More From Alder's Ledge

October 4, 2013

Hungry And Desperate

Refugees Face Death While Seeking Freedom
(Footsteps In The Dark series)

(North Korea denies "death camps" yet satellite images show the camps clearly.)

Defection from North Korea is simply defined as crossing the border without expressed permission by the state. Those who are treated as second class citizens in the system are not allowed to ever leave the country. The fear that they might not return isn't really exaggerated in a country where mass starvation is a persistent threat to the underclass. Given the chance these abuses peasants would rush the borders in a heart beat. Yet the North Koreans making it out aren't from the lowest cast of North Korea's communists system. Instead the defectors are coming from the youth of all classes (with the exception of the elites). 

Young Koreans in the North have some idea of what awaits just beyond the fortified borders. The lies they have been fed all their lives cause reasonable doubts. Yet these young North Koreans compose the bulk of refugees attempting to illegally flee the country. And given the challenges that face them on the other side they are either just naive to believe freedom is possible or desperate enough to die for it. 

Regardless of what brings them out of the country that has kept them as slaves from birth, the first steps these young Korean defectors face are terrifying. In just moments they go from being disenchanted North Koreans to being stateless. The country they find themselves in, China, is hostile toward them. The people they are suddenly surrounded by can't really be trusted. And the bribes, the lies, the danger that got them out of North Korea are all just the beginning of what they now face. 

On the other side they are met by a country of wolves. Citizens of China have been bribed with rewards for spotting and turning in Korean refugees. The police in China are ruthless in their attempts to root out any North Koreans attempting to make their way to safety. This all further complicated by the presence of North Korean agents sent over into China to spot and capture North Koreans on the run.

Hiding, Starving, And Desperate.

“If these refugees are found in China, the Chinese government sends them back to North Korea, where they will face imprisonment or death,” ~ Yoon Sun Na

The only thing refugees from North Korea have is their ability to go unnoticed. Anything, any little minor detail, can out them as a defector from the dreaded North. A loose word, a misspoken statement, can raise the suspicions of an eavesdropper. Anyone and everyone they come across is therefore met with suspicion. Every smile is a mask and every handshake a possible handcuff.

When North Koreans flee they are often in search of food. Hunger is a major motivator for those who dare to cross the border into China. They take to desperate measures to find anything that they can use as food. For the nine recently returned youth who were captured in Laos this had meant digging through discarded food. They were reported to have mixed fish bones and rice into porridge just to have something to eat. Then they would consume toothpaste in an effort to help digest what food they had managed to scavenge.

These stories seem hard to believe in a world where we have a McDonalds on every block and a Starbucks in every spare corner. Food surrounds those of us in the West. And for the developing economy in China this is starting to become more normal. The constant presence food becomes a luxury for us as we take every spare moment to indulge in some form of it. So much so that we don't often pay attention to the food itself.

For the North Koreans, especially those outside Pyongyang, life is rarely defined by food in the aspect of what they recently ate. Rather food becomes a milestone that they struggle to reach as the days pass without it. Children who have been abandoned or made orphans are even worse off as they take to eating whatever they can find. Grass, tree bark, and at times clay become sources of material with which to fill their stomachs. This is in spite of the fact that North Korea claims to be prospering.

Once outside North Korea these young refugees use their life long experience with hunger to keep themselves moving. They know that the food they find is not free. There is always a price for scavenging whether it is social or physical punishment. Then there is the reality that being seen scavenging can be a red flag for the ever-prying eyes of a hostile world.

For 70-80% of the North Korean girls and women that flee the threat of hunger and forced repatriation is further complicated by human trafficking. When these desperate girls are over the border they become targets for traffickers that are more than willing to exploit the victims illegal status in China. These numbers are also added to by traffickers that lure North Korean women over the border in the first place; promising freedom, safety, food, and shelter all as ploys to enslave the would be refugee.

For those who manage to evade forced repatriation to the North, trafficking by criminals, and starvation as they run... the journey has only begun.

There is no safe harbor in China for North Koreans on the run. Once over the border these refugees must continue moving toward Mongolia, Laos, Thailand, Russia, or find ways over the border elsewhere. The path they choose is often decided shortly after fleeing North Korea or is determined by what networks they can find after arrival. This short window of deciding whether to hide where they are at or run further is the most dangerous time these refugees face. It is in this window that they risk all the dangers of being exposed, captured, or trafficked.

The Railroad System

Over the years of isolation North Koreans have endured there has been progress made in alleviating there suffering. Networks across the border have been forged as countless organizations strive to establish routes upon which to smuggle refugees out of China. These organizations play constant games of cat and mouse with authorities who remain determined to stem the flow of Korean refugees. Every move they make not only risk the safety of the refugees but also the security of the network they have forged. 

The most notable case as of recently where the system has failed was in Laos where the Laotian government agreed to forcibly repatriate 9 young Korean refugees. This illustrated to the world that China's long held agreement with the North goes well beyond it's borders. When refugees begin to feel safe they are often still well within reach of the red states' grasp. Meaning for most that they must either reach South Korea or get as far away from China as possible. 

For organizations that can manage to cart refugees out of China's reach this is an expensive endeavor. For the organization Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) this can cost 2,500 dollars to get a refugee to safety. That is a price that is almost comparable to the average cost a trafficked person is sold for in Cambodia or Thailand. And yet in this case it is the cost of freedom for these North Korean individuals.

With the help of donations and private funding LiNK is able to do amazing things for refugees that have faced a living nightmare while escaping what some call "hell on earth".

A simple donation of 100 dollars can provide shelter for refugees and refugee rescue teams along the journey to safety. 

A donation of 250 dollars can provide the basic necessities to refugees needed by North Korean refugees; including food, water, clothing, and medical attention. 

A larger donation of 500 dollars can give refugees safe transportation to countries where they can be safe from forced repatriation (including cars and buses). 

And for those who are able, a donation of 2,500 can provide all the funds needed to bring a refugee to safety and liberty. 

This is just one of the organizations helping North Koreans reach a better life and escape from a regime that has denied them so much. Through there work they contribute to an extensive underground railroad system that is bringing desperate refugees to safety. And you can help...

By visiting, promoting, and donating to LiNK you can help scream on behalf of the North Korean people. Using your voice you can help to fight the dehumanization that North Koreans have had to live with in their homeland and the prejudices they face outside it. You can echo their voices to a world that knows so very little about their struggle. And you can put your money and time to use by helping to give hope where it is most needed. 

Please visit LiNK today and watch how you can support the #BridgeToNorthKorea.

This is the second article on this subject. We will continue to highlight the struggle of North Koreans and what you can do to help them in future articles. If you would like to learn more please read our source documents, contacts us on Twitter (@alders_ledge), or follow us on Facebook (key words: Alder's Ledge). And most of all, to learn more about the organization highlighted above, visit:

Source Documents
*Note: not all sources listed.

Washington Times

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