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Most North Korean Refugees Are Women. Here’s Why.

December 17, 2019
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Hae Jung (pictured right) escaped North Korea and lived in hiding with her daughter in China until their rescue through LiNK's networks.

Over 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it safely to South Korea. 70% of them are female.

Why?

Firstly, North Korea is both politically and culturally very patriarchal, so women traditionally have a lower status than men, and are actually less tightly controlled by the North Korean system. Starting from the famine of the 1990s, North Korean women had to exploit their official status as “housewives” to engage in private market activities and become the breadwinners to ensure their family’s survival.

This combination of a new found economic role, relatively more mobility, and increased independence led more North Korean women to seek further economic opportunities in China (sometimes with an intention to stay temporarily and return, and sometimes as a more permanent move).

There was also a perception among North Koreans that women would have a better chance of being able to stay under the radar and work informally in China, for instance in restaurants or textile factories. This has in fact been borne out in reality, and there is another more tragic factor pulling North Korean women into China—a demand for North Korean brides among unmarried Chinese men, and a broader demand for North Korean women in the Chinese sex industry (including brothels and online sex chat rooms). This demand is driven by a lack of marriage-aged women particularly in rural Northeast China, a result of China’s ‘one child policy’ and the migration of young Chinese women to the cities.

Regardless of the reason behind their initial escape into China, a higher proportion of women getting out of the country translates to a female majority making it all the way to South Korea.

Another reason that might be thought to hold North Korean men back is that they are tied up in military service for much of their 20s, which is a prime age for defection. Not only do men have less freedom when they are in the military, but they are also often relocated to the interior of the country away from the border with China, decreasing their chances of escape. However this does not exactly play out in the demographic data for arrivals of North Korean refugees in South Korea, which shows no spike in the female to male ratio of refugees in their 20s, so it is hard to say how big of a factor this is.

Finally, anecdotally, it seems that some North Korean women may be more likely to be motivated to make the journey to South Korea after watching dramas and films that are smuggled into North Korea on USBs and Micro-SD cards. North Korean women have told us that visions of life in South Korea where women have much greater freedom in self expression and fashion, and are granted higher status and respect—especially by the romantic heartthrobs of your typical K-drama—fueled their fantasies of life beyond North Korea’s borders and were a significant factor in their decision to escape.

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North Korean Advocate Hyeonseo Lee speaks from the TED stage (image credit TED)

Among the more than twenty thousand female North Koreans who have made it all the way to safe resettlement in South Korea have emerged some of the most effective advocates for the North Korean people. Several North Korea-born women have written books, and are increasingly giving the issue a human face on South Korean television and to audiences around the world.

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Resettled North Korean women appear on South Korea's popular TV program "Now on My Way to Meet You" (image credit Ebuk7do)

These advocates, and hundreds of other North Korean women who have quietly strived to successfully resettle and bring their children and other family members to South Korea, are among the people that we’ve been able to support and work with because of your commitment to stand alongside the North Korean people.

So on International Women’s Day, we salute the North Korean women who have been able to emerge as a force of progress despite being born in the most repressive country in the world, and we salute our sisters and brothers around the world who continue to believe in and support them.

- Sokeel Park, Director of Research & Strategy

A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story

September 19, 2023

I didn’t know I was hungry until I was eight years old. Growing up, I had no concept of whether my hometown was wealthy or poor. Then when the great famine struck in the mid-90s, more people died in our city than anywhere else in the country. 

That’s when I realized “Oh, this is the most difficult place to live in North Korea.”

I was born in the city of Eundok, North Hamgyong Province. Before that it was called Aoji, a destitute place infamous for its coal mines, where South Korean prisoners of war were sent to work.

In the middle of a long famine, people lose all sense of humanity. You couldn’t survive without dirtying your hands. My father was a kindhearted person, the type that was unable to hurt anyone. But towards the end, hunger drove him to steal from our own house.

On my first day of middle school, I couldn’t find my new backpack anywhere. It turns out that my dad had taken it to the Jangmadang, traded it for food, and eaten it by himself. In the end, he still died from starvation, and my mom, my sister, and I were left to fend for ourselves.

We heard that if we went to China, we could eat all the candy we wanted. With that one piece of information, my mom said she’d rather get shot crossing the Tumen river than starve in North Korea. 

