The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is arguably the most isolated country in the world. The extent to which North Korea is discussed is limited to media coverage of impending nuclear proliferation and comedic spoofs of Kim Jong-Il. This leaves the average American uninformed on the pressing humanitarian issues at hand. Even those who are aware of the humanitarian crisis feel helpless as political restrictions keep foreign aid and assistance from being effectively and equitably distributed to the population in need. However, by focusing attention on those that have escaped with great risk and difficulty, we may in fact be able to help, one individual at a time.
North Korea in the mid-1990s saw one of the world’s most horrendous famines, for which the death toll has been estimated at up to 3 million people. It is because of this food crisis that North Koreans first began to leave their homes in large numbers. Although countries have sent in millions of dollars in food aid to North Korea, the effort suffers from the tense nature of all dealings with the North Korean government. The lack of transparency in distribution of aid and the lack of cooperation from North Korea in issues such as nuclear security produce general wariness among those struggling to help the oppressed people of the DPRK. It remains uncertain how effectively food aid is distributed to target recipients as the government essentially has full control over the allocation of food to its population.
While the DPRK cannot afford to feed its people, it expends billions of dollars every year maintaining the Korean People’s Army, the fourth largest army in the world. The disparities between classes continue to grow as the government prioritizes military and tourism projects above all else. As desperation increases, so does the people’s willingness to risk everything for a new life, even if it means a life of hiding in China.
While some North Koreans escape to China on temporary work visas and never return, many others escape by illegally crossing the Tumen River where they are at risk of being shot and killed on site by North Korean soldiers. For those caught alive while trying to escape, their fate is likely indefinite detention in prison, exhausting work in labor camps, and premature death. Escaping from North Korea is therefore undoubtedly a high-risk endeavor. For those who successfully escape, however, the coming journey is almost equally perilous.
Institutions such as the United Nations and NGOs such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch have drawn attention to the issues of human rights in North Korea; however, China’s political alliance with North Korea keeps them from acknowledging escapees as refugees. These North Koreans are instead considered illegal aliens and economic migrants. This representation of defectors as illegal migrants forces the escaped North Koreans to live at the margins of society, in constant fear of possible deportation and subsequent imprisonment. Many escaped women are also subject to trafficking, being sold into prostitution or forced marriages to much older men residing in rural areas who often subject them to physical and emotional abuse.
An alternative, therefore, to tackling the nearly impossible situation in North Korea is to focus international attention on refugees hiding in China. While the prospects of enacting policy change in the Chinese government is highly unlikely, organizations and individuals have committed to providing a safe means of transporting North Korean refugees out of China and resettling them in South Korea or the United States. One such organization is LiNK, which, for as long as China refuses to grant refugee status to North Koreans fleeing political repression, will provide the funds and resources to give these people access to the basic human rights that they never knew before.
Although we may not be able to remedy the situation in North Korea immediately, we may come closer to a solution by empowering those that have successfully escaped the oppressive regime. By giving these refugees new lives, we can build a strong community of former North Korean nationals who will act and speak against their former oppressors. In time, this community may become influential enough to enact powerful change and turn the tide in North Korea.