A nuclear scientist from North Korea recently committed suicide as he was deported from China back to North Korea, where he faced the severe punishment that awaits all defectors — to include the three-generation punishment system that not only involves him, but any spouses, children, siblings and parents too. Hyun Cheol Huh is one of many recent significant defectors of late, to include the soldier that was recently found with anthrax antibodies in his blood. Many of these defections have gone under the cover of darkness, and many have happened right across the DMZ under fire — many are unsuccessful.
Defection from North Korea is nothing new and has been happening since the Korean War, many of which naturally head down to South Korea. Not only does South Korea allow defectors to head their way, they invite them with open arms. They are met with an initial aid package and then given an allowance, the size of which depends on the person. While the government has historically sought to ease the process of defection, more recently they have made efforts to slow the amounts of incoming refugees, as many of them have criminal records or are from China looking to take advantage of the defector benefits.
Still, rest assured that anyone with political or military clout or knowledge is going to be received well in South Korea. Not only does the southern nation stand to gain a lot from an intelligence perspective, but they also recognize all Koreans — be they northerners or southerners — as legitimate Korean citizens.
However, South Korea is definitely not the only option for North Korean defectors. Many, like nuclear scientist Hyun Cheol Huh, make a run for the neighboring country of China. China does not consider them legitimate refugees; they treat them as illegal immigrants subject to deportation. They have a long and bumpy history mired with sex trafficking, hard labor and other exploitation of these refugees.
Other nearby countries that many North Koreans hope to defect to include Mongolia, the Philippines, Japan and Russia. Many of these places, like the Philippines, are simply stopping points to get somewhere else — like Thailand, who may deport them if they caught, but will deport them to South Korea instead of the north. Japan has never had many successful defections come to their soil. Most fleeing North Koreans have either ended up in Russia or China.
The methods of travel and maneuver through international territory is a much different game than navigating internal to North Korea. However, once out, the options don’t stop at neighboring countries, especially if the defector can muster up some resources and make it further out, where it is possible to find countries that have virtually zero chances of deporting them back to North Korea. It must be understood that, due to the closed-off nature of North Korea, many defectors don’t automatically know which countries are friendly, which ones might deport them, or even the overall state of things.
The United States has been friendly to incoming North Korean refugees, especially since the Bush administration passed the “North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004,” building a structure with which the U.S. government can effectively embrace incoming defectors/refugees. They are granted political asylum in American borders, and specific efforts are made to help them legally and logistically.
Canada has also been a haven for North Koreans, and an estimated 1,400 North Koreans are scattered around Europe.
The estimates are anything but precise, but an roughly 100,000 – 300,000 fleeing North Koreans have settled outside of their native country since the 1950s. Most of these are women — in South Korea, 71% of the defectors are women. Adjustment proves difficult, as 93% of them have reported lack of basic healthcare, food and access to clean water. 56% of them apparently suffer from psychological disorders such as PTSD from living in the north.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.