By Joseph Choi, former HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
May 23, 2023
In 2016, the International Mathematical Olympiad, the world’s premier high school mathematics championship, was held at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. On the night he was supposed to return to North Korea with the rest of his team, 18-year-old Ri Jong-yol, a teenage math genius from North Korea, defected just after winning silver for the third year in a row.
North Korea, one of the most repressive countries in the world, harbors some of the world’s most elite hackers. This may be shocking to some, since North Korea may appear to be lacking in terms of its economy, technology, and education. In fact, the North Korean regime relies on its apparatus of coercion, control, surveillance, and punishment to exploit the best and brightest minds in the country.
North Korean hackers have gained an infamous reputation over the last few years, especially with the number of hacking attacks that have specifically targeted cryptocurrency. While most observers only view North Korean hackers as weapons of a totalitarian state, these hackers are also victims of the North Korean regime’s policy of human rights denial.
The Selection Process
In 1996, Kim Jong-il allegedly told a group of frontline troops that “all wars in the future will be computer wars.”
According to defectors and South Korean officials, North Korea cultivates its elite hackers the same way other countries train future Olympic athletes. Math and science are heavily emphasized in elementary schools. Students who show promise in these fields are then given access to computers. Students as young as eleven years old who show promise are then forced through a series of special programming schools, where they are taught hacking skills and how to develop computer viruses.
The North Korean regime continues to invest in exceptional students to develop them into cyber soldiers. The top students at these specialized schools are allowed to travel abroad to compete in mathematical contests, just like Ri Jong-yol. In 2015, North Korean teams ranked first, second, and third, out of more than 7,600 teams worldwide in a global competition called CodeChef, which was held by an Indian software company. Three out of the top fifteen coders in CodeChef’s network of roughly 100,000 participants are North Korean. Students also go through intense preparation for annual “hackathon” competitions in Pyongyang. Teams of students are holed up learning how to solve hacking problems under severe time constraints. A North Korean defector familiar with the country’s cyber training said: “For 6 months, day and night, we prepared only for this contest.”
After going through specialized schools and competing at multiple competitions, top students then go on to attend some of the best universities in North Korea—including Kim Il Sung University, Kim Chaek University of Technology, Moranbong University, and Mirim University—to further develop their hacking skills. Students at Kim Il-sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology often outperform their American and Chinese counterparts in the International Collegiate Programming Contest, which is considered the most competitive collegiate competition for programming and computing. During the 2019 International Collegiate Programming Contest, Kim Chaek University of Technology placed 8th, ahead of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Stanford.
The North Korean regime exploits talented students for its own objectives, not for the benefit of the country as a whole. Students are identified and scouted as early as elementary school. Students who show great promise in math and science are forced to undergo years of intense training with no opportunity to pursue their own interests. They are directed to fields that serve the regime’s objectives, such as hacking and weapons development. Additionally, students who are proficient in coding and programming are also trained as IT workers to earn foreign currency for the regime. U.S. officials warned companies from inadvertently hiring IT staff from North Korea because they were taking advantage of remote work opportunities to funnel money into Pyongyang, which then used the funds for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
These talented and hard-working students could use their skills to improve the lives of their fellow citizens by focusing on sectors such as technology, infrastructure, and engineering, but they are not given the opportunities to do so. The Kim regime sees the North Korean people as means to an end, not as unique individuals with dreams and aspirations.
Soldiers for the Regime
According to the testimony of a South Korean intelligence chief, Kim Jong-un reportedly declared that, “Cyberwarfare, along with nuclear weapons and missiles, is an ‘all-purpose sword’ that guarantees our military’s capability to strike relentlessly.”
Cyber operations have become central components of North Korea’s asymmetric military strategy, peacetime provocations, and illicit activities. According to South Korea’s 2020 Defense White Paper, North Korea operates a 6,800-strong unit of cyber-warfare specialists and is investing in research and development to enhance its cyber capabilities.
This unit, which works under the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), is thought to be split up into three groups. The A team, often called “Lazarus,” attacks foreign entities and is associated with North Korea’s most notorious feats, such as the 2014 Sony and WannaCry attacks. The B team traditionally focuses on South Korea and sweeps for military or infrastructure secrets, while the C team does lower-skilled work, such as targeted email attacks.
In the past decade alone, North Korea has perpetrated numerous large-scale cyberattacks around the world. These attacks are not isolated to one sector, but are aimed at governments, private companies, financial institutions, and individuals.
In 2014, North Korea launched a massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures for planning to release The Interview, a comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un. The attackers, calling themselves the “Guardians of Peace,” stole huge amounts of information from Sony’s network, leaked the information to journalists, and then threatened to commit acts of terrorism against movie theaters. Sony Pictures canceled the release of its film after the attack, but it later reversed its decision and released the film in select theaters and online. American officials concluded that North Korea was “centrally involved” in the hacking of Sony Pictures. Intelligence officials also concluded that the cyberattack was state-sponsored and far more destructive than any other seen on American soil.
In February 2016, North Korea launched another state-sponsored cyberattack. This time, it targeted financial institutions across the world. The Lazarus Group attempted to steal at least $1 billion from the Bangladesh Bank and managed to steal $81 million. North Korean hackers compromised the bank’s computer network through spear-phishing emails sent to bank employees. They were then able to access the bank’s computer terminals that interfaced with SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications).
In December 2017, the U.S. and UK governments accused North Korea of the WannaCry malware attack that affected hospitals, businesses, and banks across the world. The attack was launched in May 2017 and is said to have hit more than 300,000 computers and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Although the North Korean regime has denied involvement in all of these cyberattacks, there is strong evidence to the contrary. These attacks are state-sponsored attacks that cause immense damage and strengthen the RGB for future attacks. These attacks do not benefit the people of North Korea, from the hackers to the citizens in the “hostile class."
The Rise in Cryptocurrency Attacks
North Korea has also capitalized on the rise of cryptocurrency by stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in the last few years. The lack of oversight and regulations on cryptocurrency has made it a prime target for the North Korean regime. Experts say that North Korea uses stolen digital currencies to fund its nuclear weapons and missile programs. According to a report by the UN Panel of Experts on sanctions against North Korea, North Korea stole more than $300 million worth of virtual assets between 2019 and 2020. In April 2023, Google’s cybersecurity unit, Mandiant, reported that over the past five years, a North Korean hacking group known as Kimsuky hacked cryptocurrency to financially support North Korea’s espionage operations related to its nuclear program. Kimsuky was able to launder the stolen crypto funds through cloud-mining services, disrupting the trail of the funds. The laundered funds were then used to collect information about nuclear weapons by sending spear-phishing emails to policymakers or researchers in South Korea and the United States.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice released an indictment against three North Korean hackers, charging them for their alleged roles in a scheme that included attempts to steal and extort more than $1.3 billion of money and cryptocurrency from financial institutions and companies. Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers of the Justice Department’s National Security Division stated, “North Korea’s operatives, using keyboards rather than guns, stealing digital wallets of cryptocurrency instead of sacks of cash, are the world’s leading bank robbers.” Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkerson for the Central Division of California said, “The conduct detailed in the indictment are the acts of a criminal nation-state that has stopped at nothing to extract revenge and obtain money to prop up its regime.” The indictment alleged that Jon Chang-hyok, Kim Il, and Park Jin-hyok were members of the RGB.
