It’s illegal for North Koreans to leave their country without the government’s permission. North Koreans who do attempt to leave the country illegally and are caught can face severe consequences including torture, forced labor, and life-imprisonment in a political prison camp.
Those who are allowed to travel abroad – like diplomats, elite students, recruited workers, and athletes – are monitored closely and must attend special ideological debriefs once they return to North Korea.
"Before we left North Korea, our team was warned not to be swayed by the capitalism we would see in the outside world. And we were told specifically not to meet or talk with South Korean students at the contest." – Jeongyol Kim, competed in the International Math Olympiad before defecting
North Koreans also rarely have a chance to talk with foreigners who travel to North Korea, and even then there is normally a minder present.
“North Korean people are so cut off and disconnected from the outside world that they don’t even know what the word ‘internet’ means” – Kim Min Hyuk, escaped North Korea in 2006
No internet connection to the outside world.
TVs and radios are preset to approved government channels.
North Korean phones cannot make international calls.
Jamming of foreign radio and cell phone signals.
The regime has co-opted technological advances in order to continue isolating the North Korean people. Approved North Korean smartphones cannot access the internet. Instead they are connected to the country’s intranet which is severely restricted and controlled by the regime. North Koreans who want to download an approved app to their phone have to go to a physical store.
The North Korean government’s ideology is a dangerous blend of authoritarianism, nationalism, and militarism that was infused at its founding and still continues over 70 years later.
Cult of Personality
The Ten Principles For The Establishment Of The Monolithic Ideological System
Nothing To Envy
Indoctrination of the regime’s extreme ideologies begins at birth and every North Korean is subject to life-long propaganda efforts by the regime. This includes the dissemination of propaganda in virtually every facet of their lives.
“There are absolutely no human rights in North Korea” – Jo Il, escaped North Korea in 2015
No Freedom of Speech or Expression
No Freedom of Religion
No Freedom of Information
No Freedom of Movement
Songbun Political Apartheid System
The regime relies on political prison camps, torture, collective punishment, and public executions to evoke fear and crush even the slightest flicker of political dissent.
“These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
– United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report on North Korea
Political Prison Camps
North Korea’s poverty is not because of a lack of conditions for economic development. The country has the same potential that transformed South Korea from one of the world’s poorest countries into the dynamic economy it is today.
Instead, North Korea’s poverty is the tragic consequence of the ruling elite’s absolute prioritization of political control, maintained through the micromanagement of society and the economy, and the ruthless repression of alternative views and approaches. This stifles the North Korean people’s potential and the North Korean economy.
GDP North Korea vs. South Korea $1,700 (estimate) vs. $39,500
Exports North Korea vs. South Korea $1.74 billion vs. $596 billion
“When I lived in North Korea, all I worried about was getting food.” – Joseph Kim, escaped North Korea in 2006
Years of mismanagement led to the collapse of the state-socialist economy in the 1990s. The Public Distribution System – the system North Koreans relied on for food for decades – was decimated. Prioritizing the elites and those deemed loyal, the regime cut food supplies to less politically favored regions and sections of society first. The resulting famine killed up to one million people in the mid to late 1990s out of a population of about 20 million, making it one of the worst famines of the 20th century.
Although food security has improved since then, many ordinary North Korean people still face regular food shortages caused by the regime’s refusal to open up and liberalize the economy, the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters like flooding, and an inability to purchase necessary agricultural inputs or food imports.
Millions of malnourished children and babies, pregnant women and nursing mothers bear the brunt of the shortages today. This has left an entire generation of North Koreans with stunted growth and higher susceptibility to health problems.
The North Korean regime claims that it provides universal health care to its people. In reality, the majority of the public healthcare system collapsed in the 1990s, with only prioritized hospitals in areas like Pyongyang kept functioning. In other parts of the country, health services are only available to those who can afford it. Ordinary North Koreans are susceptible to easily preventable or curable poverty-related diseases, like tuberculosis and cataracts.
“My mom had a liver disease. The kind of disease that I would learn after leaving North Korea was curable if she had been treated. But in North Korea, the regime controls the healthcare system and we didn’t have the money or the right political connections to get her the care she desperately needed. Near the end, I held her hand and begged her to get better. I promised her that if she stayed alive long enough, I would become a doctor and find a cure for her. She died in March 2003, right before my 12th birthday.”
– Jessie Kim, escaped North Korea in 2011
Since the famine, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border into China in desperate search of food, medicine, and money. Even now, thousands of North Korean refugees are fleeing every year. There are currently an unknown number of North Korean refugees in China and over 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it safely to South Korea.
Like mentioned above, the North Korean regime makes it illegal to leave the country without permission. If caught trying to escape or arrested in China and sent back, North Koreans can face extremely harsh punishments, including brutal beatings, forced labor, forced abortions, torture, and even internment in a political prison camp. Those suspected of having had contact with South Koreans or Christians while in China receive the most severe punishments.
The fact that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if returned qualifies North Korean defectors as refugees sur place. But contrary to their obligations under international law, the Chinese government prioritizes its political relationship with Pyongyang and does not recognize them as refugees. Instead they label them as “economic migrants” in an attempt to justify the forcible repatriation of thousands of North Korean refugees every year.
Since coming to power, the Kim Jong-un has cooperated with the Chinese authorities to tighten security on both sides of the border. Recent defectors tell us of increased physical border security, increased risk associated with bribing border guards, and heightened punishments for people trying to escape. As a result, the number of refugees making it all the way to South Korea continues to decrease.
North Korean refugees in China are often in a desperate situation. They fear harsh punishments and even death if they are caught and sent back to North Korea. But many do not have the resources or connections to get themselves out of China. Their illegal status in China and lack of any kind of protection forces them to work in invisible industries and makes them vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, including sexual exploitation and labor exploitation.
This is why our secret rescue routes are so important.
An estimated 60% of North Korean women refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade.
China’s lack of marriageable women, especially in the rural areas of its Northeast provinces, creates a demand for North Korean women who are at risk of being forced to work in brothels or online sex chat rooms, or are bought and sold as wives.
North Korean women have been sold for as little as a few hundred dollars in China. One of the most tragic aspects of this is that often the women may even know what is happening to them, but they still see it as a better option than being sent back to North Korea.
“For three days, the broker paraded me around villages in northern China and crowds of men gathered to bid on me. The broker finally found a man who was willing to pay enough for me. I was sold for $3,000." – Joy Kim, rescued by LiNK
Children born to North Korean refugee mothers and Chinese fathers can face difficulties obtaining household registration papers because of their mother’s illegal status. This can leave children stateless, recognized by neither the China nor North Korea. They may be denied basic rights, such as access to education, health services, and other state services. There are estimated to be around 10,000 children born to North Korean refugee mothers in China.