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How to Escape from North Korea Alive

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The number of North Korean defectors to countries where they are afforded asylum has risen in recent decades. The most common country of destination is South Korea, but there has been a noticeable increase to Western countries, particularly the United States and Canada. This has been possible due to weakened border controls at the northern border areas with China, as well an overseas worker program that the DPRK has signed with a number of partner countries. The latter affords the best opportunity for former residents to escape Korea and flee to an asylum country with family.

As a result of the struggling North Korean economy, Kim Jung Un's government has applied new economic policies. The government is actively attempting to procure more foreign currency needed to stabilize their own currency and purchase more foreign commodities in several ways, including: producing and distributing illegal narcotics to foreign countries, and subsidizing a chain of North Korean restaurants at overseas locations, including Mongolia, China, and Nepal.

The government has been mostt successful bysupplying their citizens as inexpensive labor in partner countries. According to a report by the Japanese NGO Yonhap in June 2011, North Korea receives 1.2 billions dollars annually by exporting its labor. Experts at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, however, question the accuracy of this number. Their economists put the number at under 100 million dollars. This policy not only helps the DPRK procure foreign currency, but it also allows them to relieve their surplus of people in the work force.

Through agreements with countries such as Russia, China, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, and some Eastern European and African countries, select DPRK citizens, and in some cases even their families, are granted work permits and sent to select countries to work in construction sites or factories.

Once there, they usually earn minimum wage, or wages that are less than the equivalent for locals. Their earnings are also almost entirely kept by the DPRK, usually about 90 percent according to the same report by Yonhap. In addition, they are supervised while they work by minders, who ensure they do not run away. There are an estimated 30,000 of these workers in Russia, 15,000 in the Middle East, and 8,000 in China, Mongolia, and Africa, according to the Peterson Institute . Though these workers are being watched, they are usually granted greater freedom of travel than in North Korea. Many use this as an opportunity to run away.

These worker programs are the most legitimate means for a resident of DPRK to leave its borders. Other means of fleeing include crossing the relatively porous border in the north with China. The most common place to cross without being noticed is in the far northern regions of Hanyong and Pyongan, across the Tumen river. Another means for fleeing is by boat, either to Japan or around the Demilitarized Zone in the Yellow Sea. There, the coastal straights are filled with islands that are dived between North and South. Fishermen are often able to cross these straights, and seek protection in South Korea. Crossing the Demilitarized Zone is nearly impossible. It is the world's largest mine field, and it is constantly being watched. Soldiers who police the zone are authorized to shoot illegal travelers on sight.

Leaving the DPRK without permission is not only illegal, but seen as treasonous. Until recently, there were relaxed controls on the northern border, making it the easiest location to cross unnoticed. However, the large numbers of defectors in the last 10 years, which has increased to over 2,000-3,000in 2010 from 583 in 2001, has prompted DPRK authorities to increase border watch, according to an International Cirsis Group report filed in 2011. It is much harder to cross now. It is equally hard to flee by boat, as the coasts are heavily watched and guarded as well.

People who cross into China without permission, also, do not have an easy time once there. They have to hide, as Chinese authorities will return them to DPRK if they are caught. Though China is subject to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, as well is its 1967 Protocols, the Chinese government does not consider any of them to be refugees. Chinese authorities consider North Korean defectors to be migrant workers, since many of them are fleeing to there for work. This also remains the legal loophole that allows North Koreans on a work permit to work in those countries without being given protection. Though the UNHCR does concur that many are indeed immigrating exclusively for economic reasons, consideration has to be made for the fact that those who have fled without permission face the likelihood of torture, imprisonment, forced starvation, and re-education.

Once a North Korean migrant, whether legal or illegal, has reached the Middle East or a country such as China or Mongolia, they are more easily able to find means of travelling to an asylum country. According to some refugee claimants in Canada,this usually involves the hiring of a smuggler or snakehead, to which they pay a modest fee of between $2,500 to upwards of $50,000 dollars to take them to either South Korea or a Western country of choice, depending on family size and destination. The money to pay for this is procured through a number of sources. Some are able to pay for it through their savings, or from relatives and friends who are in South Korea. Others are not able to pay and are indebted to the snakehead.

According to interviews with defectors, what usually occurs when they hire a snakehead is that they are provided with a fake passport or other travel document and put on a commercial flight that takes them first to a third country destination, usually in another Asian country, such as Thailand or Vietnam, and then by another flight to South Korea, the United States, or Canada. Some snakeheads also make use of smuggling people by boat across the ocean. Though this is a common image in our media, it is actually a very uncommon means of transporting such migrants. The former is much more common.

Once in South Korea, DPRK defectors merely need to identify themselves, and they will automatically be granted citizenship. This is a very good deal for defectors. Not only do they have immediate status, but they are given a stipend of about $5,600 dollars from the South Korea government to help themselves and their family settle, as well as provided access to education to help adapt to the different culture.

If they reach the U.S., Canada, or another Western country, they file for refugee protection upon landing. If they come directly from the source country without going through South Korea, their claim for asylum is likely accepted, as these signatories to the 1951 Convention agree that defectors do meet the refugee definition, and believe strongly that refoulement to North Korea will lead to torture and persecution.

By this means, any citizen of the DPRK can flee the country and find protection for themselves and their family.

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