The North Korean regime has exploited some of its youngest and brightest minds for its own benefit, rather than enabling them to pursue their own aspirations. Students as young as eleven years old are forced onto a path that they cannot stray from. They are forced to train for years to hone their cyber capabilities to further the regime’s objectives. Rather than giving these extremely intelligent individuals the freedom to pursue other goals that would further the country’s development, they are forced into a restrictive and dangerous lifestyle.
The North Korean regime has benefitted immensely from its hackers, who have successfully launched massive attacks against a wide range of targets. The regime has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars through these attacks to directly fund its military, its nuclear and missile programs, and luxury goods for the core elite. Although these North Korean hackers live a better lifestyle than most, they still live in a repressive, oppressive, and inhumane society. The North Korean regime gives just enough to their hackers so they will not step out of line. If they do, they will be marked as traitors and most likely be thrown into the regime’s network of detention facilities.
If life were so good for these hackers, we would not have seen 18-year-old Ri Jong-yol escape from the regime. They have no choice but to become soldiers of the regime. Although they are weapons of the regime, they are also its victims.
Joseph Choi is a rising senior at Boston University pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in International Relations, with a regional concentration in Europe and a functional concentration in Foreign Policy and Security Studies.
 Bruce Harrison, “How North Korea Recruits Its Army of Young Hackers,” NBC News, December 8, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/north-korea/how-north-korea-recruits-trains-its-army-hackers-n825521.
 Timothy W. Martin, “How North Korea’s Hackers Became Dangerously Good,” The Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-north-koreas-hackers-became-dangerously-good-1524150416.
 Harrison, “How North Korea Recruits Its Army of Young Hackers.”
 Martin, “How North Korea’s Hackers Become Dangerously Good.”
 Harrison, “How North Korea Recruits Its Army of Young Hackers.”
 Ed Caesar, “The Incredible Rise of North Korea’s Hacking Army,” The New Yorker, April 19, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/26/the-incredible-rise-of-north-koreas-hacking-army.
 “U.S. Warns against Inadvertently Hiring North Korean IT Workers,” Reuters, May 17, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-warns-against-inadvertently-hiring-north-korean-it-workers-2022-05-16/.
 David E. Sanger, David D. Kirkpatrick, and Nicole Perlroth, “The World Once Laughed at North Korean Cyberpower. No More.,” The New York Times, October 15, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/15/world/asia/north-korea-hacking-cyber-sony.html.
 Mathew Ha and David Maxwell, “Kim Jong Un’s ‘All-Purpose Sword,’” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, October 3, 2018. https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2018/10/03/kim-jong-uns-all-purpose-sword/#easy-footnote-bottom-19-69181.
 “2020 Defense White Paper,” December 31, 2020, https://mnd.go.kr/user/mndEN/upload/pblictn/PBLICTNEBOOK_202301171100181360.pdf.
 Martin, “How North Korea’s Hackers Become Dangerously Good.”
 Emily St. James and Timothy B. Lee, “The 2014 Sony Hacks, Explained,” Vox, January 20, 2015. https://www.vox.com/2015/1/20/18089084/sony-hack-north-korea.
 David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, “U.S. Said to Find North Korea Ordered Cyberattack on Sony,” The New York Times, December 17, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/world/asia/us-links-north-korea-to-sony-hacking.html.
 Jim O’Grady and Kenny Malone, “A SWIFT Getaway : Planet Money,” NPR, February 9, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/02/09/1079528331/a-swift-getaway.
 Sanger and Perlroth, “U.S. Said to Find North Korea Ordered Cyberattack on Sony.”
 “Cyber-Attack: US and UK Blame North Korea for WannaCry,” BBC News, December 19, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42407488.
 Christy Lee, “North Korea Turns to Crypto Theft to Fund Weapons Programs,” Voice of America, February 23, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/north-korea-turns-to-crypto-theft-to-fund-weapons-programs/6455347.html.
 Kim Boram, “N. Korean Hacking Group Kimsuky Funds Pyongyang’s Espionage Operations through Cybercrimes,” Yonhap News, April 4, 2023, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20230404005700320?section=nk/nk.
 U.S. Department of Justice, “Three North Korean Military Hackers Indicted in Wide-Ranging Scheme to Commit Cyberattacks and Financial Crimes across the Globe,” February 17, 2021. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/three-north-korean-military-hackers-indicted-wide-ranging-scheme-commit-cyberattacks-and.
By Natalie Horton, former HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
September 6, 2022
Over the next century, areas all around the globe will feel the effects of climate change as it puts strain on every system. North Korea’s limited capacity and willingness to effectively and comprehensively respond to these changes, including more frequent extreme weather events, will deeply impact the human rights situation within its borders.
Impact on Agriculture
More frequent extreme weather events and sea level rise will heavily impact the Korean Peninsula in the next thirty years, endangering the food security and infrastructure of North Korea. According to the Council on Strategic Risks, climate change will have noticeable impacts on crop yields by 2030, and inland flooding and sea level rise will similarly affect the country by 2050.[i]
North Korea’s breadbasket, the low-lying lands in the country’s western regions, will be particularly at risk for extreme rainfall, more frequent droughts, and flooding due to storm surges. Due to changes in precipitation and temperature, the region that produces nearly 40% of the country’s rice and 30% of its soybeans will experience up to an additional three months of severe drought each year by 2035. Rice yield failures will also occur more often—once every five years instead of once every seven years.[ii] Rice is one of the main staple crops of North Korea. With even less rice than the country can produce currently, the North Korean people will be in dire straits.
Food insecurity will increase due to more crop failures resulting from droughts and floods. Misallocation of food resources within the country will become even more serious, and corruption in this regard is likely to worsen. As of 2020, over 59% of North Koreans were food insecure. With worsening agricultural conditions, the country is at heightened risk of experiencing additional famines.[iii]
Increase in Flooding
Flooding will inundate many important infrastructural and agricultural areas in North Korea, both as a product of storm surges coupled with sea level rise, as well as a general increase in extreme rainfall events. Warmer temperatures and increases in humidity on the Korean Peninsula due to climate change will drive typhoons northward and increase their intensity. Damage from such storms has already been recorded during two successive typhoons in August and September 2020.[iv] The passage of Typhoon Hinnamnor through the Korean Peninsula illustrates, once again, the severe risks that accompany extreme weather events.[v]
Massive deforestation on North Korean soil will also contribute to the devastation following these rainfall events, as there will be no roots to hold soil in place and keep it from causing landslides and running into rivers when extreme precipitation occurs.[vi] The flood risk in Pyongyang, stemming from the Taedong River, is predicted to nearly triple by 2050, with 1-in-100 year flood events becoming 1-in-34 year events.[vii] The flood risk is projected to double in the breadbasket region of North Hwanghae Province, with 1-in-100-year flood events becoming 1-in-57-year events.[viii]
Flooding will inundate many agriculturally and infrastructurally important locations, increasing food insecurity, infrastructural costs, and displacing citizens from their homes. Prisoners of detention facilities are also likely to be affected, such as when Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 was damaged by typhoon flooding in 2016.[ix] Citizens of lower songbun will likely receive much less government assistance for both preventative measures and rebuilding and relocation efforts, rendering them extremely vulnerable to flood damage.
