North Korean defectors: Looking For A Better Life

The number of North Korean refugees decreased from 2706 in 2011 to 1502 in 2012, and to 1276 in 2015. In 2016, it has increased slightly to 1,418, according to Statistics Korea (Ministry if Unification in South Korea).

The sharp decline in the number of North Korean defectors is attributed to increasing crackdowns on the borders area between North Korea and China, along with an increase in freight costs and repatriation by Chinese authorities.

Even though there are dangers in the process of escape, North Koreans constantly escape for a reason of serious hardship.

Yun Lim (23) who escaped from North Korea with her father and older brother in 2009 when she was 14-years-old said: “I remember that it was so difficult to live in North Korea. So my family had decided to leave the country. Firstly, my mother escaped in 2005. Four years later, I escaped from the country with my father and older brother.”

During the process of escape, she and her family had to go through three countries: China, Laos, and Thailand.

She also spoke about their fears during the process: “I was so afraid. If we got caught in China, Chinese Police would send us to North Korea to take the punishment (torture). It would be appropriate to say that we really risked our lives. People often escape with poison or opium. I think it is better to die than face punishment in North Korea.”

After four months of the travel, she finally arrived in South Korea in September 2009. When North Korean defectors arrive in South Korea, they are examined to check the purpose of escape for several months by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). And then, they are educated on basic knowledge (how to open a bank account, how to use the transport system) by Hanawon (The Settlement Support Centre for North Korean Refugees).

She said: “When I arrived in South Korea, I felt very awkward because I didn’t have any experience with subways and cars. Especially, having a bank account came as a shock to me. In North Korea, people normally hide money in the house rather than using bank accounts. When I was in North Korea, I didn’t know even the concept of a bank.”

On the other hand, there has been no civilian exchange between the South and North Koreans since the division of territory for 65-years. Due to the absence of interaction, the two Korean races are more distinct than ever when it comes to culture, language, and ideology.

Therefore, there are some North Korean defectors who leave South Korea because of not only an issue of bias and discrimination against them but also insufficiency of policy level for them.

Furthermore, they know a fact that if they are accepted as a refugee in a European country, they can live on better support than living in South Korea.

After Eurostat recently released a report (Acquisition of citizenship in the EU), North Korea defectors in European countries are counted by 820 people who have obtained European citizenship between 2007 and 2016. Among the defectors, approximately 90 percent of the people are living in the UK, where 317 people obtained British citizenship and 396 defectors became German citizens.

As the number of the defectors increased in Europe, they have established organisations for not only themselves, but also human rights movement; North Korean Residents Society in the UK and Association d’amitié franco-coréenne in France.

Hwa-Kyong Park who is a secretary-general of North Korean Residents Society (NKRS) in UK and who escaped North Korea in 1999 to find his family said: “North Korean Residents Society (NKRS) in UK is established for the purpose of supporting for the defectors resettlement in the UK (funeral, hospital bills, and financial hardship), promoting friendship between the defectors, and leading human rights campaign for North Koreans.

“We also have a solidarity with Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the United Kingdom and The National Unification Advisory Council so we attend mutual events and share information.”

It is estimated by the NKRS that there are approximately 500-700 North Koreans are currently living in the United Kingdom including Scotland and Wales.

He said: “the defectors are mostly living in London and especially in New Malden which has many South Korean and Chinese residents. It is undeniable fact that Asians have difficulties to find a job. Therefore, the defectors are here (New Malden) to have a help from South Koreans and defectors who settled in advance. Many defectors are working in companies in New Malden which are owned by Koreans (H market and Korean Food). They are also engaged in various works such as private businesses, construction industries, restaurant works, and so on.”

“There are definitely difficulties in living in the UK. As many foreign people have difficulties in communication, I heard many defectors are having a difficulty in English. Accordingly, they often missed some benefits of refugees.”

In addition, the defectors are more struggling with informing about human rights of North Korea than anyone else in various ways.

Ji-Hyun Park who is a co-representative of a human right organisation called ‘Stepping Stones’ said: “I was going around Europe as a human right activist and In Germany, stories were permeated throughout the country for trying not to forget the human rights violations that the Jewish people had received from the Nazi government. Therefore, what I was thinking of looking at it was that we also saw people starving directly in North Korea and some of my family also starve to death, and there was not one person to remember us until now.@

“I made ‘Stepping Stone’ on October 24, 2017, to remember people who were felt victim to the violence in North Korea and to share the information of North Korean towards the all the networks.”

Unlike other human right organisations, Stepping Stone focus on the relatively unknown issue of the rights of women and Children.

“The reality is that North Korean women have left the country and been sold into human trafficking or prostitution in China, as a result, many children have lost their parents and became a missing child.”

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