea,” Kang said.
Due to its heavily militarized demilitarized zone, or DMZ, North Koreans can’t cross directly to South Korea over the shared border. They need to go north into China, where they are usually unwelcome guests.
A New Underground Railroad
China’s government labels North Koreans as illegal migrants, not allowing them the rights and protection guaranteed to refugees under international law.
The UN refugee agency – UNHCR knows North Koreans aren’t recognized as refugees in China, and are forcibly repatriated.
There’s nothing UNHCR, or the South Korean government can do to help those it may recognize as its nationals from being sent back to North Korea. There have been cases of North Korean defectors reaching South Korean or U.S. embassies in China, but increased security and police presence has made that nearly impossible today.
“People who cross the [Yalu and Tumen] river into China face the threat of exploitation and being caught and sent back to North Korea to face torture, forced labour and a range of harsh punishments,” said Sokeel Park, country director at Liberty in North Korea.
This organization has helped resettle 700 North Koreans, mainly in South Korea and the U.S. But the need is much greater as potentially hundreds of thousands of North Koreans remain stuck in China – with an unknown number deported back to North Korea every year to an uncertain fate.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, 2017 has seen a 10 per cent decrease in the amount of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea.
This is most likely due to heightened security restrictions and surveillance along North Korea’s northern border with China, the only escape route, and that those who make it into China from North Korea often spend months or years trying to acquire the funds to pay a broker to get them out.
Kang said it cost her five million South Korean Won ($4,424 USD) in total to escape China. A church pastor loaned her the money. This is an astronomical amount for most North Koreans. Those coming from poor families may be unable to ever acquire a loan for this amount – and will continue to work illegally in China for low pay.
North Korea Confidential
As humanitarian aid and Christian relief organizations continue to assist North Korean defectors, now North Koreans themselves are helping others escape China to bordering countries.
Ji Seongho is a 35-year-old North Korean defector also living in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. As a young man, he went to China three times before being caught by Chinese police and forcefully sent back to North Korea.
“Many poor North Koreans go to China to sell items. I sold my traditional charcoal paintings,” Ji said. “I first heard about South Korea in 2000, while in China. I was begging on the street and a Chinese [man] talked about life in Seoul is much better.”
Ten years ago, after arrest and what he says amounted to torture, Ji risked his life once more to leave North Korea. This time he would seek the help of others on what activists call a modern day “underground railroad,” reaching Thailand via Laos and Myanmar – an exceptionally long 9,000-kilometre route to freedom in South Korea.
“I’m helping North Korean defectors in China with my organization Now, Action, Unity, Human Rights. I can assist with funds needed to facilitate travel,” Ji said.
There’s no way to know the exact amount of North Koreans in China, according to Ji. But he believes it’s at least three times the amount of the 30,000 North Koreans, like himself, living in South Korea.
The Two Koreas: A human rights dichotomy
The Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights states 80 per cent of North Koreans defecting to South Korea are now women and children.
Program Manager Sohee Kim says its field workers in China identify North Koreans needing financial assistance to escape and provide support on a case-by-case basis.
“We mainly focus on rescuing women and children first. They are more vulnerable to human rights violations like sex trafficking.”
She added that since North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un has come to power, state surveillance has intensified, with the number of repatriations from China increasing.
But for Kang, she says most young women dream of life in South Korea, and that they are leaving in record numbers, even if the official statistics don’t reflect this. She wants to help other North Koreans, especially her family members, leave home to join her in Seoul.
“When I watched South Korean television programs I thought South Korean men were really handsome and that money must fall from the sky. I fantasized about living in Seoul,” Kang said. “Now that I’m here I feel lonely but that’s the price I had to pay.”