North Korean defectors

From New World Encyclopedia

North Korean defectors
Hangul 탈북자
Hanja 脫北者
Revised Romanization Talbukja
McCune-Reischauer T'albukcha

North Korean defectors are Koreans who have fled North Korea seeking asylum in South Korea or other nations.

Immediately following the truce ending the Korean war, South Korea sought to entice North Koreans to defect to the South, especially high level officials or pilots with their advanced aircraft. From 1953 to the early 1980s, rich rewards and fame awaited defectors. However, South Korea's generosity began to withdraw as the possible collapse of North Korea in the wake news of Kim Il-sung's death, famines and droughts, a lack of energy aid from Russia, and looming bankruptcy became a possibility. The South began to pursue the Sunshine policy from the late 1990s in hopes of avoiding a collapse of North Korea while fostering democracy and free enterprise. A decade later, however, relations between the two Koreas worsened and this policy was abandoned.

North Koreans have continued to defect, with many being caught during the attempted defection. The usual strategy is to cross the border into Northeast China before fleeing to a third country, because the People's Republic of China has refused to grant North Korean defectors refugee status. If defectors are caught in China they are repatriated back to North Korea to face years of punishment or even death in North Korean prison camps.


Did you know?
Since the end of the Korean War many people have defected from North Korea by crossing into China

Since the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II and from the end of the Korean War (1950–1953), many people have defected from North Korea, mainly for political, ideological, and economic reasons. North Korea has caught many more trying to defect. Usually, North Koreans attempt to cross the North Korean border into Northeast China before fleeing to a third country. The People's Republic of China, a close ally of Pyongyang, refuses to grant North Korean defectors refugee status and considers them illegal economic migrants. If caught, the Chinese repatriate defectors back to North Korea, where they face years of punishment or even death in North Korean gulags.

Several different terms have been used for North Korean defectors. On January 9, 2005, the South Korean Ministry of Unification announced the use of the term saeteomin (새터민, “people in a new place” or “people new to a place”) instead of talbukja (“person(s) fleeing or having fled the North”), a term about which North Korean officials expressed displeasure. A newer term is bukhanitalchumin (hangul: 북한이탈주민 hanja: 北韓離脫住民), which has the more forceful meaning of, "residents who renounced North Korea."[1]

North Korean Defectors to South Korea

Propaganda showing a soldier of North Korea destroying the U.S. Capitol.


In 1962, the South Korean government introduced the "Special law on the protection of defectors from the North" which, after revision in 1978, remained effective until 1993. According to the law, every defector became eligible for a generous aid package. After their arrival in the South, defectors received an allowance, the size depending upon their classification in one of three categories determined by the defector’s political importance and education/experience. Apart from that allowance, defectors who delivered especially valuable intelligence or equipment received large additional rewards. Prior to 1997 the payments had been fixed in gold bullion, not in South Korean won in an attempt to counter North Koreans' ingrained distrust about the reliability of paper money.

The state provided defectors with good apartments that became their personal property without charge. Anyone who wished to study received admission in the university of his or her choice. Military officers joined the South Korean military with the same rank they had held in the North Korean army. For a period of time after their arrival defectors also received personal bodyguards. Later, however, South Korea passed controversial measures intended to slow the flow of asylum seekers as it had become worried that a growing number of North Koreans crossing the Yalu and Tumen rivers into China would seek refuge in the South. The regulations tightened defector screening processes and reduced the amount of money given to each refugee from ₩28,000,000 to ₩10,000,000. South Korean officials said the new rules were intended to prevent ethnic Koreans living in China from entering the South, as well as to stop North Koreans with criminal records from gaining entry.


