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Group Helps North Korean Children Flee Statelessness in China

A South Korean Christian missionary organization is helping some of the thousands of children of North Korean defectors living in China.

The group works to help the children escape the difficulty of being “stateless” and suffering lives of poverty and abuse.

Pastor Chun Ki-won is a religious worker for the Durihana Church in Seoul. He has helped many children and their mothers get to South Korea. Once there, they can be granted asylum and citizenship.

Chun said the South Korean government limits some benefits for defectors. For example, free university tuition is not available to North Korean children born in China.

“General defectors can get reimbursed for the tuition but our students must pay by themselves, so we have to help them,” he said.

The human trafficking of defectors leaves many open to abuse

Increased border security has reduced the number of North Korean defectors in recent years. Those who are able to cross into China are now mostly women.

Members of Korea Freedom Federation rally to demand the safety of North Korean defectors in Seoul in 2013.

Members of Korea Freedom Federation rally to demand the safety of North Korean defectors in Seoul in 2013.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry says nearly 80 percent of all North Korean defectors seeking asylum in the country are women.

Chun said human traffickers bribe guards to let the women across the border. He says, in rural China, there is a high demand for wives, domestic workers and sex workers.

North Korean women are brought into China, often into abusive situations, where they have no rights or legal status.

“There are many people who want to buy the women, and there are many North Koreans who want to defect,” he said.

Many North Korean defectors have given birth to children in China.

The Korea Institute for National Unification estimated in 2012 that there were about 30,000 children of escaped North Korean women in China.

Defectors live a difficult life in exile

Human rights organizations say China is required to protect refugees under international law. Yet, China considers North Korean defectors illegal migrants.

Activists say North Korean children in China are not considered citizens and often have no access to school or health care.

The children’s mothers live in fear they will be sent back to North Korea where they could face prison.

Fifteen-year-old Han Ye-Seul is a North Korean defector. She said, “When I was living in China, it was very dangerous, but here in Korea I am living with freedom.”

She and many of the children rescued by Chun were brought to attend the Durihana International School in Seoul. There, they learn educational and social skills. The children also learn how to deal with daily life in the wealthy and democratic South.

In April, 13 North Koreans who worked in China defected to South Korea in a widely repored case.

In April, 13 North Koreans who worked in China defected to South Korea in a widely repored case.

South Korea uses the term “defector” rather than “refugee” for North Korean asylum seekers. The term shows that they are escaping a repressive, communist political system. Yet, these “defectors” also are driven by economic and basic human needs.

In the 1990s, North Korea suffered a severe and deadly famine. Conditions in the communist country have improved partly because of market reforms that give farmers more control over what they produce. However, poverty and food shortages are still widespread.

Many defectors helped by Chun carry scars

Some North Korean students in Seoul are still recovering from past abuse suffered during their years in China. Eleven-year-old Kim Choon-woo carries physical scars from when she was stabbed by her Chinese father.

“My father did it because he was mentally ill,” Kim said.

Pastor Chun said Kim’s father committed suicide because he thought he had killed his daughter.

Most of the North Korean women and children his church is helping, the pastor said, have experienced some kind of abuse or mistreatment.

Kim says that her mother remarried in South Korea and she is happy in her new home.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Brian Padden reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

defector –n. someone who leaves their country to go to another for political reasons

reimburse –v. to be paid back for an expense

tuition –n. the cost of taking classes at a school

bribe –n. something valuable given, often illegally, to get someone to do something

status –n. the position of a person under the law

scar –n. what remains after a wound has healed

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