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Most North Korean Refugees Are Women. Here’s Why.

December 17, 2019
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Hae Jung (pictured right) escaped North Korea and lived in hiding with her daughter in China until their rescue through LiNK's networks.

Over 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it safely to South Korea. 70% of them are female.

Why?

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.

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North Korean Advocate Hyeonseo Lee speaks from the TED stage (image credit TED)

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.

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Resettled North Korean women appear on South Korea's popular TV program "Now on My Way to Meet You" (image credit Ebuk7do)

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

Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors

October 18, 2021


Kang Sae-byeok from Squid Game as player 067
Via Netflix


**Warning: Contains plot spoilers


Netflix’s Squid Game has taken the world by storm, becoming the platform’s most-watched show debut and infiltrating popular culture. The high-stakes thriller juxtaposes nostalgic kid’s games with brutal consequences, hooking viewers with a compelling cast and pointed social commentary.


One of Squid Game’s most captivating characters is Kang Sae-byeok, a tough-as-nails North Korean defector who wants nothing more than to reunite her family. While she and her little brother managed to safely reach South Korea, their father was killed during the border crossing and mother was captured.


Sae-byeok’s story reflects the real experiences of the North Korean refugees we work with who have risked everything for freedom. Many were separated from family, have little support when resettling, and face prejudice.

The Perils of Defecting

Crossing the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea is virtually impossible. Instead, refugees must escape through China and journey 3000 miles through a modern-day-underground-railroad to safety in Southeast Asia. This has only become more difficult with pandemic-related restrictions on movement and border lockdowns.


A map of the route through China and Southeast Asia that North Korean refugees travel to safety


If caught fleeing North Korea or arrested in China, which doesn’t recognize defectors as refugees, North Koreans will be sent back and face harsh punishment - brutal beatings, forced labor, and even internment in a political prison camp. 


This is the reality that people like Sae-byeok’s mother face.

Still, thousands of North Koreans have risked everything to seek a better life. An estimated 33,000 refugees have resettled in South Korea.


“I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.”

- Joy, escaped through LiNK’s networks in 2013


Continue reading Joy’s story to freedom here.


Difficulty Assimilating

Once they reach safety and begin their new lives, refugees face a new set of challenges. Some have described the experience as stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. Amidst figuring out the everyday intricacies of modern life, many refugees are still coping with the trauma of their past.


In addition to struggling to make ends meet, Sae-byeok faces social pressure and stigma as a North Korean. She deliberately masks her North Korean accent around everyone except her brother and is subjected to remarks about being a “communist” and “spy.” 


While it is not specified how her brother ended up in an orphanage, one can assume that Sae-byeok left him there in hopes that he’ll receive care and education that she cannot provide. Tragically, the difficulties of establishing a new life in South Korea separated her from her family once again.


Kang Sae-byeok and her younger brother at the orphanage in Squid Game
Via Netflix


“At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words...Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family.”

- Hae-Sun, rescued while hiding in China in 2013


Read more from Hae-Sun’s experience starting a new life in South Korea here.


Working with Brokers

Hoping to bring her mother to South Korea, Sae-byeok was in contact with shady brokers who scammed her of her money. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fund these risky escapes, especially directly out of North Korea, and then from China to Southeast Asia.


With the prize money from the games, Sae-byeok hoped to reunite her family and live under one roof again.


Kang Sae-byeok’s wish to use the prize money from Squid Game to reunite her family
Via Netflix

This is Not Where the Story Ends

Working with the right people who can help safely smuggle people across borders is the real deal. Liberty in North Korea helps North Korean refugees escape safely through a modern-day underground railroad, without ANY cost or condition.*LiNK’s rescue efforts begin in China 


LiNK reunites families, supports their new lives in resettlement, and helps individuals, like Sae-byeok, reach their full potential in freedom.


When LiNK’s field staffer told me I was finally safe, I was overwhelmed. I had endured so much to make it this far - hard labor, imprisonment, and torture. And even though I was overjoyed to make it to freedom, I was deeply saddened that [my daughter] Hee-Mang wasn’t with me… I hold onto the dream that one day we will live together again.”

- Jo-Eun, escaped North Korea through LiNK’s network in 2018


Read the story of Jo-Eun’s journey to freedom here.


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When North Koreans successfully resettle, they become some of the most effective agents of change on the issue by sharing their stories with the world and sending money and information back to their families in North Korea. 

Kang Sae-byeok’s story has come to an end, but you can do something to stand with the North Korean people today.

Watch undercover footage from real rescue missions.

→ Read more stories from North Korean refugees.

Donate to make rescue missions possible.

→ Connect with the global movement for the North Korean people by following us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Your generous donation will rescue and support North Korean refugees
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