Hanawon, the government resettlement center for North Korean defectors, opened on July 8, 1999, nestled in the South Korean countryside, in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, about three hours south of Seoul. Originally built to accommodate around 200 people for a three-month resettlement program, the government extended the center in 2002 to double its original size and cut the program from three months to two months because of the increase in the number of North Korean defectors per year. In 2004, to mark the fifth anniversary of the program, a second facility opened south of Seoul. Hanawon can now feed, house, and train 400 people. At Hanawon, the training curriculum focuses on three main goals: easing the socioeconomic and psychological anxiety of North Korean defectors, overcoming the barriers of cultural heterogeneity, and offering practical training for earning a livelihood in the South.

Hanawon imposes heavy restrictions on the travel of North Korean defectors because of security concerns. In addition, the government maintains security tight with barbed wire, security guards, and surveillence cameras. The threat of kidnap, or personal attacks against individual North Koreans, by North Korean agents presents an ever-present danger to North Korean defectors. Upon completion of the Hanawon program, defectors find their own homes with a government subsidy. When Hanawon first opened North Koreans received ₩36 million per person to resettle with ₩540,000 monthly afterward. Now they receive ₩20 million to resettle and ₩320,000 monthly.


Approximate total number of defectors processed by the South Korean government from 1953 to 2009: 18,000

  • pre-1989 – 607
  • 1990 – 9
  • 1991 – 9
  • 1992 – 8
  • 1993 – 8
  • 1994 – 52

  • 1995 – 41
  • 1996 – 56
  • 1997 – 85
  • 1998 – 71
  • 1999 – 148

  • 2000 – 312
  • 2001 – 583
  • 2002 – 1,139
  • 2003 – 1,281
  • 2004 – 1,894

  • 2005 – 1,387
  • 2006 - 2,018
  • 2007 - 2,544
  • 2008 - 2,809
  • 2009 - 2,952

Source: Ministry of Unification, South Korea

North Korean Defectors in South Korea

In the past, North Korean defectors typically received a great deal of media attention in the past. As their numbers increase, media attention has diminished. The vast majority of defectors from North Korea find transit to South Korea impossible. Instead, they settle illegally, typically in northeast China or the Russian Far East. The month, day, and year, when known, refer to when the defector(s) arrived in South Korea. This list can never be exhaustive so long as the threat exists of retaliation by the North Korean government against "traitors" to the regime. Many defectors do not reveal their true identity and give interviews using a pseudonym.

By decade


  • On 21 September 1953, Air force senior lieutenant No Kum-Sok (age 21) flew his MiG-15 to the South. Since this fighter plane represented the best the Communist bloc had at the time, the United Nations considered No's defection an intelligence bonanza. He received the then exorbitant sum of $100,000 and the right to reside in the United States.
  • On June 21, 1955, the air force officers and friends Lee Un-yong and Lee Eun-seong flew a Yak-18 across the border and landed at the then-major airport on Yeouido in Seoul.


  • 1960
    • Chong Nak-hyok – air force lieutenant flew his MiG-15 to the South.
  • 1968
    • Kim Shin-jo – on January 21, one of a 31-person team sent to the South to assassinate then-President Park Chung Hee, leading to a retaliation called the Silmido incident. After the government spared his life, he became a missionary and has written books on how he found inner peace in Christianity.


  • 1970
    • Pak Sun-kuk – air force major, ordered to return a recently repaired MiG-15 from a repair workshop to Wonsan, Kangwon Province, used the opportunity to fly it to the South, crash-landing in Gangwon Province, South Korea.


  • 1983
    • Lee Ung-pyong – air force captain Yi Ung-pyong of the North Korea air force used a training exercise to defect and landed his MiG-19 at a South Korean airfield. According to the then-common practice, he received a commission in the South Korean Army, eventually becoming a colonel. He received a reward of ₩1.2 billion.
  • 1987
    • Kang Chol-hwan – imprisoned with his family at age ten for his grandfather's alleged political crime. He and a friend fled across the Yalu river into China after he learned of an investigation into his suspected disloyal activities while listening to South Korean radio broadcasts.


