Pictured: Girl gazes at North Korea from the South Korean side of the DMZ (Ed Jones/ AFP/ Getty)
Why leave North Korea?
North Korea is one of the most repressive countries in the world.
Each day the people of North Korea experience oppression and control over their access to information, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, ability to travel even within the country, and access to food, medicines and the ability to obtain those necessities.
For those who try to escape, speak out, or are even suspected of subversive thought against the regime the consequences can be severe. Degraded social status, forced poverty, imprisonment, torture, labor/re-education camps, and public executions are frightening realities. Punishments are often carried out to the third generation, and to extended family members.
The Dangerous Journey to Freedom
North Koreans are forbidden by their government to leave the country without special permission. If a citizen is caught trying to leave, they can be sent to detention centers or even killed. Their families can also be punished.
Escaping the country is dangerous. The border known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Korea (NK) and South Korea (SK) is heavily guarded because the countries are technically at war. Refugees must find alternative routes to escape.
They often flee on foot across the northern border with China or arrange permission to conduct legitimate business in China. Women are in particular danger at the border crossing from human traffickers who lure refugees with promises of safety and protection. North Koreans have learned to look for a “building with a cross” for assistance with shelter and escape. When they are ready to travel, refugees will often take routes to travel thousands of miles across multiple borders into countries including Thailand and Laos where they can surrender to local
authorities and apply to the UNHCR for asylum as a refugee. The process to travel to their destination country can range from a couple of months to over a year depending on a number of factors. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly complicated the journey and the processing of the refugees.
But there's a catch.
If they are caught before they can be processed as refugees registered with the UNHCR, refugees can be sent back to North Korea for punishment. The North Korean government works with Chinese authorities and other entities to track and hunt down escaped refugees.