North Korean refugees risk perilous journey
With risks and challenges faced by refugees emerging as one of the greatest
global issues today, the status and conditions of asylum seekers in South Korea
have also been highlighted. The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles
shedding light on refugees in Korea, their hardships, the systematic fallout,
the country’s own history and ways to go forward. The following is the seventh
installment. ― Ed.
It was a late evening in autumn 2013 when Ryu Ha-eun crossed the Tumen River
in her perilous search for freedom ― something she had yearned for while living
in North Korea for some 20 years.
Along with several other North Korean compatriots, Ryu waded through the waist-deep
waters, shuddering with fear, for if caught, she would face harsh punishments
that would not only hurt her, but also her family.
As the full moon shone brightly over the river bordering China, her heart began
pounding uncontrollably. Chills ran down her spine due to the strident sound
of border troops walking in formation for a change of shifts.
“Just halfway across the river, we heard border troops gathering nearby. We
held our breath and tried to hide ourselves to avoid being caught,” Ryu, who
came to Korea last March, told The Korea Herald. “It was a nerve-racking moment
that I don’t want to be reminded of.”
Ryu is one of the thousands of North Korean defectors who flee repression and
poverty each year for what they hope will be a better future outside the isolated
country. Refugees usually cross the river into China and seek safe haven there,
in South Korea or elsewhere.
But their hopes for a better life crumble soon after they arrive in China where
they are labeled as illegal border crossers subject to immediate repatriation.
Due to their status, they are often mistreated, with some exploiting them and
forcing them into hard labor, prostitution and other forms of abuses, mostly
in remote Chinese villages.
“As North Korean female refugees have no legal protection in China, they become
an easy target for human trafficking by vile brokers who treat them like animals.
This shatters all their hopes for a better future and deprives them of their
fundamental human rights,” said Chun Ki-won, a Christian pastor who has supported
North Korean defectors since 1999.
“Some are sent to rural areas in China where they are forced to marry (old
or disabled men). They are also sent to bars or forced into sex trade. These
days, many are forced to work for some obscene computer chatting programs.”
Despite growing international criticism, China has continuously repatriated
North Korean refugees, arguing they have contravened local border entry rules.
Observers say that Beijing refuses them refugee status in consideration of its
traditional relationship with Pyongyang, and because the move could help fuel
separatism in Tibet and Xinjiang.
“We don’t call them defectors. They are violators of (China’s) immigration
law and related regulations. They have also disrupted the order along the border,”
Beijing’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying told visiting Korean reporters
“Just like South Korea, China also deals with these people in line with its
domestic laws, international law and humanitarian principles.”
▲ Lawmakers listen to testimony from a defector during
a parliamentary session held at the Hanawon settlement support center for North
Korean refugees in Ansong, Gyeonggi Province, in October. (Yonhap)
Over the last several years, it has been increasingly difficult for North
Koreans to defect from the repressive state. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
has reportedly ordered his troops to tighten border control. He is also said
to have warned of the “extermination of three generations” of any family if
a member is caught defecting.
“Kim apparently believes that defectors are shedding light on his country’s
woeful human rights situations. He is, therefore, rumored to have directed his
military to tighten border security,” said Chun.
“Once refugees arrive in China, it is difficult to move to areas bordering
a third country, such as Mongolia, via which they can come to South Korea, because
of China’s beefed-up crackdown on illegal residents. Thus, the overall situation
has turned unfavorable for those seeking to flee the North.”
Indeed, the number of defectors to South Korea has steadily declined since the
young North Korean leader took the helm of the dictatorial regime upon his father’s
death in December 2011, according to government data.
The total number, which stood at 2,706 in 2011, dipped to 1,502 in 2012, 1,397
in 2014 and 1,277 last year. Currently, nearly 28,610 North Korean defectors
― 70 percent of whom are female ― live in the South.
Defectors’ hardships do not end even after they land in South Korea. They face
the tough process of adapting to the capitalist society where they are forced
to compete with better-educated South Koreans.
Some of them have been embroiled in criminal activity, hurting the overall image
of North Korean defectors. As of January this year, 102 North Korean defectors
have been imprisoned for various crimes, the Justice Ministry told The Korea
Herald, refusing to specify the crimes.
The Seoul government has carried out various resettlement programs, including
a three-month education program at the Hanawon resettlement support center.
Yet, those programs are not enough to help them lead a stable life in a new
environment, defectors said.
“It is very difficult for us to adapt to a completely new, different life here,”
said Joo Ye-un, a North Korean defector in her early 20s. “I hope people would
welcome defectors more and that the society would become more inclusive.”
The difficult task of integrating the defectors into society has indicated that
the country would face even tougher challenges when it is ultimately unified
with North Korea with a population of 24.8 million ― a reason Seoul needs to
improve its policy to support defectors, particularly when it is seeking to
lay the foundation for reunification.
Kim Heung-kwang, chief of the Seoul-based North Korea Intellectual Solidarity,
said Seoul should include defectors when crafting policies for them rather than
sidelining them in the process.
“The government has tended to craft and implement its policy toward defectors
without due consultations with them, and that is the reason why the policy lacks
efficiency,” he said.
“There are still people who think of defectors as coming to South Korea for
begging or something. They should regard and support the defectors as those
who could play a central role in realizing our long-cherished dream of national
2016-01-11 21:07 By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)