  • 1994
    • Jang Kil-soo – North Korean movie director who defected, becoming a successful director in South Korea.
    • Kim Hyung-dok – September – successfully arrived in Seoul after two years trying to secure passage to the South. Two years later, the South Korean government arrested him for trying to flee back to the North.
  • 1995
    • Lee Soon Ok – December – high-ranking party member from northern province defected with son to the South via China and Hong Kong after suffering seven years in a political prisoner camp at Kaechon. She has since written her memoirs, Eyes of the Tailless Animals, and testified before the United States House of Representatives and the United Nations.
    • Choi Ju-hwal – a former North Korean colonel and chief of the joint venture section of Yung-Seong Trading Company under the Ministry of the People's Army.
  • 1996
    • Lee Chul-su – May 23 – air force captain Lee Chul-su defected to South Korea by flying across the border in an aging MiG-19 fighter. He received an award of ₩480 million (the equivalent of $560,000 then).
    • May 31 – scientist Chung Kab-ryol and writer Chang Hae-song arrived at Seoul's Kimpo Airport from Hong Kong.
  • 1997
    • Hwang Jang-yop – February 12 – former secretary of the North Korean Workers Party and his aide Kim Dok-hong come to the Consular Section of the Republic of Korea Embassy in Beijing seeking political asylum. They arrived in Seoul on April 20 after staying in the South Korean Consulate in Beijing for thirty four days and in the Philippines for thirty three days. Hwang stands as the highest ranking North Korean official to defect.
    • Kim Kil-son – August 1997 – worked in a publications department of North Korea’s Number 2 Research Center prior to defection.
    • Kim Song Gun – fearing death from starvation, left his home in the northern city of Chongjin, North Hamgyeong Province.
    • Kim Kun Il – left the North after his father died from hunger.
  • 1998
    • December 31 – 33 year-old factory worker who had been living in hiding since leaving the North in August 1996 arrived in Seoul seeking asylum.
  • 1999
    • Jang Gil-su – fled North Korea at age 15, and became famous in South Korea following publication there and in the U.S. media of his chilling crayon drawings, which depict horrific abuses by North Korean authorities against North Korean civilians.
    • Pak Do-ik – former writer of propaganda and theater scripts praising the North's regime. He crossed the Tumen River into China where he encountered South Korean intelligence agents, who showed interest in Pak's knowledge of the regime's hierarchy. After they interrogated him for months, they helped him defect to the South.
    • Suh Jae-seok – defected to South Korea by crossing the Tumen River with his two-year-old son carried in a backpack. Once married to another defector, Park Kyeong-shim, in South Korea. On April 27, 2006, Suh received refugee status in the United States after claiming that he and his son suffered from brutal discrimination in South Korea, an accusation that the Seoul government vehemently denied.


  • 2002
    • July 31 – A North Korean, identified as Kim, sailed into South Korean waters in a 0.3 ton wooden fishing boat off Ganghwa Island on the west coast and expressed his wish to defect.
    • October – Kyong Won-ha – father of North Korea's nuclear program, defected to the West, taking with him many of the secrets of the atomic program pioneered since 1984. Kyong numbered among 20 scientists and military officers smuggled out of North Korea during the alleged Operation Weasel.
    • Son Jong Hoon – arrived in South Korea in 2002. His older brother, Son Jong Nam is currently under sentence of death in North Korea on charges of spying for South Korea. Jong Nam fled to China in 1998, becoming a Christian working for an evangelical mission. Chinese police arrested and repatriated him to North Korea in 2001, where he suffered imprisonment for three years for religious activities. Jong Nam later traveled to China to meet his younger brother, North Korean officials arresting him upon his return in January 2006.
  • 2004
    • May 7 – A family of four North Koreans arrived in South Korea from China via a third country after successful negotiations between the governments of South Korea and China following their arrest after trying to enter the South Korean consulate in Qingdao, China on April 19.
    • July 27 – 230 North Korean refugees airlifted from Vietnam arrived at Sanguine (Seongnam) military airport aboard a chartered Asiana Airlines flight.
    • July 28 – 220 more North Korean refugees arrive at Incheon International Airport from Vietnam, bringing 450 total defectors, or the largest single group of defectors from North Korea, to South Korea.
  • 2005
    • June 17 –
      • Lee Yong-su – soldier in an artillery battalion of the North Korean army in P'yŏnggang county. Cut barbed-wire fences in the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone.
      • two fishermen (one male and one female) crossed the border in the Yellow Sea aboard their small motorless vessel.
    • June 26 – Hong family – father (42), wife (39), and their son crossed the border in the Yellow Sea.


