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Asia

North Koreans take the perilous road to freedom

Hundreds of North Koreans flee from their country every year, crossing first into China - a country known for sending them back home if caught. Severe punishment awaits those who are returned.

Laos has recently come under international criticism for sending North Korean refugees to China, which, in turn, broke international law and deported them to the North. There were nine people, including five children, believed to be orphans who, according to reports, were forcibly repatriated at the beginning of June this year. The UN has voiced concern over their wellbeing.

In 1982, China adopted the 1951 UNHRC Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The Convention states that if a person has crossed an international border and faces imprisonment, cruel punishment, torture or death upon return to the country of origin, he or she automatically qualifies as "refugee sur place" and must be granted asylum.

Nonetheless, China views refugees from the neighboring nation as economic migrants and thus refuses to extend protection to them. If caught by the police, they are forcibly repatriated to the North, where they face extremely harsh punishment, and in many cases, execution.

Famine and a flood of refugees

According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, there are currently 25,000 North Korean refugees residing in South Korea and around 5,000 others elsewhere, along with an unknown number living in bordering China.

A report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) has found that the number of North Korean refugees has drastically increased, mainly due to great food shortages. According to the report, a total of 947 North Koreans fled the country between the start of the Korean War and 1999. There were around as many refugees in the year 2002 alone. Emigration peaked in 2009, when almost 3,000 North Koreans made their escape to the capitalist South.

One reason for the drastic increase in defectors from the North was the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The fall of the Communist bloc meant the loss of an important source of aid for Pyongyang. The country's already frail economy weakened further and as a consequence, many people died of starvation in the following years.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, told DW the most popular way of getting out of the isolated country was to cross the border to China and then travel to Laos. Some refugees also travelled to Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand before moving on to South Korea, he said.

Robertson explained that some of the defectors who made it to Thailand willingly turned themselves in to the Thai police after crossing the Mekong River. Thailand does not recognize the North Koreans as refugees. The defectors are held for several days before being put on a short trial for illegally entering the county, after which, they are handed over to the South Korean embassy.

The price of freedom

Leaving the country can be very dangerous - not only for the person trying to get out, but in some cases, for their families as well. People from so-called "wavering" or "hostile" class might be sent to a prison camp or even executed if any of their relatives flee.

Evan Kim fled with his parents to South Korea when he was nine years old. "We know that my extended family members in North Korea temporarily lost their jobs for a year and I believe they moved down the social ladder a bit. My family in general was one of the most privileged families in the country, so our social class was high enough to begin with. Our punishment was not as severe as that of other North Korean families," he told DW.

Though much is at risk for those who try to leave, there is help, albeit limited. Some receive assistance from the multiple NGOs, religious groups and brokers working to get them out of the country. While NGOs and religious groups operate based on donations and help the refugees for free, brokers sell their services at a relatively high price - a fee which can vary between 2,500 and 15,000 US dollars, according to the ICG.

A North Korean soldier practices boxing moves in front of a guard tower on the banks of the Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, April 13, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

The most popular way for North Koreans to flee the country is by crossing the border into China

Koreans living in the South or in the Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China's Jilin Province are willing to pay such prices to rescue a relative or loved one. Some North Koreans earn the money needed by trading at unofficial markets. Others make an agreement to pay the broker after they have crossed the border and found work.

Sung Chul worked for over a year to pay off his debt of 3,500 US dollars to traffickers after receiving his South Korean citizenship. Hana, who declined to reveal her real name to DW because her parents still live in North Korea, said that she worked in China for seven years using a fake ID to clear her 8,000 dollar debt. Only then was she able to move to South Korea.

Deterioration of human rights

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), told DW that money has been playing an increasingly important role in defections. Many brokers are North Koreans or ethnic Koreans from China with connections to government agents.

After coming to power, Kim Jong Un strengthened border controls to prevent people from getting out of the country. Surveillance cameras were installed along the border where border guards now change shifts more frequently.

Greg Scarlatoiu - Executive Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

Accordinng to Scarlatoiu, money is playing an increasing role in defections

This has made it more difficult for brokers to get to know them. Aside from the increase in surveillance, more palms now need to be greased, which increases the cost of defecting and makes the escape more difficult. The number of defections to South Korea in 2012 has hence declined by over 40 percent to a total of 1,509.

North Korea expert Scarlatoiu explained that it was a "great inconvenience" to Pyongyang to have North Koreans living abroad "because they speak up and tell the international press and public about the human rights violations in North Korea."