North Korean Defector Children Escape 'Stateless' Status
Published July 11, 2016
South Korean Christian missionary organization is helping some of the thousands
of children of North Korean defectors living in China escape their “stateless” status
and lives of poverty and abuse.
Chun Ki-won with the Durihana Church in Seoul has helped arranged for a number
of these defector children and their mothers to make their way to South Korea,
where they are granted asylum and citizenship.
Chun said, the South Korean government does limit some defector benefits such
as free university tuition to North Korean children born in China.
“General defectors can get reimbursed for the tuition but our
students must pay by themselves, so we have to help them,”
increased border security has reduced the overall number of North Korea defectors
in recent years, those that are able to cross into China are now overwhelmingly
80 percent of all North Korean defectors seeking asylum in South Korea are women
according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
meet a high demand in rural China, for wives, for domestic help and for sex
workers, Chun said, human traffickers bribe border guards to allow desperate
North Korean women into China, and often into abusive situations where they
have no rights and no legal status.
“There are many people who want to buy the women, and there are
many North Koreans who want to defect,”
North Korean defectors have given birth to children in China. In 2012 The Korea
Institute for National Unification estimated that there were about 30,000 children
of escaped North Korean women in China.
Living in exile
rights organizations say China has an obligation to protect refugees under international
law but Beijing has labeled North Korean defectors as illegal migrants.
say North Korean children in China are not considered citizens and often have
no access to school or health care. And their mothers live in constant fear
they will be deported back to North Korea and sent to prison.
“When I was living in China, it was very dangerous, but here
in Korea I am living with freedom,”
said Han Ye-seul, a 15-year-old North Korea defector.
and many of the children rescued by Pastor Chun attend the Durihana International
School in Seoul, where they learn educational and social skills to better assimilate
in the prosperous and democratic South.
summer, the defector children are studying English with a group of mostly Korean-American
students from the Little Flock Church in New York City.
is difficult to tell the two groups apart as they laugh and play in the hallways
but they are separated by the vastly different worlds from which they came.
Eun-kyung, a 20-year-old North Korean defector, remembers the dire poverty and
hunger in her homeland that prompted her family to risk imprisonment or worse
in search of a better life.
“There was not much grass on the street. People ate grass more
the 1990s North Korea experienced a severe famine that killed around three million
people. While conditions in the communist country have improved due in part
to market reforms that give some incentives to farmers, widespread poverty and
food shortages still exist.
Scars that remain
North Korean students in Seoul are still recovering from past abuse suffered
during their years in China, but 11-year-old Kim Choon-woo also carries physical
scars from when she was stabbed by her Chinese father.
“My father did it because he was mentally ill,”
Chun said Kim’s father committed suicide because he thought he killed his daughter.
Most of the North Korean women and children his church is helping, the pastor
said, have experienced some type of abuse or exploitation.
adds that her mother has since remarried in South Korea and that she is happy
Korea uses the term “defector”
rather than “refugee” for
North Korean asylum seekers to connote that they are escaping the repressive,
communist political system of the Kim Jong Un government, even if they are motivated
by economic and basic human needs.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.