  • Lee Chong-guk, used to work as a cook at Chongryu-gwan, the most famous of all Pyongyang restaurants. He established his own restaurant chain in the South.
  • Sin Yong-hui, dancer in the Mansudae troupe (the North Korean equivalent of the Bolshoi Theatre), became a moderately successful actress.
  • Her husband Choi Se-ung, worked for many years in the overseas offices of North Korean trade companies, founded a highly successful company that deals in currency exchange.
  • Yo Man-chol, a former captain in the Ministry of Public Safety (the North Korean police), opened a small restaurant in Seoul.
  • Chang Hae-song, a former North Korean playwright and journalist, who once specialized in radio dramas about the sufferings of the South Korean people, nowadays works in the Institute of Unification Policy and writes about North Korea. His daughter also attracted some attention when she posted an exceptional score in the South Korean version of the scholastic aptitude test.
  • Park Young Ae – runs a restaurant in the South.

North Korean Defectors in other Countries

In Vietnam

Until 2004, North Korean defectors considered Vietnam the "preferred Southeast Asian escape route," largely due to its less-mountainous terrain. Though Vietnam remains officially a communist country and maintains diplomatic relations with North Korea, growing South Korean investment in Vietnam has prompted Hanoi to quietly permit the transit of North Korean refugees to Seoul. The increased South Korean presence in the country also proved a magnet for defectors. South Korean expatriates run four of the largest defector safe houses in Vietnam, and many defectors indicated that they chose to try to cross the border from China into Vietnam precisely because they had heard about such safe houses.[2] In July 2004, 468 North Korean refugees flew to South Korea in the single largest mass defection. Vietnam initially tried to keep their role in the airlift secret, and in advance of the deal, even anonymous sources in the South Korean government would only tell reporters that the defectors came from "an unidentified Asian country". Following the airlift, Vietnam tightened border controls and deported several safe house operators.

In Japan

In two cases, North Korean defectors escaped directly to Japan, one in 1987,[3] and one on June 2, 2007, when a family of four North Koreans made it to the coast of Aomori Prefecture. Police and Japan Coast Guard found the family having sailed six days by boat.[4] The four said they wanted to leave for South Korea, but after initial agreement between the governments of South Korea and Japan,[5] police found that one of the defectors possessed one gram of amphetamine. The police decided not to press charges although the investigation continues. [6]

Japan has also resettled about 140 survivors of the 1959-1984 mass "repatriation" of ethnic Koreans from Japan to North Korea, a supposedly "humanitarian" project which involved the resettlement of around 90,000 people (mostly originating from the southern part of the Korean Peninsula) in the DPRK.[7]

In China

China has between 20,000 and 400,000 North Korean refugees, mostly in the northeast, making them the largest population outside of North Korea. China considers them illegal members of the ethnic Korean community, leaving them out of the Chinese census. Some North Korean refugees unable to obtain transport to South Korea, choose instead to marry ethnic Koreans in China and settle there, blending into the community. The Chinese government still targets them for deportation if discovered by the authorities.[8]

In Russia

North Koreans in Russia consist mainly of three groups: international students, guest workers, and defectors and refugees. During the post-Korean War reconstruction period of North Korea from 1953 to 1962, many North Korean students enrolled in universities and colleges in countries of the Soviet bloc, including Russia, and others went as industrial trainees. The decline of the economy of North Korea has also resulted in an increasing number of North Korean refugees in Russia, also in the eastern regions. Many of these refugees were runaways from the North Korean logging camps. Both South Korean diplomatic missions and local ethnic Koreans have been reluctant to provide them with any assistance.

