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 Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.