It should also be noted that North Korea lost 1.2 million tons of its grain reserves during the floods of the mid-1990s, as these reserves were held in underground facilities.[x] There seems to be no current information as to if the emergency grain reserves have been moved aboveground, or if the underground stores have been retrofitted to protect against flooding. Even if they have been retrofitted, it is difficult to determine the efficacy of the changes. This could prove to be an issue in future flood events.
Moreover, flooding could pose a threat to North Korea’s nuclear facilities, such as the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, located on a river to the north of Pyongyang.[xi] This facility uses the river for its cooling system. Flooding or drought conditions could critically affect reactor operations. During the Fukushima Daiichi Accident of 2011, when water surged from the tsunami and inundated the Fukushima facility, the water pumps for the nuclear cooling system were damaged, in addition to the diesel generator and electrical system. The damage to the cooling system and the electrical blackout greatly contributed to the reactor’s failure.[xii] A similar failure could conceivably occur at Yongbyon due to flooding if these systems are damaged.
On the other hand, if the country experiences a major drought, it could lead to insufficient water reaching the cooling system from the river, increasing the risk of accidents. Safety features have apparently been installed against flood damage at Yongbyon, but their efficacy is uncertain.[xiii] A flood affecting this facility could have massive implications for the health of the people in the area and further complicate the international community’s efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear program.
After Fukushima, many health consequences from radiation in the community have been observed, such as a high death toll among the elderly, more chronic diseases, and an overall decline in the health of the community.[xiv] This is not to mention the environmental consequences, such as soil and groundwater contamination, which require extensive efforts to reverse and make safe again for habitation.[xv] If such a disaster occurred at Yongbyon, similar human and environmental consequences could occur, affecting the health of countless North Koreans.
Sea Level Rise
Sea level rise, exacerbated by storm surges and annual flooding, is projected to impact over 550,000 people in North Korea by 2050. The effects of these storm surges can already be felt in many coastal areas on the Korean Peninsula.[xvi] Inundation of key ports and airports will be particularly destructive, as many of these coastal facilities play an important economic role.[xvii] Repairs or relocation would also be very costly.
Particularly at risk is the city of Sinuiju, an important economic hub on North Korea’s border with China. According to Climate Central, sea level rise, compounded by storm surges and annual flooding, could overtake Sinuiju by 2050.[xviii] By that year, 800,000 North Koreans will be displaced or significantly affected by coastal flooding, as they live below the elevation of the projected flood levels. By the year 2100, one million North Koreans will be in that position.[xix]
In theory, Sinuiju and other threatened regions have several ways of protecting themselves from this outcome, such as building sea walls, elevating roads, or relocating citizens. However, it is unclear whether North Korea has the political will or the capacity to enact such major infrastructural changes.
Additional environmental impacts that will likely greatly impact North Korea are the decline of fish communities in its waters, and the effect of droughts on North Korea’s hydropower facilities. Fisheries across the globe are declining due to overfishing, pollution, and temperature change. This is also true in the waters around the Korean Peninsula. Species diversity has been falling, and there are fewer fish overall.[xx] This does not bode well for North Korea, as many citizens rely on fish as a vital part of their diet, particularly due to shortages in land-cultivated food.[xxi] Fish also used to be an important source of income for the regime, until the UN Security Council imposed restrictions on exports in 2017. However, there is evidence that North Korea has circumvented this ban by selling fish through China.[xxii] The decline in fish population will directly affect the North Korean people and further constrain a key source of revenue for the regime.
Increased instances of drought could also weaken the country’s hydropower capabilities, resulting in energy shortages. Hydropower accounts for 55% of the country’s energy production. The possibility of that 55% being affected is a grave one, with far-reaching implications for North Korean society, including impacts on hospitals, factories, transportation, and households.[xxiii] Periods of increased rainfall will also occur, which may even the situation out if managed correctly.
However, North Korea’s economic interests may affect its policy decisions in this area. North Korea sells millions of dollars’ worth of hydropower energy to China each year.[xxiv] Energy is more profitable to sell during the dry season. Controlled releases of water downstream during drought periods could have similar effects to those along the Mekong River. During wet months, China has often withheld water using dams along the Mekong, and then released it all at once, causing flooding and wiping out downstream crops while seeking profit during dry months.[xxv] North Korea could use a similar strategy to maximize its profits during droughts in the future.
During periods of increased rainfall, North Korea is known to release large amounts of water downstream. Although such releases must be announced for safety reasons, North Korea has a history of causing damage downstream because they neglect to alert the South Korean authorities in advance. Without proper early warnings, these releases of water can be fatal.[xxvi] These events could become more likely in the future, especially if North Korea decides to get rid of excess water during periods of increased rainfall.
Overall, unsteady rainfall does not bode well for the hydropower industry or those who live downstream of hydropower facilities. These additional stressors will likely impact the regime’s ability to deliver food, shelter, safety, and energy, threatening the lives of millions of North Koreans and weakening the regime’s control over North Korean society.
The Regime’s Response to Climate Change
Outwardly, Kim Jong-un has committed to fighting climate change and mitigating its effects on North Korea. Pyongyang is party to relevant international agreements, including the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris Agreement.[xxvii] North Korea has also pledged to reduce greenhouse gases by 15% by 2030, or even by 50% in the event that it receives international assistance.[xxviii]
One major issue, however, is that a large part of North Korea’s revenue depends on the export of coal, which the rest of the world is trying to phase out. Although the UN Security Council banned North Korea’s coal exports in 2017, it is still an important stream of revenue for Pyongyang.[xxix] The international community’s efforts to phase out coal will affect the regime’s finances.
The country’s impoverished state is also a large barrier to mitigating climate change-related disasters within its borders. Environmental solutions will require large investments, which the North Korean government will be unable to make without external assistance. This makes the country vulnerable in a host of ways, to both domestic turmoil and international interference, including debt-trapping infrastructural investment by China.
Although Kim Jong-un may be aware of the ongoing and future effects of climate change on North Korea, it appears unlikely that his regime will be able to respond effectively, due to not only a lack of funds, but also the rampant corruption and mismanagement characteristic of the North Korean government. Systemic inequality in North Korea pursuant to the songbun system will continue to threaten the lives of millions, particularly in the face of fewer resources and successive climate change-related disasters.
The Regime’s Response to the 1990s Famine
To understand how the North Korean government might react to crises resulting from climate change, it is instructive to examine the Kim regime’s response to the famine of the 1990s.
Due to a combination of external factors including the loss of Soviet oil imports, North Korea was in a precarious position in the early 1990s. When severe flooding occurred in conjunction with a bad harvest in 1994, rendering 15% of the country’s arable land unusable, the country descended into a four-year famine. In response, Pyongyang asked the international community for aid. The aid was mainly distributed to the military and the elites, while those of low songbun saw little improvement.[xxx] This further widened the gap between those of high and low songbun.
Although it received over $2 billion in aid from 1995 to 2005, Haggard and Noland note that North Korea “used aid…as balance-of-payments support” by “reallocating expenditures to other priorities.”[xxxi] Specifically, in 1999, North Korea slashed grain imports while “[allocating] scarce foreign exchange to the purchase of 40 MiG-21 fighters and 8 military helicopters from Kazakhstan.”[xxxii]
Similar mismanagement appears likely in the face of climate disasters, with far-reaching implications for human rights and potentially the stability of the Kim regime. What few climate solutions are implemented will likely be centered on the elite and the military, while those of lower songbun are left behind. This will apply to grain distribution, water and electricity rationing in the face of drought, and funding for preventative measures or the reconstruction or relocation of citizens and infrastructure. In the face of climate change, the prioritization of regime resources toward nuclear weapons and missile development will continue to harm the welfare of the North Korean people.
