North Korean Refugees Endure Rape, Starvation in Dangerous Escapes

Kyodo via AP Images
Kyodo via AP Images

North Korean refugees who choose to speak of the horrors of living within the communist nation face violent threats to them and their families still trapped inside. Many choose to speak anyway, however, and in South Korea they are becoming increasingly common staples in news and entertainment programming.

In a press conference this week, three women who had fled from North Korea into China and, finally, South Korea, told members of the South Korean press the details of their harrowing escape. As UPI reports, rape and repeated sexual abuse of female refugees is extremely common, both among North Korean officials and those encountered along the way.

One woman, Song Kyong-ok, lost her mother, whom the local government chose to execute when the girl was ten-years-old. She had been caught praying, which UPI describes as “an act of treason.” During her time as an orphan in North Korea, Song “was forced into the streets to beg for food, finding it in the unlikeliest of places–such as unpicked fecal matter containing edible kernels of corn.” Those speaking with Song had experience with North Korean army officials, and said it was common for military men to rape women in North Korea and shame them for being sexually assaulted. Many were forced to abort children conceived through these rapes.

The stories echoed the tale of Park Yeonmi, a refugee who has traveled the world to create awareness and alarm regarding the situation in North Korea. A Chinese soldier raped Park’s mother in front of her; her mother had sacrificed herself to prevent her young child from having to endure the rape herself.

As more and more North Koreans find their way to South Korea, Reuters reports that their stories are becoming increasingly prominent on South Korean television. About 27,ooo North Koreans reportedly have escaped South. The increased televising of their stories has made some uncomfortable. “I don’t blame these TV shows because they are telling people about North Korea and providing critical insight. But I hate it when they make North Korea look like a place where only weird animals live,” one refugee told Reuters.

Their plight does not end when they arrive in South Korea, as they are forced to find work under circumstances some consider unfair. Reuters notes that refugees “earn two-thirds the South Korean average but work longer and are three times more likely to be in temporary jobs, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.”

Nonetheless, the allure of escaping the yoke of Kim Jong-un is enough to attract thousands to try to escape, triggering increased vigilance on the part of the North Korean government. In a report this week, Radio Free Asia notes that multiple sources within North Korea claim the government has increased the rewards for catching and bringing to North Korean justice a person attempting to leave the country. The nation is offering those who capture refugees on their way out more food rations, money, and even official membership into the communist Workers’ Party, which comes with its own set of privileges.

The project, which is believed to have been implemented by Kim Jong-un, seems to have partially worked. Radio Free Asia notes that South Korea has recorded a 50% drop in the number of refugees entering the country between 2011 and 2014.

China has also pressured North Korea to keep its people from using China as a bridge to South Korea. Many who defect from North Korea have experienced severe trauma, and some have raised the ire of the Chinese government. Last January, a defecting North Korean soldier arrived in a Chinese border town and killed four residents. His crime is believed to have been an attempted robbery, possibly for food or the money to continue his journey. China’s policy requires the return of North Korean citizens to their native countries if caught by Chinese police.

As North Korean refugees work to bring attention to the human rights abuses of their government, the North Korean regime’s propaganda unit continues to attack the United States for its human rights record. In an article published this week, the state-run Korean Central News Agency accused the United States of being “the worst human rights abuser in the world” and running a “shameless and vicious anti-DPRK racket.” The United States’ accusations of human rights abuses, the article contends, are designed to “invent a pretext for invading [DPRK].”

The article calls North Korean refugees “human scum who deserted from the DPRK after committing indelible crimes.”