“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is in the midst of a protracted, entrenched humanitarian situation largely forgotten or overlooked by the rest of the world.” -Tapan Mishra, United Nations Resident Coordinator for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in the March 2018 Report “DPR Korea Needs and Priorities.”


While pictures of the president of the United States shaking hands with Kim Jong Un grace the front pages of global news outlets, and North and South Korean olympians walk side by side under the Korean Unification Flag, North Korean refugees continue to face perilous conditions – not only in the totalitarian regime they are fleeing from, but also in the host nations that are supposed to represent a safe haven and a new start.

Human Rights Violations in North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or North Korea for short – has a long-standing record of human rights abuse and is described by Human Rights Watch as one of the world’s most repressive countries. A 2014 inquiry by the United Nations Human Rights Council resulted in a harrowing list of violations found to be committed by the North Korean regime, including “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” – altogether amounting to crimes against humanity. Women are also subjected to gender discrimination, domestic violence, and sexual abuse without access to any recourse or protection, according to the inquiry. The U.N. furthermore estimates that 10.5 million people in North Korea are undernourished – that’s more than two out of five in a population of 24.9 million – while 18 million people are dependent on government food rations. Despite the scale of this humanitarian crisis, a study measuring the media coverage of crises across the globe found that the famine in North Korea was the most under-reported one, with a meager total of 51 media articles covering the topic during 2017.

Fleeing North Korea

Every year, an unknown number of North Koreans attempt to flee these conditions, despite facing harsh repercussions if caught. Defection is classified as a crime of “treachery against the nation,” punishable by torture, forced labor, or even death.

A common strategy is to cross the border into Northeast China before continuing onto a third country. But China, being one of North Korea’s strategic partners, frequently captures and returns these refugees to North Korea – all the while being a signatory to the U.N. convention on refugees. To circumvent their commitment under the Refugee Convention, China labels North Korean refugees as “illegal economic migrants,” denying them protection as refugees. As of January 1, 2018, between 50,000 and 200,000 North Koreans are thought to be living and hiding in China, where they are in constant fear of forcible repatriation, lack access to basic social services, and are vulnerable targets for human trafficking.

Some North Korean refugees make it to other nations such as South Korea, Laos, or Mongolia, where they are recognized as refugees and can seek protection. Yet barriers await them there as well. These can include trauma and PTSD from fleeing, and from having family members left in North Korea who might face the repercussions of the regime. Many lack formal education that might grant them access to the labor market, and need to attend so-called reorientation classes where they learn skills such as how to withdraw money from an ATM and how to generally adjust to life in a free country. Furthermore, many face discrimination and unfavorable treatment in their new home countries – a 2017 study by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea found that nearly half of the North Korean refugees living in South Korea had faced some form of discrimination.

In recent years, Kim Jong Un’s government has bolstered its efforts to prevent people from leaving by increasing the number of guards, surveillance cameras, and fences along the border. Paired with an ongoing security crackdown in China, the number of North Korean refugees safely making their way to South Korea has dropped sharply in latter years.

Shedding light on the situation

The humanitarian crisis in North Korea has lasted for decades, and the regime’s human rights record is considered among the worst in the world. And yet, searching for information about North Korean refugees, you will find that this group is frequently described as forgotten; as situated outside of the public’s eye and left out of the popular conception of who constitutes a “refugee.”


However, some of the North Koreans who manage to flee the oppressive regime are able to share their stories through books, articles, or Ted Talks, thus shedding light on the situation in their country of origin and giving a voice to those remaining in North Korea. The first step towards supporting these refugees is to recognize and spread these voices, and help increase the visibility and recognition this issue receives globally. You can also help by supporting organizations such as North Korean Refugee Aid and Liberty In North Korea, who are working to aid North Korean refugees and raise awareness about this particular group and the challenges they face.


Additional Reading

“Escaping Starvation: A Reading List of North Korean Defectors” via Bookriot.com https://bookriot.com/2016/08/01/escaping-starvation-a-reading-list-of-north-korean-defectors

“Ten things you should know about refugees from North Korea” via the Norwegian Refugee Council https://www.nrc.no/news/2018/february/ten-things-you-should-know-about-refugees-from-north-korea

“Human Rights in North Korea” June 2018 Briefing Paper, Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/05/human-rights-north-korea

“DPR Korea: Needs and Priorities” March 2017 Report, the UN Resident Coordinator for DPR Korea https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/DPRK%20Needs%20and%20Priorities%202017.pdf

“‘We Are Ready to Die.’ Five North Korean Defectors Who Never Made It” via New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/25/world/asia/north-korea-defectors.html


Written by [Refugees Welcome!] Board Member, Johanna Tvedt.

Johanna also serves on the advisory board of North Korea Refugee Aid. Click here to learn more or donate.

One thought on “The “Forgotten” Refugees: The Case of North Korea

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