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
Humans of North Korea: This is freedom
I got foreign media from my dad. He was a member of the Korean Workers Party and many of his friends were security agents. They confiscated a lot of foreign media and gave it to my dad and he would bring it home.
Some of my most vivid memories are getting together with my friends at someone’s house, shutting off all the lights, and secretly watching South Korean dramas. It was exhilarating. If you heard anything outside, you’d get startled and think,
“Did they come to arrest us? Are we going to jail now?” It was thrilling doing things we knew we shouldn’t do.
Everything portrayed in the South Korean dramas was so clean and everyone seemed so wealthy. I used to think “Wow, there is such a world out there.” We were taught that South Korea was a poor country but I wondered, “Why can’t we live like that?”
I wanted to wear clothes from the dramas but I couldn’t find them anywhere. We used to get a lot of used clothes from the market down by the harbor. You either find used clothes or fabric and have a tailor make the outfit for you. After three or four days of wearing a new style, everyone would be wearing the same thing because it looked so cool.
My designs were very popular. If I started wearing something new, there was always someone who would wear similarly styled clothes because the number of South Korean dramas that inspired us was so limited. Girls would ask me where I got my clothes and if I wanted to exchange outfits. Bartering was very common and sometimes they’d offer their more expensive clothes in exchange for mine.
But you had to look out for the Inspection Unit. If they caught you wearing jeans and a hoodie, they’d cut the bottom of the jeans with scissors. My sister and brother were older than me so their friends were sometimes in the Inspection Unit. If I knew the person, I would just tell them, “I’ll go change right now” or “I’ll give you these jeans but please don’t cut the bottoms off” and I would go get it back from them later.
The regime doesn’t want people wearing those kinds of clothes. I think it’s because things like jeans symbolize freedom. North Korean society is so restricted that if they allowed jeans there would be no end to what people would want to wear.
Even now in South Korea, every time I put on a pair of jeans I think, “This is freedom.”
- Jihyun Kang escaped North Korea in 2009. She now works in the fashion industry in Seoul.