Posts Tagged ‘Escaping North Korea’

In June of 2010, the United States Government Accountability Office was called in to conduct a study on the US governments efforts to assist the resettlement of North Korean refugees in America.

Why GAO Did This Study

Famine killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in the 1990s and compelled a large number of others to leave in search of food, economic opportunities, and escape from a repressive regime. This migration continues. Some North Koreans seek resettlement in other countries, such as South Korea and the United States. To promote a more durable humanitarian solution to the plight of North Korean refugees, Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004. In reauthorizing the Act in 2008, Congress found that delays in processing North Korean refugees have led refugees to abandon their quest for U.S. resettlement. GAO was asked to (1) assess the U.S. government’s efforts to facilitate the processing of North Korean refugees who request resettlement in the United States from overseas, and (2) determine the number of North Koreans who have sought asylum to remain in the United States and the process by which they may do so. GAO is issuing a separate classified annex to this report. GAO analyzed data on North Korean refugees and asylees, interviewed agency officials, and conducted fieldwork in Asia.

This report does not contain recommendations. The Departments of State (State), Homeland Security, and Justice provided technical comments and GAO incorporated these comments, as appropriate.

While there are no solutions presented in this study, it does provide a very thorough overview of the challenges and process of a North Korean refugee seeking asylum in the United States.  It has helped to shed some light on the bureaucratic struggle that Minjee and Junhee face in their flight to America.

Read the entire report at the following link:  US-NK Resettlement.

Resettlement Numbers

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From Lucy Williams, BBC news correspondent:

Mrs Kwon looks like she might work for a dull but reputable family business. Her blue jacket and office shoes look uncomfortable. But then what do you wear when your business is smuggling people out of North Korea?

Mrs Kwon is a broker, operating in the shadows of South Korean society. She charges thousands of dollars to send people on one of the most dangerous journeys in the world.

During our first meeting, she takes several calls on her many mobile phones – including one from North Korea. We listen as she talks rapidly with the anonymous contacts who make up her network.

“It’s not easy to talk to someone in North Korea,” she explains. “You can’t just pick up the phone. You have to pre-arrange a specific place they can go to, and a time.”

It is hard enough getting information out of North Korea, never mind people.

International communications and travel are tightly restricted to the country’s top elite. The country is dependent on aid to feed and fuel itself, and an assessment by the European Commission last month found that more than half a million people were at risk of dying from serious malnutrition, with many people resorting to eating grass.

Mrs Kwon says she makes $2,000-$3,000 (£1,250-£1,875) a month, helping people escape. And she says that is nothing to be ashamed of.

“I’m not a drug-dealer. I’m not bad, I’m just bringing people out. I’m doing something the South Korean government can’t do. Yes, I make a profit from it, but it’s still saving lives,” she says.

A growing market

Almost 3,000 North Koreans make it to the South every year. Known as defectors, they include economic migrants and political refugees. Once they arrive here, many try to bring family out to join them.

Kim Sal-yun lives in a concrete tower block, a long drive from Seoul city centre. She recently brought her daughter out of North Korea with the help of a broker. Now her parents have asked to come too.

“Nowadays, they’re asking for 3.5m won per person to bring someone out of North Korea to China,” she says.

“That’s about $3,500. And from China to South Korea would cost another $2,500. I don’t have that kind of money, so I had to say ‘No’. The cost is rising because it’s getting more difficult to get people out.”

Recent reports – which are very difficult to verify – say North Korea is tightening security along its border with China; the main route for defectors trying to leave. As the risks increase, so does the price.

And it is not just the North Korean guards who pose the risk.

Over the past few years China has launched its own series of crackdowns on the networks operating in its border region, which activists say is having an impact on the industry.

Chon Gi-wan knows that border region well. He is a South Korean pastor presiding over the Durihana Church in Seoul. Most of his congregation are North Korean defectors he helped bring over from the Chinese border.

“North Koreans are used to revering a leader, so when they find church groups like this one in China, they assess who the leader is and just follow him – it’s a survival technique,” he says.

Mr Chon used to lead groups of defectors out himself – until China banned him, as part of a wider crackdown on missionary groups there.

“The situation has become more difficult because China is barring missionaries from entering the country. And because of that, there are more private brokers working there now, doing it mostly for profit.

“The defectors don’t have the money upfront, so they agree to pay the brokers once they arrive in South Korea – which causes a different set of problems, like crime, to deal with the debt.”

Joanna Hosaniak is a human rights activist working for one of the main North Korea organisations in the South, called Citizens’ Alliance.

She says that the crackdowns by China are leading to a rise in more inexperienced brokers, who are willing to take bigger risks for bigger rewards.

“There are some people I’ve heard of that are new. But because they are inexperienced, there are a lot of problems.

“Because they don’t know how to do this they actually endanger a lot of the North Koreans who are trusting them.”

And she says, the “money culture” developing in the border region is seeping into North Korea itself.

“A group of North Koreans has also become attached to this network – who don’t want to leave, but are helping to get people out.

“Because North Koreans these days are looking for ways to make money, a lot of money, money-culture in North Korea is spreading, so a lot of people try to get involved with the brokers.”

Across town, Mrs Kwon sighs as I ask her what keeps her involved.

She replies: “This work keeps me awake at night but people keep calling me, and I feel I can’t say ‘No’.”

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The border of North Korea and China are naturally marked by two rivers:  the Yalu and the Tumen.  These bodies of water serve as one obstacle for North Koreans trying to escape to freedom via China.  As it is nearly impossible for refugees to cross the border between North and South Korea (a two mile wide strip of land called the Demilitarized Zone:  the most heavily guarded border in the world), an escapee’s only option is to flee north.

However, in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees across their border, the Chinese government has constructed a massive, 880 mile concrete and barbed wire fence.  The border is patrolled by Chinese military personnel, waiting to capture potential defectors and send them back to  North Korea– where certain prison sentences, torture, and possibly execution await them.

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Blaine Harden’s new book Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West tells the remarkable true story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a prisoner in one of North Korea’s gulags who escaped the grips of the concentration camp-like Kaechon prison camp (“Camp 14”) to freedom in South Korea.

Soon after the books release in March of 2012, NPR’s Fresh Air program released a segment interviewing the books author.  Give it a listen.

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A truly moving and extraordinary piece of journalism by the PBS program Wide Angle that aired in July of 2009.  Crossing Heaven’s Border follows several actual North Korean refugees and a video crew that utilize the new “underground railroad” to escape from China to freedom in South Korea (they had already taken the first step and crossed into China from North Korea).

A fantastic glimpse into what making The Crossing to freedom is actually like.  Highly recommended.

Watch the full episode over at PBS.COM.

[Note:  The embedded video is just a trailer, click the above link to view the whole video.]

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