Escaping North Korea is a journey that
is almost always a perilous one — thousands of miles on buses or
motorcycles or sneaking on foot through mountains and valleys amid
falling snow or torrential rain — in the desperate quest to evade border
police and reach the frontier of a new life. Some pay a broker to
traffic them out, some are too poor and bear the burden alone, and some
are granted temporary visas to work in China but never return to their
So how many North Korea defectors are there, and where do they go?
Since the hostilities of the Korean War ended in 1953, an estimated
300,000 North Koreans have defected from the tightly controlled hermit
country. According to statistics from the Human Freedom Initiative at
the Bush Institute, there is approximately 225 North Korean refugees
that have been directly granted asylum in the United States since the
North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. This was signed into law under
President George W. Bush in an effort to promote freedom and human
rights to those fleeing the dictatorship.
A further 250 North Koreans have arrived since as legal immigrants,
after spending time in South Korea and receiving citizenship there.
There are believed to be several hundred — although less than 1,000 —
illegal North Korean immigrants also residing across the United States.
The European Alliance for Human Rights in
North Korea surmises that there are at least 1,400 in Europe, with the
highest number — some 600 — reportedly in South West London. However,
most defectors stay much closer to home.
“Most defectors head to China, but if they
are caught there, they will likely be returned to North Korea, where
they are punished harshly. Therefore, many either live their lives under
the radar or make the harrowing trip to South Korea. There, North Korean
defectors are welcomed by the government,” Vernon Brewer, founder and
president of World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization that
supports the defectors, told Fox News. “South Korea longs for
reunification and sees the suffering North Koreans as their neighbors.”
South Korean law grants those from the North automatic citizenship
following a mandatory three-month transition that involves debriefing
and education to prepare them for their new lives in a much more open
society. Official statistics published by the Ministry of Unification
have documented just over 30,000 defectors since 1998. That year, at the
height of the starvation and famine that claimed over one million lives
in the North, the government registered 302 males and 116 females — a
total of 947 North Korean defectors.
By 2008, the number of males had dropped
slightly to 608 while the number of females had jumped dramatically to
2,195, bringing the overall to 2,803 and 78 percent female. These
numbers have declined in subsequent years as a result of stricter border
patrols and inspections having been put in place by the Kim Jung-un
regime, along with rising broker costs.
Last year, South Korea documented 302 male and 1,116 female defectors —
1,418 in total, and 79 percent female. So far in 2017, the ministry has
recorded 593 defectors — 85 percent of who are female. Overall, just
under one quarter of the total defector numbers are minors: 8,839 of the
total to-date are male, and 21,541 are female.
China, which also borders North Korea, is
host to the majority of defectors. Although official statistics are hard
to come by and many are deported back to their origin if discovered, an
estimated 30,000 to 50,000 refugees from the country are believed to
have crossed into China illegally — more than 70 percent of which are
The rise in female
defectors to both South Korea and China, experts have conjectured, is
likely because of the notion that it is easier for women to flee
undetected and face less scrutiny from authorities than their male
counterparts. However, women are routinely subjected to gross human
rights violations such as sex trafficking and forced into prostitution
for survival, and without proper documentation, have little resources to
Defectors also flee using obscure routes to other Asian countries in the
region — including Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan
and Laos — but these are often used as transit points before moving to a
third country such as South Korea.
But in comparison to those fleeing other deeply oppressive or war-torn
countries, defectors from North Korea remain relatively quiet.
“The regime punishes the families of anyone who defects at the time of
their defection,” explained Todd Nettleton, Chief of Media Relations and
Message Integration for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, an NGO that aids
refugees and defectors. “If they were to comment publicly and further
embarrass the regime, they know their families would be punished
further, possibly even executed or sent to a labor camp.”
Punishment often extends for up to three generations after the
“We have the type of
defectors that believe they must speak out so their fellow nationals can
know life is better and free on the other side. Then, there are those
that don’t want to be heard for fear of their family’s safety,” Brewer
said. “The latter tend to be defectors who have seen firsthand more
government surveillance and punishment or who have been outside North
Korea for a number of years.”
Yet some analysts predict that deserter numbers are set to rise and then
fall in the coming months.
“As economic conditions worsen due to tough economic sanctions imposed
over the summer, there will likely be a surge of defectors — followed
then by a steep decline as Pyongyang cracks down hard to limit
information outflows to the outside world,” noted Harry Kazianis,
Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest.
“Defectors have told me on many occasions that new smuggling routes out
of the country will open up, however in just a few months, are shutdown
thanks to informants. It is a constant game of cat and mouse.”
President Donald Trump’s new travel ban proclamation, which came into
play on Thursday, included North Korea for the first time. North Korea’s
inclusion is viewed by many as largely symbolic, as so few manage to
safely leave the world’s most closed country as it stands, let alone be
granted passage to the United States.
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has
reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of
terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay