Most North Korean Refugees Are Women. Here’s Why.
Over 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it safely to South Korea. 70% of them are female.
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.
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.
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
The DMZ and North Korea
What Is the DMZ?
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea. The DMZ is a de facto border barrier and divides the Korean Peninsula approximately in half. It roughly follows latitude 38°N (the 38th parallel), the original demarcation line between North Korea and South Korea at the end of World War II. The Demilitarized Zone incorporates territory on both sides of the cease-fire line as it existed at the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), and was created by pulling back the respective forces 1.2 miles along each side of the line.
Upon the creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) in 1948, the DMZ became a de facto international border and one of the tensest fronts in the Cold War. The DMZ is about 160 miles long and approximately 2.5 miles wide. The truce that ended hostilities was signed here in 1953, but, as an official peace treaty was never agreed to, the two sides have still officially been at war for over sixty years. There are no troops in the DMZ itself, although both sides of the 2.5-mile strip of land separating the Koreas are the most heavily armed in the world.
A Brief History of the DMZ
Even as North Korea and South Korea marched together in a show of political solidarity at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, and a newly combined Korean women's hockey team competed as one nation, there remains one unmistakable reminder of the chasm between the two nations. The DMZ was established in 1953 as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between the United Nations, North Korea, and China to end the Korean War. In essence, it is a line in the sand that extends the entire 160-mile length of the Korean Peninsula, passing just about 50 miles from the Olympic village in Pyeongchang.
The 38th parallel north was the original boundary between the United States and the Soviet Union’s briefly held administration areas of Korea at the end of World War II. Both the North and South remained dependent on their sponsor states from 1948 to the outbreak of the Korean War. This conflict, which claimed over three million lives and divided the Korean Peninsula along ideological lines, started on June 25th, 1950, with a full-front DPRK invasion across the 38th parallel, and ended in 1953 after international intervention pushed the front of the war back to near the 38th parallel.
The Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State was signed on July 27th, 1953, and resulted in the creation of the DMZ as each side agreed to move their troops 1.2 miles back from the front line, establishing a 2.5-mile wide buffer zone. The Military Demarcation Line (DML) goes through the center of the DMZ and indicates where the front was when the agreement was signed. Owing to this theoretical stalemate and genuine hostility between North and South Korea, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the buffer zone. Each side holds constant guard against potential aggression from the other side, even 68 years after its establishment. The armistice agreement clearly explains the number of military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ.
DMZ as a Cultural Site
Borders are usually geopolitical boundaries that mark the legal limits of a nation's sovereignty, and are often of interest to tourists for the meeting of cultures that occur therein, rather than for their divisive functions. The DMZ acts as a unique cultural site for the two Koreas, and this is seen as an attraction for tourists to the region. They recognize borderlands as symbolic cultural landscapes loaded with iconic sites and attractions that reflect the public memory. This memory is often focused on the past, ongoing wars, or territorial conflicts that have formed the border.
Tourism can act as a force of peace, a mechanism that promotes empathy and supports reconciliation processes between nations. In addition to fostering cultural exchange, research suggests that countries with open and sustainable tourism industries enjoy higher levels of peace, economic prosperity, and resilience. However, the highly regulated movement of Korean nationals on both sides of the DMZ usually limits the peace-building opportunities that are traditionally associated with an exchange of culture. This strict control of the border along with the careful curation of museums and war memorials has allowed each side to write its own version of history.
In the area, there are three small conference buildings administered by the United Nations in the Joint Security Area, all painted the international organization's signature blue, while North Korea controls three others. On the North side, a building called Panmon Hall looms, while on the South stands Freedom House, which hosts Red Cross and visitor activities. The Freedom House was intended to be a meeting area for separated families from both countries, but the North declined, fearing that its citizens might defect.
The Security Status at the DMZ
The border between North and South Korea is one of the most heavily guarded stretches of land in the world. The DMZ, littered with scores of mines and barbed-wire fences, is nightmarishly difficult to cross, except the Joint Security Area (JSA). JSA is a special buffer zone inside what is known as the "truce village" of Panmunjom, about 35 miles north of Seoul. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people usually visit the JSA for a chance to see North Korean soldiers standing at attention just dozens of feet away and to officially step into North Korean territory inside a United Nations administered conference room that literally straddles the military border.
A visit there feels like a military theater, with the stern warnings from the South Korean soldiers under United Nations (UN) command not to make gestures at their counterparts. Since demarcation, the DMZ has had numerous cases of incidents and incursions by both sides, although the North Korean government typically never acknowledges direct responsibility for any of these incidents. This can be a highly risky place if mutual respect is not maintained from both sides.
Human Rights and Repression in North Korea
North Korea is one of the world's most repressive states. The government restricts all civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. It prohibits all organized political opposition, independent media, civil society, and trade unions. The government routinely uses arbitrary arrest and punishment of crimes, torture in custody, forced labor, and executions to maintain fear and control across the country. Besides the DMZ, North Korea is a highly controlled country where human rights are ignored.
The international community has continued to press the North Korean government to expand its engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms, including action on findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI). The COI report shows that the country has committed crimes against humanity including extermination, murder, enslavement, imprisonment, rape, sexual violence, forced abortion, and other heinous crimes. The citizens of North Korea require a lot of help and support from the international community in order to attain a better life.
The North Korean people face a brutal and repressive government that isolates them from the world and denies their most basic human rights, but you can help to create change. At Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), we help North Korean refugees escape through a 3,000-mile secret rescue route and empower North Koreans who have reached freedom to be changemakers, advocates, and leaders on this issue. You can help make a difference in the lives of North Korean citizens by learning more about our organization, raising funds, advocating for the people of North Korea, starting a rescue team, or making a donation today!