SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea imposed some of the harshest COVID-related border restrictions in the world, and their gradual loosening in recent months brings hope that the privations and shortages of basic goods that North Koreans endured during the pandemic may ease, too.

But looser border controls may be bad news for one specific group of North Koreans: defectors in China, who are now at risk of being deported. China usually sends defectors back to North Korea, but the North wouldn't let them in during the pandemic. That may soon change, and has led to concern among human rights advocates.

"Due to border closures, over a thousand North Korean escapees have been detained in China indefinitely," the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Elizabeth Salmón, told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 20. "Forcibly repatriated people are at risk of being sent to Kwanliso — [North Korean] political prison camps."

The easiest way out of North Korea is through China, but during the pandemic, the two countries all but choked off the flow of defectors, a situation experts fear could stay the same for the foreseeable future.

The defectors are mostly women. Many female defectors are vulnerable to trafficking and forced marriages in China.

One civic group helping them is led by Kim Jeong-ah, a former North Korean army lieutenant who fled to China in 2006. She did so not for political or economic reasons, but personal ones.

"My only reason for defecting was to take revenge on my adoptive father," Kim tells NPR. She now lives in South Korea. "I didn't know what was wrong with the North Korean system, and I was loyal to it."

Kim was given away by her birth parents and another family in North Korea adopted her. She married a fellow military officer but divorced him, claiming he beat her, leading to the premature birth of her second child, who died before turning one. She asked for her adoptive father's help when she moved to another city, but she says he refused.

Kim found a smuggler to help her leave the country. She crossed the Yalu river into China in 2006, leaving behind her only surviving child, a daughter, in the care of her ex-husband.

Many female defectors are sold to men in northeast China, many of whom can't otherwise afford the cost of a traditional marriage, which may include a dowry and bride price.

Kim says she was sold to a Chinese man for the equivalent of about $2,375, shortly after arriving in China.

Not long after, Kim found she was pregnant by her ex-husband, and gave birth to a girl.

But, as someone who had entered illegally and was at risk of repatriation, she did not feel safe in China. Police keep tabs on defectors. And she heard rumors that then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was set to visit, which he did in May 2010.

"Whenever a high-ranking North Korean official visited China," she explains, "they would ask for, say, 500 or 1,000 defectors, and China would immediately repatriate them, as if it were a gift."

Kim feared she could be one of them, so after nearly three years in China, she fled, leaving her baby daughter behind with her Chinese husband.

The journey to freedom was harrowing and took about two months. She paid brokers to smuggle her into Myanmar, then bribed local police to let her cross into Thailand and finally made her way to South Korea.

From there, she called her husband in China, and implored him to bring their daughter to join her. She says she could hear her daughter's voice over the phone.

But her Chinese husband "wouldn't listen to me and kept saying he would never leave China, and threatened that I would never see my daughter unless I go back," she says.

Kim and her group now try to help other female defectors who are separated from children in China and North Korea.

Salmón, the U.N. special rapporteur, tells NPR that some North Korean women "cross the border knowing that they will be forced to marry a Chinese man. But it's important to understand that they have no other choice to escape" North Korea.

She has called on China not to repatriate the defectors after border controls are lifted.

Beijing considers the defectors economic migrants, and is unlikely to heed her calls.

"Those North Koreans who have entered China illegally are not refugees," argued Chinese diplomat Jiang Han, responding to Salmón's remarks at the U.N. Human Rights Council. "My government attaches great importance to protecting the legal rights of foreign nationals in China, and to suppressing trafficking in women and children."

But Salmón tells NPR that the defectors' immigration status is irrelevant.

Under international law, she says, if people are deported to face persecution, torture or other serious human rights violations, then "these states are prohibited from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction to a place where these awful things may happen."

Yoon Yeo-sang, chief director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based civic group, notes that even without the pandemic-related border restrictions, China has already been able to drastically reduce the number of North Korean defectors entering the country. Yoon estimates that the number of North Korean defectors in China has dwindled in recent decades from around 100,000 to just 10,000, 90% of whom are women. And the number eventually reaching South Korea has plummeted as well.

"Before COVID, we had at least 1,000 defectors arriving in South Korea annually," he says. "But last year, we had only 60."

China has kept the numbers down by using surveillance technology — video cameras and facial recognition software.

"It's not that North Koreans don't have the will to escape their country," he explains, "it's because of the surveillance technology. Defection has become much harder, and in that sense, China has become the winner."

Yoon says what motivates him to do his work is this:

"Even though the [Korean] peninsula is divided, we have lived together for thousands of years," he says. "So we see them as the people we will again live together with some day, not as foreigners or refugees."

Defector Kim Jeong-ah, meanwhile, says she's motivated by the quest to reunite with her children. She has been separated from her daughter in China for more than 13 years, and from her daughter in North Korea for nearly 17 years.

"My birth mother gave up on me, but I will never give up on my daughters," she says tearfully. "And I can make this decision because I am alive. I think that's the biggest success that defection has brought me."

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.