This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
More North Koreans fleeing poverty and a repressive government have reached South Korea this year compared to last, as rescue operations restart after a hiatus during COVID.
But the number remains well below the historical average – and advocates say likely will for the foreseeable future given the rising challenges of safely navigating the perilous route, which for most escapees includes traveling through China to a third country from which they can be safely flown to Seoul.
An expansion of surveillance technologies both in North Korea and China has made the trek harder and costlier than ever, Ji Chul-ho, who heads the settlement support team for Now Action & Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), told RFA Korean. The group recently restarted helping to rescue escapees after a three-year pause for the pandemic.
North Koreans desperate to flee the repression of their government and limited opportunities offered by their economy used to pay $1,500 for a chance to make it to South Korea, according to rescue groups RFA spoke with. Now the price is at least $6,000, and some estimates put the cost much higher.
Ji said a planned rescue in May of four escapees had to be called off when it became too difficult for the group to move safely. The group included a woman in her late 20s who had been trapped in China for a decade, trafficked as a “wife” to a rural Chinese man.
“We went as scheduled, but that time crackdowns in China were intense, and the North Korean refugees were unable to come toward the Mekong River as scheduled,” Ji said.
A rise in surveillance
Defection rates have fallen steadily since Kim Jong Un took power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in late 2011. Two years earlier, the number of defectors who made it was more than 2,900, a record level, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. By 2019, the number had fallen by about 1,000.
In 2021, when COVID border restrictions were at their peak, only 63 North Koreans reached the South. So far this year, 99 have made it.
In total, nearly 34,000 escapees are thought to have settled in South Korea.
One thing that experts on North Korea say hasn’t changed is a desire to leave. With a repressive regime and one of the world’s poorest economies, North Korea’s conditions remain depressingly constant.
But Kim has made a point of making it harder to escape.
The regime built a border wall during COVID as the country sought to shut itself in even further in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep the virus out, and border guards reportedly have orders to shoot to kill North Koreans trying to flee.
Migrants, not refugees, China says
Some North Koreans are sent abroad by their government to earn wages for a regime shut off from the global economy by economic sanctions. Most wind up in China, where some have then fled.
But China presents its own difficulties. The country considers the escapees illegal migrants, not refugees. If caught, they are deported to North Korea, where they face years of hard labor or even execution.
Restrictions within China imposed in response to the pandemic made travel by anyone problematic, let alone people as vulnerable to exploitation as escapees.
Now-ubiquitous facial recognition technologies can help spot defectors on buses and trains. As a result, it’s safe only to travel by car or vans provided by brokers, limiting the number of passengers to four at a time, a U.S.-based rescue activist told RFA Korean. The person asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize future rescue efforts.
The greater risk has translated into fewer brokers willing to help, another problem for desperate North Koreans fleeing their country.
Even climate change may be complicating the journey. Escapees usually try to reach a Southeast Asian country by crossing the Mekong River before their flight to South Korea.
But Ji said water levels on a recent trip to a rendezvous point along the river were much lower than in previous years, making it difficult even for small boats to cross. For North Korean escapees, that means more time walking on newly exposed riverbeds, which also increases the chances of capture.
“There were more ways to rescue North Korean refugees in the past than there are now, but the number of rescue options is starting to decrease,” Ji said.
A rare success
Eager to help North Koreans, NAUH must nevertheless be careful that the people who reach out for rescue are genuine and not decoys trying to infiltrate rescue operations.
Ji asks why they want to leave and checks to see that their dialects match where they say they come from in North Korea.
“Once we connect with them, we will ask simple questions like how they lived, their address and place of birth in North Korea to confirm that they are North Korean refugees,” Ji said.
The South Korean government gives the escapees a settlement package of $40,000, which includes money for vocational training and housing. It is often from this money that escapees pay the brokers, and the higher costs of escape leaves new arrivals with fewer financial resources to navigate what is often a bewildering environment.
In its 12 years of operation, NAUH has rescued more than 500 escapees. This year, they’ve been able to get six North Koreans to safety.
The woman who was among the four whose rescue was thwarted at the last minute had been pushed to leave North Korea by her extreme poverty. Still in her late-teens, she dreamed of studying in South Korea.
Instead Ji said she was trafficked to a man and caught in a horrible holding pattern: stay and live her life largely as a slave or run and risk the likely circumstance she would be caught and sent back to North Korea.
It was only recently that she was able to contact NAUH to set up an escape plan.
While the initial effort went awry, Ji later learned that the group made it to another country in Southeast Asia. From there, she and the three other escapees would be flown to South Korea, a success story that’s rarer these days.