North Korean Refugees



An estimated 1 to 3 million people starved to death in the North Korean famine which spanned from 1995 to 1998. According to experts, this loss of life accounted for the deaths of up to 10 percent of North Korea’s population.

It is believed that the number of North Koreans escaping North Korea peaked from 1998 to 1999, immediately following the destruction and carnage wrought by the three-year famine. As the infrastructure of the country collapsed into chaos, somewhere between 100,000 to 300,000 North Korean defectors made their way out of the country seeking refuge and resources. The effects of the North Korean Famine are still seen today and are especially visible in the lives of an estimated 200,000 North Korean refugees who survive in hiding in China currently.

Even now, North Koreans are among the poorest people in the world, they are the least economically free. For over a decade, Christians in North Korea have been the most persecuted in the world. The North Korean government systematically denies its citizens basic civil, religious, and political rights.

Many North Koreans find the conditions in their country unbearable. As of 2017, it was estimated that over 1,000 North Koreans escape out of the country every year. Leaving the country, however, is not an easy task.

North Koreans are strictly tracked by their government. According to our refugees, men, especially, are checked for their attendance to work. Travel throughout the country is strictly regulated and monitored by authorities. To leave the country is to an act of treason. The punishment for such a crime is at minimum a sentence of seven years in a North Korean concentration camp. In some cases, attempted escape even merits execution.

North Korean prison camps are renowned for their brutality in physical and psychological abuse. These camps were at their height estimated to detain up to 200,000 North Korean inmates who are systematically starved, tortured, and worked to death. This number is now estimated to be between 80,000 and 120,000.

It is almost impossible for North Korean refugees to flee south on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea borders South Korea. Between the two Koreas is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world since the end of the Korean War. Footage of a North Korean soldier’s dramatic escape across the DMZ in 2017 can be seen here.

The most viable direction for North Koreans to flee is north, into China.

As flooding and subsequent infrastructural damages ravaged the North Korean people in 2007, South Korean officials noted the largest influx of North Korean refugees in a 10-year period. Over 2,800 North Korean defectors were accepted into South Korea in 2008 and over 2,900 in 2009. Realizing that this was only a fraction of the total population of the North Korean refugees who escaped from North Korea this period of time, it is most likely that even more North Koreans defectors sought refuge in China following the natural disasters in 2007.



About 300,000 North Koreans fled to China in the course of the 3-year Great North Korean Famine. With a limited outflow of North Korean refugees leaving China and an ongoing inflow of defectors, an estimated 200,000 refugees are still in hiding there today.

As a member of the United Nations, China is subject to the United Nations High Commission High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and must abide by United Nations conventions regarding refugees. Refugees, as defined by the United Nations, are individuals fleeing in fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, or membership to a social or political party. Such individuals, without safety in their own country, are admitted into UN countries under a special status and must be granted specific resources and protection. Member nations of the United Nations are obligated to abide according to the rights of international refugees. Refugees cannot be expelled or “refouled” - repatriated back to their country of origin following their escape.

Following an extensive investigation in 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry reported several allegations against the Chinese government for their ongoing targeting and refoulement of North Korean refugees. Conditions for North Korean refugees have only consistently grown worse as spokesmen of the Chinese government have repeatedly denied and criticized such accusations. The country has refused to cooperate with ongoing attempts to investigate or intervene.

Chinese authorities actively search for North Korean refugees in regions near the country’s border with North Korea. Local police offer monetary rewards to those who are willing to report the whereabouts of North Korean refugees. North Korean refugees, once arrested and detained, are returned to North Korea to face prosecution as traitors to the state.

North Korean refugees in China also have no human rights. There are no laws protecting North Koreans from exploitation, trafficking, or even murder. Because of this, the abuse of North Koreans is rampant throughout China.


North Korean Refugee Trafficking


The conditions in North Korea and in China have created a perfect storm for human trafficking in the unprotected North Korean refugee population.

With an expansive gender disparity created in the aftermath of the One-Child Policy, China estimates that, by the year 2020, there will be 30 to 40 million more boys than girls. In some of China’s most populated regions, the gender ratio is almost three to one.

Approximately 70 percent of North Korean refugees are women. According to a 2008 United States Congressional report, in this population of North Korean refugee women, 80 percent have been trafficked - bought and sold - in a Chinese black market for brides.

It is also worthy to note that it is not the wealthy who need to purchase North Korean wives from the black market. It is those with the lowest socio-economic standing who cannot find prospective brides. Many of the women in Crossing Borders’ network are married to Chinese men who are physically or mentally impaired. Most live in abject poverty as laborers or farmers.


The UNHCR estimates that there are between 20,000 to 30,000 children who are born into the forced marriages of North Korean refugees and Chinese husbands. Their citizenship status can be unclear as their mothers are considered illegal economic migrants and refused refugee status.

In our Orphan Care network, 33 percent of the children in our care have mothers who were repatriated to North Korea. From our surveys administered in 2014, we have gathered that another 30 percent of our children’s mothers have disappeared, their status and location now unknown.

The average length of time the children in our care have been separated from their mothers is 12.4 years, as of February 2018.

The children in our organization’s protection are those who are left in the care of fathers who are ill-equipped and often unable to care for them. In a number of cases, fathers do not want their half North Korean children. Even in situations where fathers want to remain present in their children’s lives, they are unable to provide the necessary care their children need.