It was mid-February in 1999, during the bitter cold winter. The water was frozen solid and stretched over 100 meters across. My mom went first, followed by my sister, and I was in the very back. Maybe it was because I was anxious, but my shoes felt so slippery and I kept falling over as they went farther and farther ahead. We heard that soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to cross the river. But this was our only chance at survival.

My mind was racing, “What if I’m left behind and get caught?” My mom and sister probably feared the same thing. 

We encountered a tributary that wasn’t frozen all the way, so my mom waited and had me go first because I was the lightest. A few steps in, the ice broke and I fell into the piercing cold water. None of us knew how to swim. At that moment, I really thought it was the end. But then my feet hit the ground. We had made it to the other side.

Not long after we had crossed into China, a Korean-speaking woman came up to us. She invited us to her house and gave us over a dozen boiled eggs, more food than we had seen in years. In North Korea, when my sister and I had a field trip for school, my mom would cut one boiled egg and give each of us half in our lunch box. To have this much at once was a true luxury. For the first time in a long while, we dared to have some hope.

But then my mom was sold off to a Chinese man. The fortunate thing was that even though my sister and I were 16 and 14 years old, we were so short that people asked if we were 7 or 8. They couldn’t sell us separately, so we were sent together with our mom.

We had been sold for 2000 yuan. When we wanted to leave, the man told us to pay him back. We worked in his house and on his farm but of course we never saw a penny. For three years, we lived in confinement, and my little brother was born.

On a quiet night before my brother was even a year old, Chinese police came to the house in the dark, knocked on the door, and arrested us.

When North Koreans get caught, sometimes they’ll roll up their money and eat it or hide it, but we didn’t have anything. We were taken back across the border with just our clothes. It’s well known that there’s a physical exam to look for hidden money. In a way, you shouldn’t even feel a basic sense of shame as a woman and as a human being. If you cry or plead for mercy, you’ll get beaten up. You cannot question them at all.

With so many people in North Korea dying of starvation, names were removed from the family register after three years without any news. We had already been declared dead. There were two minors and an adult, but our identities couldn’t be confirmed. At the time they couldn’t keep minors in prison without a ruling from the court, so we were entrusted to another person from our hometown. No one wanted extra mouths to feed, so he just let us go.

We went straight to the Tumen river and in 2002, we escaped again.

I had enough food when I was in China. Even dogs and pigs ate rice and corn. But we lived looking over our shoulders, in constant fear of the police. 

When we heard about life in South Korea, where our safety and identities would be guaranteed, we decided to defect once more. We were introduced to a broker, gave them some cash upfront, and traveled through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.

On September 1st, 2006, I arrived at Incheon airport with my mom. My sister joined us in South Korea in 2008. Nine years after first crossing the Tumen River, we were finally together in freedom.

When I was in China, my only wish was that my mom, sister, and I could sleep together, eat together, and come home from work together. I dreamed that someday we could go to the supermarket and get a whole cart full of things to share. After coming to South Korea, we achieved not only that, but everything we’ve ever wanted.

I co-authored a book about my journey, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, with a foreign journalist named Sebastien Falletti. He interviewed several North Koreans, and I agreed to share my story with him out of a sense of duty. I never thought he’d choose me.

Compared to North Korean defectors who live special lives, I don’t actually dream of being a human rights activist. There are times when I don’t want to share anymore and I feel like I have to repeat myself.

But then I think about my best friend in North Korea. Her name is Sunhwa and I don’t think she’s here yet. I imagine that she would want to live like me — to attend college, pave her own way, and explore the vast world we live in. But she is still stuck in the darkness. Until Sunhwa can live a life of freedom, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue to share.

When I think of North Korea, the dark image of my hometown floods my memories. But I would still like to go back just once and visit my dad’s grave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that he was also a victim of the North Korean regime. I have hope that in this lifetime, North Korea will open up. I’ll return with my mom and my sister, and together we’ll visit my dad’s resting place and prepare a huge meal for him.

For North Koreans to share their stories with audiences around the world, retelling and reliving some of the most harrowing experiences, is an act of exceptional courage. They’re working towards the day when others no longer have to go through the same painful experiences.

You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives in freedom.

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