North Korea’s self-imposed isolation from the world has the ‘hermit kingdom’ screaming of unheard, cheerless, stories of its people and their lives. The tight- clasped nation under its brutal communist regime amazes anyone with even a minor sense of freedom.
Understandable as it may be, North Korea today has an ever increasing number of people fleeing out. They are popularly known as ‘defectors’ or ‘traitors’ because North Korea restricts citizens from leaving the country, government officials and representatives being the only exceptions.
Stifled freedom and North Korea’s dire economic conditions, extreme food shortages and easing of border controls with China are some of the reported reasons for rise in defections.
However, China, the ‘communist brother’ of North Korea is not a pleasant destination for the refugees, even though it is believed to harbor around 30,000 of them. If caught, China repatriates them to their home country where they are most likely to be welcomed with gallows and executions or maybe hard labor in prison camps, only if generosity prevails.
These refugees mostly seek to settle down in South Korea.
However, due to tight security at South border, defectors chose to escape North Korea via China, across the Tumen River in the north east, which forms the border between Russia, China and North Korea.
Refugees seldom cross the Tumen into Russia, as its government patrols are more active than Chinese patrols.
The Tumen River is heavily patrolled by armed guards of North Korea; nevertheless, it is considered to be the best way to cross into China because it is shallow and narrow as compared to the deep and broad Yalu River, which also forms a border between China and North Korea.
Defectors spend weeks if not months or years waiting for the perfect opportunity to cross.
Confronted with treacherous terrains, numerous checkpoints, secret informants and smugglers, they spend years in China enduring vulnerable conditions under constant fear of getting caught. Many perish in the daunting process, only a few manage to reach their sought after destination, South Korea.
According to South Korea’s unification ministry, women outnumber male defectors, making them vulnerable to sex trade and prostitution on entering northern China. They generally spend years getting sold from one trafficker to another before they can escape to Thailand, which makes them one step nearer to South Korea.
Refugees escaping through China seek to enter Thailand, where they are treated as illegal immigrants and given prison sentences of a few months or years. However, they are safely dispatched to South Korea after they have served the term.
Infact, after entering Thailand, defectors surrender to the police and wait for completing the prison term taking solace in the fact that they would be sent to South Korea safely. Their condition on arrival is pitiful, with most of them starving and suffering from mental and physical ailments.
The Thai government’s policy is that of quietly processing the defectors without letting the issue get any publicity, fearing backlash from North Korea.
On reaching South Korea after years of ordeal, they face a traumatic past and an uncertain future in an alien society. South Korea, even though helpful to the defectors, has expressed serious reservations for being home to unskilled and ailing North Korean defectors.
In fact, South Korea until 1993 had a special law in place to protect North defectors. This law entitled North Korean defectors to receive an allowance on reaching South Korea among other benefits. However, the law is no longer effective and has been, on the contrary, followed by newer legal variants aimed at restricting the entry of defectors.
New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has assumed a hard-liner approach on the issue and is reported to have vowed to kill three generations of family members of anyone who tries to flee.
The suffering of these asylum seekers are much more than can be described in few lines or handful of heart-rending films. Their stories of hope and redemption are exclusive in their own way.
While the world sees revolutions for democracy and regime change, these defectors are a world of revolution in their own selves.