By Andrei Lankov
Approximately 20,000 North Korean defectors are living in South Korea nowadays. Frankly, this number is not particularly large: in comparison some 689,000 East Germans defected to East Germany between 1961-1989, and the number of defectors/refugees from other Communist countries was also counted in the hundreds of thousands.
North Korean refugees are very dissimilar from the refugees from Eastern Europe who crossed over to the western borders in large numbers during the Cold War.
Until the mid-1990s escape from North Korea was almost impossible, but things changed when North Koreans began to move to China which became the major stopover for nearly all refugees. Now the community of illegal North Korean refugees in China is estimated to be around 30,000-40,000. These people are usually members of the underprivileged social groups who once lived in areas of North Korea which are close to the border with China.
People of the borderland areas began to cross over to China in large numbers in the mid-1990s (an illegal crossing is not difficult since the border rivers are not broad, and also freeze in winter). In the first stage those people were fleeing starvation, but from around 2000, most of them have been attracted by jobs available in China. For most people these jobs would not appear lucrative: in that part of China a construction worker can earn a wage of $80-$90 a month (free accommodation provided), while a humble waitress is usually paid some $50 a month. However, the average salary in North Korea is now about $2-$3 a month, so this income is extremely attractive to poor North Korean farmers.
Of course, crossing to China and working there illegally is not risk-free. Chinese employers might be cheating, refugees are hunted by the Chinese police and if found extradited back to North Korea.
Nonetheless nowadays the punishment of extradited refugees tends be lenient ¡ª by the cannibalistic standards of the North Korean regime, that is. If an extradited refugee can handle a few days of intense beatings and moderate torture without confessing that he or she did something politically dangerous in China ¡ª like contacting Christian missionaries, South Koreans or foreigners ¡ª chances are that the refugee will get away with just a few months of imprisonment.
This situation determines the composition of the refugee community in China. The typical North Korean refugee in China is a middle-aged woman (women outnumber men roughly three to one since it is easier for them to leave the village and reach the border). She has spent all her life working at a farm in a remote North Korean village. At best she might be a primary school teacher or a low level clerk in the local administration. Of course there are elite refugees, but those constitute a small minority.
Most of these people would like to move to South Korea if they are given the opportunity. Such a move is impossible for the vast majority. Contrary to the official rhetoric, South Korean government agencies in China are not excessively eager to help the run-of-the-mill defector (those few who have intelligence or political value might be a different matter).
Nowadays defection is, above all, business, controlled by defection specialists known as ``brokers¡¯. If they are paid a fee which currently fluctuates around $2000-$3000 per head but in some special cases might go higher, they can move a person from borderland areas to a third country where they would go to a South Korean consulate or embassy (usually, in Thailand or Mongolia). In third countries (but not in China) South Korean diplomats issue defectors with provisional travel documents and a ticket to Seoul.
The money which is necessary to pay for the broker¡¯s service comes from different channels. In most cases, the sum is provided by a family member who has already reached Seoul. Acquiring this money independently is well beyond the means of the average North Korean refugee in China.
Upon arrival defectors go through a few weeks of debriefing by the South Korean intelligence agencies (admittedly, most of them don¡¯t have much of interest to tell the South Korean authorities). This is followed by three months of readjustment training at Hanawon, a special reeducation facility for refugees. There the new arrivals are briefly lectured on the wonders of liberal democracy as well as provided with somewhat more useful knowledge about foodstuffs available in South Korean shops and the way to pay for a subway ticket in Seoul. Then they are provided with a modest accommodation (heavily subsidized by the government) and some stipend for the initial expenses (the sum varies, but the rough average is around $10,000 per person).
From that moment on, the North Korean refugee starts his or her life in the South. And, as one can easily predict, this life is usually quite difficult. Seoul is a tough place for a former North Korean housewife.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at