The Harrowing Plight of North Korean Defectors

December 7, 2020

The grossest human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean (DPRK) government are disclosed in the testimonies of North Korean nationals who have survived the escape from their home nation. In the past, the DPRK’s primary tactic towards international accountability over human rights abuses has been silence. However, more recently, they have changed their strategy to flat-out denial and have projected charges of human rights violations onto the U.S. The DPRK habitually uses deflective arguments that are circular and illogical.

In April 2015, a heated exchange occurred between DPRK state representatives and defectors at a UN event in New York City. At the event, “Victims’ Voices: A Conversation on North Korean Human Rights,” DPRK representatives interrupted while three North Korean defectors were sharing their stories (see 17:24). Joseph Kim had just finished speaking and Jo Jin Hye was about to speak when a DPRK representative in the audience interrupted the proceedings and read a prepared statement aloud. The defectors in the audience began to shout, “Out with you!” Jo Jin Hye then decided to start her testimony by holding her U.S. passport aloft and announcing that she was now a naturalized U.S. citizen. The audience applauded. Amidst the chaos, the DPRK representative finished reading his statement and he and his compatriots smugly left the room.

Because many defectors sell the last remaining food they have in order to finance their journey toward the Chinese/North Korean border, the path of escape often begins with near-starvation. Upon arrival at the border, most have no money left and are extremely desperate and hungry, making them easy targets for human traffickers who take advantage of the desperate and vulnerable.

One defector says she was wooed by a woman who promised she would “take her into a family” and treat her “as one of my own daughters.” The woman enticed the starving teenage girl with food. Once in the wealthy woman’s care, the girl was taken to China without notice, where she was sold as a wife to an older man. She soon became pregnant and bore him a son, which made the man’s Chinese wife jealous. While the girl was pregnant with the man’s second child, the Chinese wife reported her to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, who swiftly deported her back to North Korea. Her North Korean-Chinese son witnessed the traumatic event that separated him from his mother. While the repatriated, pregnant defector was being held at the North Korean detention center, the DPRK officials forcibly aborted her unborn child via an injection. She was then immediately placed in a labor camp and forced to work, even though her body was still experiencing the trauma of the abortion.

The Tongil Mom organization in South Korea has documented countless similar testimonies. In an event hosted by Family Research Council, two defectors shared testimonies like the one described above. Tongil Mom is focused on helping female defectors heal from the many layers of trauma they experienced not only as citizens in the DPRK but also as defectors who dared to escape the Hermit Kingdom’s grip.                    

Other defectors have successfully found their voice in the South Korean government and international affairs. Thae Yong-Ho is the first North Korean defector to be elected to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. He is the former Deputy Ambassador of North Korea to the United Kingdom. Jang Jin-Sung, a defector and former North Korea United Front propaganda writer, provides valuable insight:

Despite Pyongyang’s deceptive ways, many people in the outside world continue to believe in the theoretical North Korea in which dialogue with the regime is seen as the way to effect change. But I know from my years inside the government that talking will not get Pyongyang to turn any corners, not even with the North’s current leader, Kim Jong-un.

Dr. Sandra Fahy, an anthropologist and expert on North Korea, has spent much of her career documenting North Korean defectors’ first-hand accounts and recommends Westerners listen to them. Whether by following those that have gone public with their testimonies on YouTube, such as Yeonmi Park and Kim Min-Ki, or reading literature written by defectors such as Jang Jin-Sung, consuming truthful media about North Korean abuses of its own citizens is crucial. By searching “North Korean defector escape” on YouTube, anyone can see video proof of the regime’s brutality.

Currently, North Koreans looking to defect often use brokerage services to get themselves safely out of the country. Kim Min-Ki, himself a defector in 1997, has helped more than 6,000 defectors escape. There are only two field brokers still doing this dangerous work. Kim’s path initially took him across the Tumen River into China. He was then able to migrate through Vietnam, Cambodia, and finally to South Korea with the help of a South Korean national and member of the special forces who guided him through the process. He also stayed at a safe house run by a church along the way. Kim says springtime is the prime season to defect because April 15 is Kim Il Sung’s birthday and because the water levels begin to rise. The cost to defect from North Korea to China using a broker is about US$15,000. The cost of getting from China to Thailand ranges from free (due to charitable help) to US$2,000 (if charitable help cannot be found). From Thailand, defectors cross into Cambodia illegally, incurring a US$0.50 fine. However, Cambodia recognizes defectors as refugees, and they can travel to South Korea easily from there.

What are Westerners to do about the grim situation in the DPRK? Defector Kim Min-Ki’s message to the world is, “North Korean defectors are still being trafficked for money. They’re being used as birth-giving machines, and [he’d] be grateful if people would at least be concerned about these heartbreaking events.”

Rachel Nicole is an intern focusing on international religious freedom with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.