The Science Behind North Korean Defectors - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Science Behind North Korean Defectors

The Science Behind North Korean Defectors

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because it takes balls to escape North Korea, but you don’t have to be a guy.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Hyeonseo Lee is pretty and slender, like a white rose. She’s got wispy hair, porcelain skin and polished lips. The 36-year-old also once dared to flee a brutal dictatorship in North Korea. “I can never escape its gravity,” she says. “It’s killing me every minute.” Her voice cracks. Lee is a recent female face in the world’s most fabled refugee group — and she’s not without company. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification:

In South Korea, 71 percent of North Korean defectors are women. 

That means Lee is one of nearly 30,000 defectors who have made the dicey journey from North Korea to South Korea over the years by way of smuggling routes and sheer luck. She escaped into China on a lark when she was 17 — and, 10 years and seven aliases later, she resettled in South Korea. It’s home to the biggest population of defectors from the Hermit Kingdom, which heavily skews toward women. 

During desperate times, females in North Korea are usually some of the “first movers,” says Sokeel Park, the research director at the nonprofit Liberty in North Korea. That’s because females have a higher degree of freedom when it comes to their mobility. Although most women are confined to the home as lowly housewives, they are also kept away from more official channels of work, which leaves them with more chances to sneak away without immediately tipping off supervisors or authorities. Moreover, men are also required to serve in the military from ages 17 to 27, which is considered a prime time to escape — people are at their peak physique.

Plus, women in North Korea are more likely to engage in “off-the-radar activities.” The underground economy allows them to get their hands on smuggled foreign films from sellers or even buy more food from the market, since official wages and food allotments are hardly enough to live on. But the escape is not always a sunny one. Another common but grim route is through trafficking, either as a prostitute or a young bride for sale in China, where a significant number of hapless women end up, says Teodora Gyupchanova, from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul. They treat it as just another “opportunity for North Korean women to eke out a kind of survival and existence in China” until they can ultimately break free, Park adds.

Having more female faces can help depoliticize the crisis and appeal to our humanity, just like children do, experts say. Lee, for one, wants to be seen, especially as Kim Jong-un tightens his grip around the borders and starts to cork the flow of defectors from North to South: “Tyranny can’t last forever.”

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