In the United States

President Bush meets with Korean Defectors and Abuductee Families

On May 5, 2006 the United States granted unnamed North Koreans refugee status for the first time, the first North Korean refugees accepted since President George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act in October 2004. The group, included four women who said that they had been the victim of forced marriages, arrived from an unnamed Southeast Asia nation. Since this first group of refugees, small numbers of North Korean refugees have been admitted into the United States.

As of June 2010, there are a reported 99 North Korean refugees living in the United States.[9]


  1. 통일부 "'새터민'용어 가급적 안쓴다" Naver News, 2008-11-21. Retrieved January 30, 2012.
  2. The Nautilus Institute, "Perilous Journeys; The Plight of North Koreans in China and Beyond" Asia Report # 122, Oct. 26, 2006.
  3. Yomiuri Shimbun - "4 N. Koreans may be harbinger" (In Japanese) Retrieved November 12, 2007.
  4. Japan News Review - "4 North Korean defectors reach Japan after 6 days on the open sea" June 3, 2007. Retrieved November 12, 2007.
  5. Japan News Review - South Korea and Japan agreed on North Korean defectors Retrieved November 12, 2007.
  6. Asahi Shimbun - N. Korean defector admits drug use June 5, 2007. Retrieved November 12, 2007.
  7. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, - Japan Focus - The Forgotten Victims of the North Korean Crisis Retrieved November 12, 2007.
  8. Marcus Noland, Stephan Haggard, Yoonok Chang, Joshua Kurlantzick, Andrei Lankov, and Jana Mason, "The North Korean Refugee Crisis: Human Rights and International Response" "The North Korean Refugee Crisis: Human Rights and International Response" 2006.
  9. Sam Dolnick, For North Korean Refugees, Little to Cheer About in the World Cup The New York Times, June 11, 2010. Retrieved January 31, 2012.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • "Asia - North Korean defectors - Heading south." The Economist 372 (8386) (2004): 54. OCLC 98936074
  • "ASIA - Myanmar's turmoil. North Korean defectors." The Economist 341 (7996) (1996): 77. OCLC 91591118
  • Chang, Carrol Jung. "The toil of Talbukja assimilation, identity, and the everyday lives of North Korean defectors living in Seoul, South Korea." Thesis (A.B., Honors in Sociology)—Harvard University, 2004. OCLC 58412236
  • Jenkins, Charles Robert, and Jim Frederick. The reluctant communist my desertion, court-martial, and forty-year imprisonment in North Korea. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0520253339
  • Lanʹkov, A. N. North of the DMZ essays on daily life in North Korea. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2007. ISBN 978-0786428397
  • Li, Sun Ok, and Dong Chul Choi. Tailless beasts shocking realities of North Korean prisons: the testimony of defectors Li Sun Ok and Choi Dong Chul about North Korean prisons. Seoul, Korea: Advisory Council on Democratic and Peaceful Unification, 1996. OCLC 41846387
  • Mansourov, Alexandre Y. North Korean defector is South Korean CIA's time-bomb. Berkeley, CA: Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, 1994. OCLC 43251053 ASIN B0006RAZAM
  • Ogawa, Haruhisa, and Benjamin H. Yoon. "North Korean refugees/defectors." Seoul: Life and human rights Press, 1999. OCLC 43427983
  • Yeo-sang, Y. "The Era of 10,000 North Korean Defectors." Korea Focus on Current Topics 15 (1) (2007): 47-48. OCLC 124522067

External links

All links retrieved November 16, 2022.


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