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Why are over 70% of North Korean defectors female?

Every day, news about North Korea is broadcast to the world ― updates on ballistic missile launches, nuclear threats and spy satellites.

While many are intrigued by the country’s rampant military threats and mysterious operations, significantly less attention is paid to the people that flee over its borders.

Last month I visited the Hanawon facilities in Gyeonggi Province that welcome North Korean defectors to the South, and learned a striking statistic: over 70 percent of North Korean defectors in South Korea are female. Why? I couldn’t get a single conclusive answer.

I asked the officials on the tour and got many different answers. Women immigrate for their children and families, said one. Women are sick of the extreme patriarchy and authoritarianism in North Korea, and have less to lose by leaving, said another.

Some suggested men are more patriotic, having served in the military. Others said men just stay in China ― comfortable with work there ― and never make it to the South.

While these hypotheses sound feasible, they should be tested empirically. After all, 71.9 percent is a remarkable statistic worth studying. Less than half of the global migrant stock are female, comprising only 48.1 percent according to the latest U.N. International Migration Stock Report; in Asia, the reported share is even lower at 41.8 percent.

Here is an enormous opportunity to measure the push-and-pull factors that might mobilize women more, and discover the unique challenges they experience. So I asked Dr. Shin Mi-nyeo ― Ph.D. in North Korean Studies and CEO of Saejowi, an NGO that has provided resettlement support to a third of all defectors since 1988 ― why she thought most defectors were female.

After having met over 7,000 refugees throughout her career, she attributes it to women’s responsibility for the family: in times of hardship, mothers bear the financial burden of the household.

“During North Korea’s March of Suffering, in which many people starved to death due to mass famine and economic hardship, state rations stopped suddenly,” Shin said. “In North Korea, individuals do not save for the future or own property,” so the effects were disastrous.

The March of Suffering, also known as the Arduous March, was a famine coupled with an economic crisis in North Korea between 1994 and 1998, estimated to have killed upwards of 2 million people.

A woman walks through a health center for North Korean female defectors in South Korea, July 10 (Photo: Joint Press Corps)

In the midst of mass starvation, “women were in charge of the household economy and feeding their children,” she remarked. This argument was echoed by a North Korean defector I spoke with in Seoul, who wishes to remain anonymous. She immigrated in the early 2000s, and is now a licensed special counselor for refugees.

“Since the 1990s, since the famine, women have been staying at home, and men have been working and entangled in organizational life,” she said. “Women are in charge of sustenance, so they know poverty first and defect first to make money in China for their families.”

The famine of the 1990s seems to have exacerbated gender roles ― increasing the pressure on women to care for the household and, conversely, furthering the indoctrination of men into their state-run workplaces.

“If men don’t show up for work, they are criticized for their ideologies, humiliated in front of a crowd and sentenced to correction,” she said.

So men face more barriers to defection, given their entrenchment in the state workforce, as well as military draft. This exemplifies how women are not only more eager to leave for their family’s sake, but more able to do so as they are less fixed in the state’s labor force.

But economic factors and gendered mobility are not the only elements to consider. Sex trafficking cannot be ignored when accounting for defection.

Shin emphasized that female defectors are often sex trafficked in China ― and they often do not know it when they cross the border. The counselor pointed to this as well, explaining that women are often sold by brokers in China.

A typical immigration route for defectors arriving in South Korea is long and arduous, and starts with China. They often cross the border of North Korea into northeastern Chinese provinces, and travel onwards into Southeast Asia; upon their arrival in Thailand, they are jailed and ultimately deported to South Korea. This journey involves traversing multiple countries, the first of which is China.

“Most female defectors experience (sex) trafficking in China,” Shin said. Brokers in North Korea arrange with Chinese traffickers, and by the time women realize they are being trafficked, they are already across the border.

So we don’t know for certain why most defectors are female. It might be somewhere in the axis of economic pressure, mobility opportunities and sex trafficking ― among many potential factors. But we do know there’s an opportunity to discover the push-and-pull factors that mobilize immigration ― particularly in women ― as well as the unique challenges women face en route, by tapping into the networks of defectors in South Korea.

No doubt, more research examining defection is needed within a gender framework, using large samples of North Korean refugees and empirical tests ― which could ultimately serve as tools to improve gendered immigration policies in South Korea and other receiving nations.

Elinor Ketelhohn is a student of comparative politics at Columbia University. She is studying in South Korea with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and volunteers at Saejowi Initiative for National Integration, an NGO that assists North Korean defectors settling in South Korea.


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