A South Korean Christian missionary organization is helping some of the thousands of children of North Korean defectors living in China escape their “stateless” status and lives of poverty and abuse.
Pastor Chun Ki-won with the Durihana Church in Seoul has helped arranged for a number of these defector children and their mothers to make their way to South Korea, where they are granted asylum and citizenship.
However, Chun said, the South Korean government does limit some defector benefits such as free university tuition to North Korean children born in China.
“General defectors can get reimbursed for the tuition but our students must pay by themselves, so we have to help them,” he said.
While increased border security has reduced the overall number of North Korea defectors in recent years, those that are able to cross into China are now overwhelmingly women.
Nearly 80 percent of all North Korean defectors seeking asylum in South Korea are women according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
To meet a high demand in rural China, for wives, for domestic help and for sex workers, Chun said, human traffickers bribe border guards to allow desperate North Korean women into China, and often into abusive situations where they have no rights and no legal status.
“There are many people who want to buy the women, and there are many North Koreans who want to defect,” he said.
Many North Korean defectors have given birth to children in China. In 2012 The Korea Institute for National Unification estimated that there were about 30,000 children of escaped North Korean women in China.
Living in exile
Human rights organizations say China has an obligation to protect refugees under international law but Beijing has labeled North Korean defectors as illegal migrants.
Activists say North Korean children in China are not considered citizens and often have no access to school or health care. And their mothers live in constant fear they will be deported back to North Korea and sent to prison.
“When I was living in China, it was very dangerous, but here in Korea I am living with freedom,” said Han Ye-seul, a 15-year-old North Korea defector.
She and many of the children rescued by Pastor Chun attend the Durihana International School in Seoul, where they learn educational and social skills to better assimilate in the prosperous and democratic South.
This summer, the defector children are studying English with a group of mostly Korean-American students from the Little Flock Church in New York City.
It is difficult to tell the two groups apart as they laugh and play in the hallways but they are separated by the vastly different worlds from which they came.
Yu Eun-kyung, a 20-year-old North Korean defector, remembers the dire poverty and hunger in her homeland that prompted her family to risk imprisonment or worse in search of a better life.
“There was not much grass on the street. People ate grass more than food,” said Yu.
In the 1990s North Korea experienced a severe famine that killed around three million people. While conditions in the communist country have improved due in part to market reforms that give some incentives to farmers, widespread poverty and food shortages still exist.
Scars that remain
Some North Korean students in Seoul are still recovering from past abuse suffered during their years in China, but 11-year-old Kim Choon-woo also carries physical scars from when she was stabbed by her Chinese father.
“My father did it because he was mentally ill,” Kim said.
Pastor Chun said Kim’s father committed suicide because he thought he killed his daughter. Most of the North Korean women and children his church is helping, the pastor said, have experienced some type of abuse or exploitation.
Kim adds that her mother has since remarried in South Korea and that she is happy here.
South Korea uses the term “defector” rather than “refugee” for North Korean asylum seekers to connote that they are escaping the repressive, communist political system of the Kim Jong Un government, even if they are motivated by economic and basic human needs.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.