When I volunteered at Hangyeore during the summer internship with the Ministry of Unification, I went into the program knowing very little of the history and the political situation revolving around the people who defected from North Korea other than the reality that the difficulty of leaving North Korea to find asylum in South Korea often required the defectors to spend a long time in third countries. However, as I spent time in the school without enough understanding of the Korean language to find out more about the children or other people like them who had defected from North Korea, I felt that it was important to examine further the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and motives for escape from North Korea. In this article, I intend to share what results I found because I am sure there are many others like me who have only a general idea about the situation with defectors but would like to find out more details to better understand how to address the economic, social, and psychological adjustment of the defector community in South Korea.
First, it is important to recognize that the number of North Korean residents defecting North Korea has increased over the past few decades because of the economic and food crises that have plagued North Korea since the 1990s. However, even before the economic collapse of the North Korean regime, North Koreans had either attempted to or succeeded in escaping North Korea. In recent times, more focus is put on those who are currently defecting because of the lack of food and economic opportunity, but it is also worthwhile to note the initial reasons for the exodus outside of North Korea during the 1980s. I myself had been unaware of the extent of information traveling inside and outside of North Korea, so I had made the assumption that, under the complete jurisdiction of the totalitarian regime, North Koreans have always had very little access to information of the outside world. I had come to the conclusion that a lack of education on other countries, communities, and societies reinforced the authority that the regime held over its people, but I had never questioned how those attempting escape had found out about the outside world and had taken for granted that they would try to escape an environment they might find threatening.
However, after doing more research on the socio-economic statuses of North Korean defectors, I discovered more about the various groups of defectors that came about over the past few decades. According to Yoon In-Jin’s thesis North Korean Diaspora: North Korean Defectors Abroad and in South Korea, “after the opening of China in the 1980s, the news of South Korea’s economic development began to reach North Koreans by way of Korean Chinese, instigating defection to South Korea” (5). Yoon makes the argument that contact with the outside world acted as an essential motive for escape because close to fifty percent of early defectors came from the areas bordering China and Russia. Yoon points out that until the early 1990s, much of the defector population had been students studying abroad, North Korean diplomats, and traders sent to earn foreign currency; in other words, many of the people who first escaped North Korea were people who could analyze other societies and determine for themselves the credibility of the North Korean political and social system.
Yoon also remarks that the economic crises of the mid 1990s caused a change in the demographic of defectors. Although the political and social system could be blamed for the deterioration of the standard of living in North Korea, more than dissatisfaction or disillusionment with the North Korean political system, one can say that the need for food and economic opportunity propelled the more recent flow of North Korean defectors. Moreover, Yoon points out that before the crises of the mid 1990s, there had been a fair amount of “short-term” escapees who “transgress the border in search of food, and who stay abroad temporarily” (6). But since the late 1990s, the numbers of “long-term” escapees who “stay abroad for periods of several months” and defectors, “those seeking political asylum [and] have no intent to return to North Korea” have increased (6). Therefore, although the first wave of defectors included people of fairly high socio-economic status in the early history of defection, laborers, farmers, the unemployed, women, children, and the elderly formed a large majority of the later waves of defectors.
As the defector community grows more diverse, it becomes more difficult to find an appropriate means to help them to grow accustomed to new lifestyles in South Korea as well as enable them to achieve economic independence. Therefore, attention to the various backgrounds from which defectors come to South Korea is important. Moreover, the diversification and growth of the community of defectors in South Korea demonstrates the extent of the instability of the North Korean system and the need for unification.
1st Photo credited to aip.org
2nd Photo credited to Katharina Hesse
 Yoon In-Jin, “North Korean Diaspora: North Korean Defectors Abroad and in South Korea,” Development and Society, Volume 30 Number 1, June 2001, pp.1-26.