By 1998, the worst of the Arduous March had passed due to better harvests, an influx of international food aid, and the development of informal markets.[xxxiii] However, unlike the famine of the 1990s, climate change will have long-lasting consequences for North Korea. Bad harvests, sea level rise, and flooding will only become worse and more frequent over time. NGOs must be allowed back into the country to help with relief efforts for the climate disasters to come, as well as to ensure the adequate provision of aid to the most vulnerable groups in North Korea.
Pyongyang must take meaningful steps to prioritize the welfare of its citizens in the face of climate change. It should ensure a baseline level of transparency and access in line with international standards as it seeks international aid and assistance to counter and alleviate the effects of climate change. However, external aid cannot sustain the country forever. Without the reprieve of improving natural conditions, North Korea will face formidable challenges as it contends with serious climate change-induced crises in the coming decades.
Natalie Horton is a senior at the George Washington University pursuing two bachelor's degrees, one in Asian Studies and the other in Korean Language & Literature, along with a minor in Chinese Language & Literature.
[i] Catherine Dill et al., “Converging Crises in North Korea: Security, Stability & Climate Change,” The Center for Climate and Security, July 2021, 1. https://climateandsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Converging-Crises-in-North-Korea_Security-Stability-and-Climate-Change_CSR_Woodwell.pdf.
[ii] Ibid, 3.
[iv] Ibid, 2.
[v] Min Joo Kim, “Typhoon Hinnamnor bears down on South Korea, bringing damaging winds,” The Washington Post, September 5, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/05/south-korea-typhoon-hinnamnor-storm/.
[vi] Jean Chemnick, “With Widespread Deforestation, North Korea Faces an Environmental Crisis,” Scientific American, April 19, 2019. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/with-widespread-deforestation-north-korea-faces-an-environmental-crisis/.
[vii] Dill et al., “Converging Crises in North Korea,” 5.
[viii] Ibid., 6.
[ix] Joseph S. Bermudez and Greg Scarlatoiu, North Korea: Flooding at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jŏngŏ-ri (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea), September 16, 2016. https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Kyo-hwa-so%20No_%2012%20Flooding.pdf.
[x] John Hemmings, “Deciphering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” International Politics Reviews 1 (2013): 73. https://doi.org/10.1057/ipr.2013.7.
[xi] Peter Makowsky, “North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Center: Flood Damage Repairs Underway,” 38 North, July 12, 2022. https://www.38north.org/2020/10/yongbyon202210/.
[xii] “Fukushima Daiichi Accident,” World Nuclear Association, May 2022. https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-daiichi-accident.aspx.
[xiii] Dill et al., “Converging Crises in North Korea,” 5.
[xiv] Dennis Normile, “This Physician Has Studied the Fukushima Disaster for a Decade-and Found a Surprising Health Threat,” Science, March 4, 2021. https://www.science.org/content/article/physician-has-studied-fukushima-disaster-decade-and-found-surprising-health-threat.
[xv] Maria Burke, “A Decade on Japan Is Still Grappling with the Environmental Impact of Fukushima.” Chemistry World, March 11, 2021. https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/a-decade-on-japan-is-still-grappling-with-the-environmental-impact-of-fukushima/4013364.article.
[xvi] Dill et al., “Converging Crises in North Korea,” 6.
[xvii] Ibid., 7.
[xviii] Jacob Fromer, “Rising Sea Levels Could Inundate North Korea's Sinuiju by 2050, New Study Shows,” NK News, November 6, 2019. https://www.nknews.org/2019/11/rising-sea-levels-could-inundate-north-koreas-sinuiju-by-2050-new-study-shows/.
[xx] Suam Kim et al., “Climate variability and its effects on major fisheries in Korea,” Ocean Science Journal 42, (2007): 179–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03020922.
[xxi] Robert Winstanley-Chesters, “Fishing in North Korea, A History and A Geography,” in Fish, Fishing and Community in North Korea and Neighbours (Springer Singapore, 2020), 99–134. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-0042-8_4.
[xxii] Sue-Lin Wong, “How North Korean Seafood Ends up in Countries That Ban It,” Reuters, December 20, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-northkorea-seafood/how-north-korean-seafood-ends-up-in-countries-that-ban-it-idUSKBN14A084.
[xxiii] Jason Bartlett, “North Korea Plans to Dig Deep into Renewable Energy Alternatives,” The Diplomat, December 7, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/12/north-korea-plans-to-dig-deep-into-renewable-energy-alternatives/.
[xxiv] Jeremy Page, “North Korea is Making Millions of Dollars Selling Power to China,” The Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/north-korea-is-making-millions-of-dollars-selling-power-to-china-1521192603.
[xxv] Brian Eyler and Courtney Weatherby, “New Evidence: How China Turned off the Tap on the Mekong River,” Stimson Center, April 30, 2020. https://www.stimson.org/2020/new-evidence-how-china-turned-off-the-mekong-tap/.
[xxvi] Da-gyum Ji, “N. Korea Discharges Water from Border Dam without Prior Notice,” The Korea Herald, June 30, 2022. https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220630000868.
[xxvii] Christian Davies, “Natural Disasters Drive North Korea's Embrace of International Climate Goals,” Financial Times, January 11, 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/d637c465-fc9e-4254-8191-193ac5eae30e.
[xxix] Troy Stangarone, “North Korean Coal Smuggling, Still Profitable,” Korea Economic Institute of America, February 27, 2020. https://keia.org/the-peninsula/north-korean-coal-smuggling-still-profitable/.
[xxx] Erin Blakemore, “North Korea's Devastating Famine,” History.com, September 1, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/north-koreas-devastating-famine.
[xxxi] Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2005), 10–11. https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Hunger_and_Human_Rights.pdf.
[xxxii] Ibid., 16.
[xxxiii] Jordan Weissmann, “How Kim Jong Il Starved North Korea,” The Atlantic, December 20, 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/12/how-kim-jong-il-starved-north-korea/250244/.
By Yuhan Kim, former HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
August 25, 2022
On New Year’s Day of 2022, South Korean border guards were shocked to discover security footage of a North Korean defector clambering over the high barbed-wire fences of the Demilitarized Zone, but unusually, back into North Korea.
The North Korean government has paid close attention to such incidents. For many years, the regime has attempted to convince defectors to return. It has produced propaganda videos featuring defectors’ families and “re-defectors,” and it has used its agents to persuade or even coerce defectors in South Korea into returning. Moreover, the North Korean government has taken an interesting public stance toward those who have returned. Instead of being immediately punished upon return, re-defectors are shown on state TV in interviews in which they speak about the difficulties of life in South Korea.
These interviews of re-defectors should not be dismissed as just another bizarre propaganda operation. Such efforts to utilize re-defectors for the regime’s own purposes not only have a certain degree of effectiveness on North Korean citizens, but also create a dangerous sense of insecurity in the defector community in South Korea.
Re-defection Push Factors
Cases of re-defection, where North Koreans who have escaped to South Korea return to North Korea, are uncommon but not exceptionally rare. According to the South Korean government, only 30 defectors of 34,000 are confirmed to have returned to North Korea in the past decade. This is around 0.08% of the total number of escapees. However, the actual figure is likely far higher. A news article from 2020 notes that there are some 900 escapees whose whereabouts are unknown to the South Korean government. Most are suspected to have gone to China, and according to a leader in the escapee community, “Those who have not been in contact for a long time after going to China should be considered to have entered North Korea.” It is relatively easy for North Koreans to willingly reenter North Korea, usually by going to the North Korean embassy in China.
It is well known that many North Koreans who resettle in South Korea struggle to make ends meet. In many cases, the work skills and educational background of defectors do not match those needed to stay afloat in South Korea’s highly competitive society. As Andrei Lankov notes, “the skills that helped them survive in the cut-throat world of cross-border smuggling operations and the Chinese illegal labor market are useless in South Korea. Hence, defectors, suffering from low income, alienation, and real or perceived discrimination, form a sort of permanent underclass that might even become semihereditary.” Even those with seemingly marketable skills often find life in South Korea difficult.
Hyeonseo Lee, who is a prominent escapee and the author of The Girl with Seven Names, divides escapees into two levels of adjustment, based on their background while in North Korea:
Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the South, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad. People in the first group adjust rapidly. Their new life, however challenging, could only be better. For the people in the second group, life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.
Lee’s mother, who was once a government office worker in North Korea, worked in South Korea as a motel cleaner. The work was hard toil. Lee’s aging mother injured her back within a few weeks. Economic hardships, the downgrading of social status, and the immense burden that comes with the freedom to choose creates formidable challenges for escapees seeking into integrate into South Korean society. These hardships could be more bearable if there was a community or family to lean on, but most defectors gave up all they had to come to South Korea and find themselves alone. Experiencing discrimination also makes defectors long for the familiarity and comfort of family. Even those with family in South Korea feel a similar sense of longing. Lee writes how her mother “began to miss her brothers and sisters so much that she would weep for them every night after work,” so much so that one day, her mother confessed that she wanted to return North.
The man who crossed back into North Korea on New Year’s Day this year was a gymnast named Kim Woo-joo. He had entered into South Korea the same way, by using his physical abilities to climb over the barbed wire fence. Yet in South Korea, Kim found himself working the night shift as an office cleaner.
Re-defections Induced by the North Korean Government
Not all escapees return willingly, however. Perhaps one of the most bizarre cases is the disappearance and reappearance of Lim Ji-hyun. Lim was one of many so-called “celebrity defectors” who work in the South Korea media and entertainment industry by sharing their experiences in North Korea. Lim was a former North Korean soldier who had escaped to South Korea in 2014. Since then, she became a rising star on Korean media and talk shows such as “Moranbong Club.” Lim suddenly disappeared in April 2017, leaving $20,000 in her South Korean bank account. Even her close friends in the escapee community did not know her whereabouts.
To everyone’s surprise, in July of that year, she reappeared on North Korean TV alongside another former escapee, Kim Man-bok. In the video, she discussed her media work in South Korea, apologizing for how it had discredited North Korea. In fact, most of the 30-minute video segment focuses on denouncing the “Moranbong Club” as an anti-DPRK show that is full of lies, with South Korean producers prompting escapees to exaggerate and falsify their stories. She stated, “The team tells us, defectors from the north, to say just as how it is written in the script from beginning to end, things that we have never known, seen, and felt…I just read the script written by the enemies and thus committed anti-DPRK crimes that can never be redeemed.” Furthermore, Lim also testified to the difficulties of life in South Korea, stating “First I went around pubs and other places to earn money but nothing went as well as I wished. The only treatment that awaited women like me who betrayed my homeland was only physical and mental pain in the South Korean society in which everything is decided by money.”
Lim Ji-hyun appeared two more times in such videos, once in August 2017 and again in February 2018, when she countered claims that she had been kidnapped. She has not been heard from since. Lim’s disappearance fueled a great deal of speculation. One North Korean escapee, Lee Jun-ho, claimed that everything had been a set-up by North Korea from the start. In other words, Lim had been sent as an agent for the express purpose of gaining media attention in South Korea, so that she could return to the North at the height of her popularity to achieve a propaganda coup for the North. Lee’s speculations are not unfounded, for there have been prior incidents of spies posing as escapees. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Lim was a spy. The North Korean government saw her as enough of a threat to attempt a smear campaign against her in 2016, as they often do against escapees with celebrity status in South Korea.
The Disappearance of Song Chun-son
On November 9, 2021, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service revealed that a North Korean woman named Song Chun-son, codenamed “Chrysanthemum,” was being charged with leaking an escapee’s personal information to North Korea’s Ministry of State Security. Song’s story reveals the North Korean government’s reach into the escapee community and its efforts to convince defectors to return and denounce the South.
In 2003, Song left North Korea for China, where she married a Chinese man. Four years later, she was apprehended and sent to a labor camp for two years. After her release, Song worked as a broker who facilitated remittances from escapees to their families in North Korea. She was caught by the North Korean authorities and threatened with prison time unless she cooperated. She divulged the contact information of a client to a North Korean agent, who then used that escapee to connect with three other escapees. The agent put the escapee’s family members on the phone with them, and managed to convince one, Kang Chol-woo, to return to North Korea with his escapee girlfriend in 2016. In November of that year, he appeared on state television to speak about his re-defection.
This incident sheds light into how the North Korean government taps into informal channels of communication between South and North Korea, using them to threaten escapees in the South and family members who remain in the North. The Chrysanthemum case also overlaps with the case of Lim Ji-hyun in one aspect. It is suspected that the North Korean government infiltrated channels of communication that are used to send remittances. Park Tae-joon, a spokesperson for the Seoul Metropolitan Police, stated that “Ms. Lim was told that a large sum of money, around $10,000, that she had tried to send home to her parents through a Chinese middleman had gone missing. She hurried to China to retrieve it, but we think it was a trap.”
Analyzing the Effectiveness of North Korea’s Propaganda Videos
North Korea’s strategy of showing re-defectors on state media cannot simply be dismissed as bizarre and irrelevant propaganda. Unfortunately, there is an element of truth to the claims made by those who have re-defected. Even Lim’s statement about South Korean media fabricating and exaggerating stories about North Korean society has a kernel of truth to it. TV programs centered around North Korean escapees have come under criticism for exoticizing North Koreans, simplifying their narratives, and portraying North Korea as excessively backwards and foreign. In order to get higher ratings and compete with other similar programs, reality TV or talk shows focusing on escapees and North Korea tend to seek out the most sensational stories. This, in turn, may incentivize escapees who are applying for the show to exaggerate their audition stories to land a coveted role. North Korea, in turn, criticizes these programs and the defectors who appear on it. One such program, “Ije mannaro gapnida,” reportedly motivated a female North Korean student studying in Beijing to escape to South Korea in 2013.”
North Korea’s re-defector conferences may be more effective than initially thought, particularly against North Koreans who have had exposure to outside information. Countless memoirs by escapees have attested to how exposure to outside information inspired a search for a better life outside of North Korea. In 2014, 85.1% of all defectors were from the provinces of North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, and Ryanggang, which lie on or near the Sino-North Korean border. Outside information is easier to access in these regions, and it is also easier to escape than from interior regions of North Korea. However, when manipulated by the North Korean regime, prior exposure to South Korean media can potentially dissuade individuals from leaving. A 2015 study by Park Jeong-Ran and Kang Dong-Wan highlights the potential adverse effects that exposure to South Korean media can have North Korean citizens’ perceptions of South Korea. South Korean media often focuses on negative aspects of South Korean society, sensationalizing violence and corruption while highlighting social issues related to inequality and injustice.
Because North Koreans are also increasingly aware of the difficulties of life in South Korea, seeing remarks by re-defectors on state TV can reinforce those perceptions. Green, Denney, and Gleason conducted interviews with North Korean escapees about the effectiveness of the regime’s press conferences with re-defectors. One escapee noted that remarks by re-defectors on North Korean state TV can “garner a sympathetic ear from North Korean residents who know about South Korea.” This escapee added that an acquaintance who had planned to leave North Korea together backed out at the last minute, apparently due to concerns about making a living in South Korea.
Another escapee remarked that “Even without the government, it is already well known from people who have defected that North Korean people are marginalized in South Korea and have trouble finding work and making a living. People have known that for a while.” North Korea’s re-defector conferences can thus reinforce what many North Koreans have heard from trusted friends and family about the challenges of life in South Korea.
In April 2022, the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies reported that “18.59% of the 312 defectors surveyed who had left North Korea between 2017 and 2019 answered in the affirmative when asked whether they ‘regret coming to South Korea.’” While this is a worryingly high proportion, it also indicates that most escapees who have recently arrived in South Korea do not regret their decision to leave North Korea. There are a number of steps the South Korean government can take to counter North Korea’s attempts to pressure escapees to return, according to Nam Jae-sung. These include creating economic incentives for vocational training, providing subsidies to companies that employ escapees, improving screening procedures to better identify North Korean agents, and strengthening the police presence in localities with a large escapee population.
While all of these measures can help address concerns about economic and physical security, they do not directly address escapees’ desire for belonging. North Korea’s state media deftly exploits this vulnerability through a well-coordinated media campaign, augmented by espionage efforts that target escapees. The number of escapees who re-defect remains small compared to those who remain in South Korea. However, the substantial attention given to re-defectors by North Korea indicates their importance to the regime in tightening its control over North Korean society and preventing further attempts to escape.
Yuhan Kim is a rising junior at Yale University, pursuing a double major in history and political science.
 This article is based on an essay that was originally submitted as an academic assignment at Yale University in May 2022. It is published here with the instructor’s permission.
 “Seoul: North Korea Defector Likely Made Rare Border Crossing Back,” Associated Press, January 3, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/01/03/1069839447/seoul-north-korea-defector-likely-made-rare-border-crossing-back.
 Jeong Rak-In, “목숨 건 탈북 이후 다시 북으로 간 사람들” [Those Who Have Returned North After Risking Their Lives to Escape], Sisa Journal, August 4, 2020. https://www.sisajournal.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=203229.
 Andrei Lankov, “Bitter Taste of Paradise: North Korean Refugees in South Korea.” Journal of East Asian Studies 6, no. 1 (2006): 129.
 Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl With Seven Names (London: Harper Collins, 2015), 281.
 Lee, The Girl With Seven Names, 282.
 Justin McCurry, “‘Second Thoughts’: What Makes North Korean Defectors Want to Go Back?,” The Guardian, January 16, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/16/second-thoughts-what-makes-north-korean-defectors-want-to-go-back.
 “Truth Clarified by Jon Hye Song Who Had Been Misused for Anti-DPRK Smear Campaign,” Uriminzokkiri, August 8, 2017.
 Seon-young Kim, “Defector returns to North Korea, appears on propaganda video,” YTN News, July 21, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwD515lcbSs.
 Jeong, “Those Who Have Returned North After Risking Their Lives to Escape.”
 Abigail Haworth, “Vanishing Act,” Marie Claire, February 17, 2021. https://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a35365775/lim-ji-hyun-north-korean-defector/; “The Loathsome Witch to be Thrown into the Boiling Oil of Hell,” Uriminzokkiri, May 8, 2015.
 Choe Sang-hun, “She Fled North Korea for Freedom. Then She Was Arrested,” The New York Times, November 29, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/29/world/asia/north-korea-defectors-south-korea.html.
 Kim Soo-am, “Bukhan-ui Park In-Sook jaeipbuk seonjeon baegyeong mit uido-wa daeung banghyang” [Assessing North Korea’s Intentions in Propagandizing Park In-Sook’s Re-defection and Possible Responses], Korea Institute for National Unification Online Series 12, no. 27 (2012). https://repo.kinu.or.kr/bitstream/2015.oak/2053/1/0001449881.pdf.
 Haworth, “Vanishing Act.”
 Christopher Green and Stephen Epstein, “Now On My Way To Meet Who? South Korean Television, North Korean Refugees, and the Dilemmas of Representation,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 41, no. 2 (2013). https://apjjf.org/2013/11/41/Stephen-Epstein/4007/article.html.
 Seyi Rhodes, “Unreported World: North Korean defectors become TV stars in the South,” Channel 4, October 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2EPQRKLriQ.
 Green and Epstein, “Now On My Way To Meet Who?”
 Examples include The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee and Long Road Home by Kim Yong.
 Christopher Green, Steven Denney, and Brian Gleason, “The Whisper in the Ear: Re-Defector Press Conference as Information Management Tool,” Korea Economic Institute of America (2015): 6. https://keia.org/publication/the-whisper-in-the-ear-re-defector-press-conference-as-information-management-tool/.
 Park Jeong-Ran and Kang Dong-Wan, “A Study on the North Koreans’ Acceptance of South Korean Media and Their ‘Distorted Images of South Korea’,” Unification Policy Studies 21, no.1 (2012): 239–70.
 Green, Denney, and Gleason, “The Whisper in the Ear,” 7.
 Ko Byung-chan, “Nearly 1 in 5 N. Korean defectors say they regret coming to S. Korea,” Hankyoreh, April 26, 2022. https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/1040480.html.
 Nam Jae-Sung, “Study on Countermeasures to Curb North Korean Defector’s Return to the North,” Korean Terrorism Studies Review 10, no. 4 (2017): 93–114.
Image Credit: "North Korea - Army and women soldiers" by Roman Harak (License: CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Julia Campbell, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
July 14, 2022
The people of North Korea are subjected to serious human rights violations on a daily basis. These include the exploitation of children for labor and the imposition of harsh punishments for “crimes” that are seen as dangerous to the regime, such as watching South Korean dramas, distributing foreign media content, or attempting to escape the country. However, there are sub-groups of people who are particularly vulnerable, one being the women of the North Korean military.
In North Korea, women experience extreme oppression from men who are in positions of official authority. This can be even worse for women in the military. Women in North Korea are required to serve in the military, but this was not always the case. According to Daily NK, in 2015, North Korea made military service mandatory for women between the ages of 17 and 20. Women are required to serve until the age of 23. Some of the horrific treatment and conditions women face in the military include sexual assault, brutal physical punishments, forced abortions, lack of feminine hygiene products, and the use of threats to shame and silence women. This essay describes these conditions in greater detail by recounting the testimonies of several women who served in North Korea’s military, formally known as the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
In an interview with the BBC, Lee So-Yeon, a former KPA soldier, describes the conditions she faced. To begin with, patriarchal ideology was emphasized in the military. In addition to basic training, women had to do household chores such as cooking and cleaning. Men were exempt from such chores. With inadequate food and stressful training, Lee explains that women would stop having periods, and if they did have them, they would have to reuse sanitary pads and wash them when the men were not looking. She also recalls that women could rarely shower due to the lack of hot water. They had to use a hose to shower, and at times frogs and snakes would come out of the hose. Lee and her fellow soldiers were not given the necessities for proper hygiene.
Sexual assault and rape were also prevalent. Lee did not experience this herself, but she said many of her comrades had. She states, “The company commander would stay in his room at the unit after hours and rape the female soldiers under his command. This would happen over and over without an end.” Rape in the military was commonplace, and the victims were often blackmailed into silence. According to Hyun-Joo Lim, a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University, “Being able to join the Worker’s Party of Korea is an essential pathway to a secure, successful life in North Korea, and a major reason for women to join the army is to become a member of the party. Senior male officials frequently exploit this as a means to manipulate and harass young women, threatening to block their chances of joining the party if they refuse or attempt to report the abuse.” Unable to report their abusers, women face an endless cycle of suffering.
Another alarming aspect of being a woman in the North Korean military is what women must do when they become pregnant. Women are blamed for the pregnancy, so they utilize dangerous methods to abort. This includes “tightening their stomach with an army belt to hide their growing pregnancy, taking anthelmintic medicine (antiparasitic drugs designed to remove parasitic worms from the body), or jumping off and rolling down the high mountain hills.” Lim adds a horrific detail, based on testimony from escapees: “it’s common to find foetuses in army toilets.” That women are willing to put their own health and safety at risk in this way highlights their fear and shows just how difficult life is for women in the North Korean military.
The testimony of North Korean escapee Jennifer Kim (alias), originally featured in a video interview by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), provides another illustration of women’s experiences in the KPA. Kim and other female soldiers faced cruel punishments. She recalls one punishment that involved dipping one’s hands into freezing water then placing them on iron bars. When the hands were removed, so was a layer of flesh. This would happen to all the women if even one person made a mistake.
Kim was sexually assaulted when she served in the military. She was called to a political advisor’s office when she was 23 years old and had a gut feeling about what was going to happen, but she was unable to refuse his order. Kim states, “If I refuse his request, I can’t become a member of the of the Workers’ Party of Korea...If I return to society without being able to join the party, I’m perceived as a problem child and I will be stigmatised for the rest of my life.” Kim ended up becoming pregnant and experienced a traumatic abortion. Kim describes her horrific experience as follows. “I went to the military medical office... a military surgeon was already waiting for me. He performed an abortion on me without anaesthesia...It still haunts me today.” This has had a lasting impact on Kim’s life. She still struggles with mental issues, cannot have children, and has difficulty having a good marriage. All available evidence indicates that Kim’s experience is not an isolated incident.
Da-Eun Lee, a North Korean escapee living in South Korea, talks about her horrific experiences in the military in a video interview cited by Business Insider. When she was 18 years old, a 45-year-old major general asked to speak to her alone. He ordered her to disrobe, stating that he had to “[inspect] her for malnutrition, possibly to send her off to a hospital where undernourished soldiers are treated.” Lee recalls that “I didn’t have much of a choice,” assuming that “there’s a good reason for this.” The major general then ordered her to remove her underwear. When she refused and screamed, he brutally beat her until she was bleeding and had loose teeth. He also threatened her into silence by claiming he would make her life “a living hell.” The former soldier then explains how there was no one she could report her abuse to, and that many other women have also experienced this kind of abuse.
Female soldiers in North Korea’s military are subjected to serious human rights violations and abuse, including rape and forced abortions. According to witness accounts, sexual assault and the manipulation of women are commonplace. Women are unable to seek legal recourse. Because women are silenced, there is no justice. They have to live seeing their abuser go unpunished. Women may even experience continued abuse from their abusers due to the lack of accountability. This essay aims to highlight, once again, what happens to women in North Korea’s military and shed light on their testimonies to raise awareness of the horrific treatment they experience.
Julia Campbell is a junior at Indiana University Bloomington's Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures with a concentration in Korean.
 Choi Song-Min, “Mandatory Military Service Extends to Women,” Daily NK, January 28, 2015. https://www.dailynk.com/english/mandatory-military-service-extends/.
 Megha Mohan, “Rape and no periods in North Korea’s army,” BBC News, November 21, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-41778470.
 Hyun-Joo Lim, “What life is like for North Korean women – according to defectors,” The Independent, September 7, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/world/north-korean-women-rights-kim-jongun-domestic-violence-sexual-harassment-a8525086.html.
 HRNK, “The Shocking Life of a North Korean Female Soldier: The Reality of North Korea!,” November 29, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCsbikKfWLc.
 Lorraine King, “North Korean soldier reveals horrific torment women face in Kim Jong-un’s army,” The Mirror, December 21, 2021. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/north-korean-soldier-reveals-horrific-25751688.
 The video interview, with English subtitles, can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbcxTJKJOVI.
Alex Lockie, “Female North Korean soldiers describe horrific sexual abuse from superior officers,” Business Insider, August 28, 2017. https://www.businessinsider.com/female-north-korean-soldier-horrific-sexual-abuse-2017-8.
Denying the Refugee: a Comparative Analysis of China and the EU’s Use of the Term “Economic Migrant”
By Bryan Clark, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
June 14, 2022
From the United States denying entry to Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their countries throughout the 1980s, to Australia refusing Vietnamese “boat people” in the early 1980s, classifying refugees as “economic migrants” is not a new phenomenon. However, it is one that has become increasingly common in the 21st century. Many argue that by claiming asylum, economic migrants seek to bypass immigration laws in search of a more stable and prosperous economic environment. However, the term “economic migrant” has been used in many instances to deny protection to refugees fleeing horrendous circumstances. Moreover, it has been used to justify returning refugees to countries where their safety is threatened. Two poignant examples of this are China and the European Union’s (EU) forcible return of refugees under the guise of them being “economic migrants.”
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (hereafter referenced as the 1951 Refugee Convention) and its 1967 Protocol are the two most fundamental treaties in international human rights law for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees. These treaties set out the definition for what a refugee is, their rights, and states’ obligations to them. One of the key elements of the 1951 Refugee Convention is the principle of non-refoulement, which states that refugees cannot be returned to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened based on race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. Under these instruments, signatory states are required to conduct Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedures to ascertain if an asylum applicant is capable of receiving refugee status under international, regional, or national laws.
What adds further complexity is the vague and limited scope of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. As stated by Goedde, a strict reading of the 1951 Refugee Convention hindering the acceptance of North Koreans who flee their country as refugees is consistent with what is happening to refugees in other parts of the world, who are not well received by other states. While the principle of non-refoulement is explicitly stipulated, the definition of “refugee” in both documents is too narrow. This allows states to disregard the danger that many asylum seekers find themselves in should they return to their own country. Unfortunately, states do not have many incentives to expand this definition, as the perceived burden of distinguishing between refugees and economic migrants has led many states to increase their standards of proof in determining refugee status.
For decades, North Korean refugees have fled into China to escape the grim reality of life under the Kim dynasty. The specific reasons for leaving are varied, but some of the most common are food insecurity, political persecution, and lack of religious freedom. Varied estimates place the number of North Korean refugees living in China between 60,000–100,000, the majority of whom reside in the northeastern Chinese provinces along the border with North Korea. Yet, despite having finally escaped the brutal regime, North Korean refugees in China live under the constant threat of being sent back if discovered. The Chinese government denies North Korean refugees the right to asylum by classifying them as economic migrants. It claims that many North Korean refugees enter China to make money to feed themselves or their families. This has been the long-standing position of the Chinese government.
Beijing has several agreements with the North Korean government regarding border issues, including one on the repatriation of those who cross irregularly into China. The most notable of these agreements are the “Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order and the Border Areas” signed in 1986 and a secret repatriation agreement signed in the 1960s. These agreements require China to return any North Korean “migrants” who have illegally crossed into the country. From the Chinese government’s perspective, it considers itself obligated to comply with these agreements, despite having ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Moreover, in 2002, China’s ambassador to South Korea stated that North Koreans illegally crossing into China could not be seen as refugees. Thus, China would protect its borders and treat those who have crossed “according to humanitarian political principles.” However, the act of returning individuals China claims to be “economic migrants” to North Korea is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, as enshrined in Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. It has been well-documented by testimonies from North Korean refugees that those forcibly returned to North Korea are placed in prison camps. In these prisons, torture, rape, forced abortions, and death due to mistreatment regularly occur.
The Chinese government’s response ignores the roots of the dire predicament that many North Koreans face. The discriminatory nature of North Korean society, based on songbun, means that certain segments of the population are faced with severe economic discrimination, significantly limiting an individual’s access to sustenance based on social standing, religion, and political opinion. Furthermore, no matter their original intention for leaving, those who flee North Korea become refugees the moment they cross the border. The majority of those leaving North Korea are not political dissidents as such. However, due to the repressive and vindictive nature of the North Korean regime, these refugees are considered as traitors the moment they cross the border into China. Thus, even a North Korean leaving the country for economic reasons becomes a refugee sur place in China due to the credible fear of persecution upon return.
In the EU
The refoulement of refugees in the 21st century under the justification that they are economic migrants has not been solely limited to North Korea’s most significant ally, but one of North Korea’s harshest critics as well. Like China, the EU has been involved in returning refugees to countries where their safety is threatened. The EU also widely claims to treat refugees in accordance with human rights law and principles. Yet, despite the prevalence of its humanitarian discourse, the EU has also denied asylum to refugees seeking protection from unsafe conditions in their home countries. Through the use of the label “economic migrant,” the EU has shirked its responsibility to protect vulnerable individuals. The EU is party to a robust and comprehensive regime of human rights laws that is intended to protect the fundamental rights of all individuals in Europe. Like China, the EU’s member states are bound to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) obliges its signatories to respect human rights, including prohibitions against torture and the collective expulsion of aliens. Additionally, Article 78 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union explicitly requires the EU to ensure compliance with the principle of non-refoulement.
Yet, despite its humanitarian discourse and legal commitments to international and regional human rights laws, the EU has allowed the Mediterranean Sea to become a hotbed for human rights violations by its member states and one of its own agencies. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, is the EU agency tasked with securing the external borders of the Schengen Area. Frontex states that, in line with the EU’s expressed values, the agency operates in a manner that respects fundamental rights. Despite these claims, Frontex has been embroiled in controversy in recent years due to repeated claims of being complicit in human rights violations against refugees. A 2021 report by Der Spiegel and its partners claimed that Frontex works in conjunction with the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy to return refugees to Libya. This has continued to occur despite the 2019 recommendations from the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe to cease returning refugees to Libya due to consistent reports of human rights violations. Many of these refugees are placed in detention camps for undefined periods of time, where they are subjected to torture, rape, and slavery. Reports on the conditions in these camps date to the early 2000s, particularly those by Human Rights Watch, which highlight the EU’s failure to abide by its own humanitarian discourse.
Identifying economic migrants posing as refugees has been prevalent in EU border security management and migration control as well. The nature of Frontex’s activities at the EU’s borders center on the “truthfulness” of those that are intercepted, rather than assessments of vulnerability. This sentiment was reflected in 2019 when Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini announced a planned security decree that would target “economic refugees.” Salvini justified the decree by stating that Italy has already accepted too many “fake” refugees. Italy plays an important role in this task, as its geographical location is at the EU’s external border along the Mediterranean Sea. The EU has used Italy to strengthen its border security management regime. The country’s EU-backed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Libya provides the Libyan government with financial and material support in exchange for curbing the flow of illegal migrants. However, the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy’s dragnet tactics mean that even refugees are summarily returned without receiving a proper assessment of their vulnerability.
The term “economic migrant” cannot be justifiably applied to North Korean refugees, nor is the label accurate for many who try to “irregularly” enter the EU. These refugees are fleeing their country to find safety. The consequences of this trend have been exacerbated by the rise in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments in developed countries in the 21st century. The perception of refugees in the EU was, in certain member states, negatively altered due to a substantial number of arrivals during the 2015 European migrant crisis.
The EU has repeatedly condemned the North Korean government for its human rights record. Most notably, the EU sponsored the 2003 resolution on North Korean human rights at the UN Commission on Human Rights. It was in this resolution that the Commission expressed its concerns about the scope and gravity of human rights violations in North Korea, and the EU has since continued to sponsor resolutions on North Korean human rights at the UN. The EU has also levied sanctions against North Korea to pressure the government to cease its nuclear weapons program and to stop committing human rights violations. The most recent round of sanctions by the EU came in April 2022, specifically targeting eight individuals and four entities involved in financing the country’s nuclear programs.
However, despite its criticism of North Korean human rights violations, the EU continues to return refugees to countries where they are subjected to the similarly horrendous treatment of North Korean refugees. The EU, as a purported bastion of respect for human rights, must cease the refoulement of refugees to Libya. Its continued collaboration with the Libyan government flies in the face of the principles and values it claims to be founded on. Furthermore, the 1951 Refugee Convention was created in light of the experiences of European refugees fleeing persecution during World War II. Condemning the North Korean government while being culpable of exposing refugees to egregious human rights violations ultimately undermines the EU’s credibility as a normative power in the area of human rights. Additionally, the moral thrust behind the EU’s recent sanctions on China for human rights violations in the country’s Xinjiang region is jeopardized as well.
It should be noted that certain EU member states willingly accepted thousands of refugees during the height of the European migrant crisis, such as Germany. Much effort by the EU is also being directed to resettle Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion. As important as these efforts have been, the EU and its member states are strongly encouraged to abide by their own commitments to human rights, as required by both international and regional human rights laws, in all instances.
Likewise, the Chinese government must not ignore the international human rights laws that it has signed, no matter the agreements that it has with North Korea. These laws take precedence over national laws and agreements between states. The forced repatriation of North Korean refugees back into the hands of a brutal regime violates what is considered to be a fundamental human right, the ability to leave one’s country, which is enshrined in Article 12(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As these individuals would be subjected to serious and systematic human rights violations in North Korea, the Chinese government is obligated under international law to cease all forced repatriation of North Korean refugees. Additionally, as required by all states that are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, China must conduct RSD to thoroughly assess an individual’s asylum claim without summarily apprehending and returning them to their country of origin.
While the 1951 Refugee Convention may suffer from a lack of effectiveness and has a restrictive definition of what a refugee can be, it is still important for states to remember the spirit in which it was created. The Convention was designed to provide protection for some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals and groups, an endeavor that should continue to be pursued today.
Bryan Clark is a second-year graduate student at the European School of Political and Social Sciences (ESPOL) at Lille Catholic University in Lille, France, pursuing a Master's in International and Security Politics.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.