Resettled refugees themselves are now playing a bigger role in helping their family and friends flee poverty and repression in North Korea.
A North Korean family seeking refugee status at the UNHCR office in Beijing
Ji Sang Hyun wasn’t sure if he’d ever see his mother again. It was 2006 and she had escaped North Korea two years earlier. Ji, now 28, and his younger brother and sister had also fled. They were hiding out in northeast China. That’s when he suddenly got a phone call.
His mother called him from South Korea. She’d decided that China, which often forcibly repatriates North Koreans, was too dangerous a place for the family to stay in. That’s why she had gone to the South.
Ji’s mother had arranged for a broker to escort him and his brother to Laos and then on to South Korea. But Ji says they couldn’t find their sister in time to take her with them.
It was only last September that Ji and his family finally located her. "My sister had no idea whether we were back in North Korea or in the South," Ji said. "She found out through a friend in China that we were in Seoul. We contacted her and we paid a human rights organization to help bring her here."
In 2004, a group of North Korean refugees managed to flee to a German school in Beijing
The 'underground railroad'
The Seoul government recently announced that 20,000 defectors from the North have resettled in South Korea, about half of those arriving in just the past few years.
Most make it to the South with the help of Christian missionaries who take North Koreans along what’s called the underground railroad that runs through China to Southeast Asia, where it is easier to seek asylum.
Many resettled North Koreans, like Ji’s family, are cooperating with missionaries and have their own network of brokers taking refugees out of China, said Tim Peters, an American missionary whose Seoul-based organization assists defectors in reaching South Korea.
"Virtually every refugee who makes it safely and resettles in South Korea has probably made a sworn oath to two to three to four other family members or very close associates in North Korea that the resettled one is going to do everything possible to get those other people out."
A rally in Seoul against the Chinese government's policy on North Korean defectors
Peters added that some defectors even go back to China themselves to bring loved ones to the South.
And refugees are doing whatever they can to raise funds to help their families, said Kim Seok Hyang, a former official at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, the agency that oversees North Korean resettlement.
Paying human traffickers
Kim said defectors are using the few thousand dollars they initially receive as a government stipend to pay off human traffickers to bring their loved ones to the South.
But if that money isn’t enough, some turn to the sex trade, Kim said. "They want to sacrifice themselves to get that amount of money. From their point of view they need to save their family members and they have no other choice than [selling] their body."
Defector Ji Sang Hyun said he doesn’t know how much money his mother paid to have him and his brother and sister brought to South Korea.
He is glad that his sister finally made it here so the family can live together once again. But it’s not an entirely happy ending. Ji said, "my father at first didn’t want to defect, but when he learned that we were all going to South Korea he tried to escape North Korea too. But he was caught by border guards and tortured in a prison camp." Ji learned that his father died just a few days after he was released.
Author: Jason Strother (Seoul)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein