By Elizabeth Jean H. Kim, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
The demographics of North Korean escapees reveals a notable gender gap between men and women. Previous studies have already addressed how gender roles have influenced individuals’ decision to escape North Korea since the great famine in the late 1990s. However, the question of “What causes North Korean women to escape in much larger numbers than men?” requires further explanation.
This article examines the gendered defection of North Koreans. Given my first-hand experiences as a North Korean refugee and hope to be a scholar of North Korean human rights issues, I am focusing on this research on how the gendered defection of North Koreans is related to structural factors and economic developments, including the rise of market activity during and after the famine of the 1990s. I also emphasize the pull factor of the gender imbalance in China, which led to the large-scale trafficking of North Korean women. Lastly, I argue that escapes from North Korea in recent years have been primarily influenced by family ties and social networks, sometimes involving escapees who have already resettled in South Korea.
North Korea’s socialist system structurally segregates gender. Men are required to serve in the military for ten years, starting at the age of 17. During high school, all of my male classmates registered and took regular physical examinations under the local military mobilization department. After graduating, the majority entered military service. Only a few of my male classmates were waived from the military requirements, including those with physical disabilities, those who enrolled in college after being identified for their academic talent, and those with “unfavorable” family backgrounds due to guilt-by-association.
On the other hand, only three of my female classmates—those over 5.2 feet (158 cm) tall—were qualified to serve in the military for eight years. Although I was also qualified for military service, I enrolled in college instead. Due to chronic malnutrition and forced labor from a very young age, the average height of North Korean women is smaller than South Korean women. According to a 2016 study, the difference is 3.3cm (162.3 cm vs. 159cm).
While North Korean men are tightly controlled under the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) in the public sphere, North Korean women mostly remain in the domestic sphere. If girls do not qualify for military recruitment or college enrollment, they automatically became members of the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League in workplaces and institutions, including textile factories and farms. Once these women get married, they are transferred from the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League to the Women’s Union, an official organization that is used for mobilizing North Korean women. Women remain members of the Women’s Union for life.
Past Defections and the Impact of Marketization
After the collapse of the socialist system and Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, the public distribution system no longer provided enough goods or necessities for North Koreans. The Kim Jong-il regime proclaimed the “Military First” ideology to reinforce national security. The regime continually recruited North Korean men into the military. Meanwhile, the KWP and the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League strictly controlled men who were disqualified from military service by making them work at industrialized facilities with almost no pay.
At the time, my father’s official monthly salary was very low. We could barely buy 2 lb of pork, despite his relatively high position in a government-assigned job. My mom did not even calculate his salary in our family finances. Instead, we considered it as “free money.” One escapee I talked to told me that he had been a dam repairman in Ryanggang Province. He received 1,400 North Korean won per month for his work. “There was nothing I could do with this money, maybe I could buy 0.2 kilograms of rice,” he recalled. This reveals a glimpse of just how low official salaries were at the time. They were not enough for male North Korean workers to provide for their family’s basic needs. Instead, women sustained their families through economic activity at local markets, smuggling, developing private farms, and cultivating herbs.
This economic activity had a direct influence on migration patterns. Female escapees who lived near the Chinese border (North Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces) were more likely to escape due to the emergence of new economic activity. North Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces are the focal points of illegal trade with China. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, almost 80% of the 24,389 female North Korean escapees who have resettled in South Korea are from these two provinces.
During my nearly two-year confinement in a refugee camp during my journey to the United States, I met many female escapees from North Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces. I was familiar with their northern accent, and I quickly noticed details about their background. Some were from the same town near the border with China, and some even went to the same school before leaving North Korea. Most of them left their hometown to seek economic opportunities or to pursue their personal aspirations for a better life, but they became victims of human trafficking in China. I also met female North Korean escapees from Pyongan Province. One of these women, P, had been born and raised in Pyongyang. After the public distribution system collapsed, however, she went to her aunt’s house in Musan County in North Hamgyong Province to make a living through smuggling. However, a woman in her aunt’s neighborhood approached her to suggest going to China to make money, luring her into sex trafficking and forced marriage with a Chinese man.
During and immediately after the famine of the 1990s, fraud and lack of awareness also contributed to gendered defection. Living in a confined, overcrowded room in dire conditions with insufficient food at the refugee camp, I built rapport with many female North Korean refugees. I observed that the majority of North Korean women, especially those who escaped in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were tricked by their neighbors, friends, and sometimes even relatives into going to China, where they became victims of human trafficking. This has also been documented by researchers. For example, one North Korean escapee went to China with her friend and her friend’s father to try and find her two sisters, who had already escaped to China and had been forced to marry Chinese men. However, after crossing the Tumen River, her friend’s father sold her to a Chinese man instead.
After the famine, China became North Korea’s most significant trade partner. Chinese companies collected natural resources from North Korea, like wood, medicinal herbs, and mineral resources. Those who live near the border with China rely on exchanging natural resources and other trade to make a living. One such North Korean escapee, C, went to collect blueberries near Baekdu Mountain with her friends, but ended up reaching a Chinese village by accident. “I did not know how to go back home,” she told me. Lacking information or reliable social networks, North Korean women who arrive in China often become victims of trafficking. According to one estimate, approximately 70% to 80% of North Korean women who cross into China fall victim to human trafficking.
Gendered North Korean defection is directly reflected in pull factors on the Chinese side. The gender imbalance resulting from decades of enforcing the “one-child policy,” combined with traditional gender norms, created a “demand” for North Korean women, who are sold into marriage and kept in captivity.
In contrast, the pull factor of North Korean men to China is relatively low. North Korean men find work on hidden farms or in the lumber industry in northern China through an underground labor market. They are severely exploited by their Korean-Chinese employers.
Mr. C, who joined our group of escapees in Shenyang after being released from a long-term prison labor facility in North Korea, said that he crossed the border into China to earn money to support his family. Once he arrived in China, he connected with his friend, who was already working in a lumber facility in Changchun. The living and working conditions there were horrific. Even worse, his employer was unwilling to pay the North Korean workers and reported them to the police. The workers were subsequently repatriated to North Korea. Another male escapee pointed out to me that “we knew that we would not be welcome in China even if we escaped there, and there is nothing we can really do.”
In recent years, escapes from North Korea are more likely to be related to social networks and human capital. Even after Kim Jong-un further tightened border security upon coming to power, there was still a gender imbalance among escapees who arrived in South Korea.
The number of North Korean women who escaped to South Korea after living in China is relatively higher than those who directly crossed the border from North Korea. NGOs and South Korean missionaries play an important role here. I was rescued by a South Korean missionary organization while I was in China. With their help and protection, I successfully reached out to a third country where I could claim my status as a refugee. In my group, six out of eight had been rescued by the same organization from China, and only two had recently left North Korea with help from family members who had already resettled in South Korea. I learned in the refugee camp that there were large numbers of female North Korean escapees who had been rescued by NGOs and mission organizations, many of them from China.
Nevertheless, the gender gap among escapees has shrunk since 2021 due to the regime’s COVID-19 restrictions. The small number of escapees who arrived during the pandemic could do so thanks to the help of family members and other social networks, making it easier to navigate their journey to South Korea. It is likely that these recent escapees had been trapped in China for a while, and could sustain themselves with the support of family members who were already living in South Korea.
By contrast, it is now difficult for North Korean women in China to escape unless they have family members or relatives who can help. Due to advanced surveillance technology and restrictions on movement, there are greater risks in rescuing North Korean women from China. Moreover, the cost is much higher than before. In the case of K, a female escapee who arrived in South Korea in 2020, both of her parents had already been living in South Korea for a decade. With her parents’ support, K was successfully rescued from North Korea and arrived in South Korea in the middle of the pandemic.
The decision to escape from North Korea must be examined from multiple perspectives, including structural factors, economic changes, the power of women’s economic contribution, regional mobility, and the pull factor resulting from the gender imbalance in China.
During and shortly after the famine of the 1990s, gendered defection directly reflected institutionalized gender separation within North Korea. Economic devastation pushed North Korean women, mostly from North Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces, to go to China to seek economic opportunities or to achieve their personal aspirations. However, upon arriving in China, North Korean women were often lured into sex trafficking networks through fraud and deception. Moreover, the gendered defection of North Koreans must be understood with reference to the gender imbalance in China. It is in this context that many North Korean women were sold to poor rural Chinese men.
In recent years, escapes from North Korea have been more closely related to family ties and social networks. The latter includes NGOs and religious organizations. Overall, the number of escapees has drastically dropped over the past couple of years.
To rescue North Korean women in China who have fallen victim to trafficking, more NGOs and international humanitarian organizations must pay attention to these issues as serious violations of human rights. The international community must pressure China to take responsibility for and assist trafficked North Korean women. China can take tangible steps, such as providing them with a legal basis for staying in China and facilitating humanitarian protection. For North Koreans who newly escape to China, the Chinese government should create a new category of asylum seekers and allow a temporary immigration status instead forcibly repatriating them.
Elizabeth Jean H. Kim (pseudonym) is a North Korean refugee student who studied Sociology and International Relations at the University of Southern California.
 Ministry of Unification, “Number of North Korean Defectors Entering South Korea,” accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.unikorea.go.kr/eng_unikorea/whatwedo/support/.
 Cho Eun-ah, “韓여성 키 162㎝… 100년새 20㎝ ‘폭풍 성장’ 세계 1위” [South Korean Women are 162cm on Average – 20cm Growth over the Past 100 Years], Dong-A Ilbo, July 27, 2016. https://www.donga.com/news/Society/article/all/20160727/79419892/1.
 Fyodor Tertitskiy, “Let them eat rice: North Korea’s public distribution system,” NK News, October 29, 2015. https://www.nknews.org/2015/10/let-them-eat-rice-north-koreas-public-distribution-system/.
 Ministry of Unification, “Policy on North Korean Defectors,” accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.unikorea.go.kr/eng_unikorea/relations/statistics/defectors/.
 Lives for Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2009), 33. https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Lives_for_Sale.pdf.
 Ahn So-young, “국제법률단체 ‘탈북 여성들 중국 동북3성에서 성착취…국제사회 대응 시급’” [The Sexual Exploitation of North Korean Women in Northeastern China Requires Urgent International Attention, says NGO], VOA Korea, March 27, 2023. https://www.voakorea.com/a/7024247.html.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.