NK Defectors

North Korea Defectors

Fleeing the homeland


Most people in North Korea live in very poor conditions with little, if any, opportunity to make headway. Social status in the reclusive nation depends on loyalty to the regime. There is a wide strata classified “hostile” who are exposed to diverse abuses and arbitrary imprisonment by state agents. Should a person succeed in escaping, the law punishes three generations of the remaining family members

Explore the chances

The Demilitarised zone is the most dangerous choice as the southern boundary is heavily militarised

Russia and North Korea signed an agreement in 2014, which stipulates the repatriation of illegal immigrants on a reciprocal basis

North Korean defectors are considered illegal economic immigrants and are repatriated

North Korean refugees caught in Mongolia are sent to South Korea by plane at no cost

In Laos, when discovered, defectors face arrest and repatriation

Vietnam maintains diplomatic relations with North Korea, but with South Korean investments growing, the government quietly allows transit to Seoul

North Koreans are not given refugee status and are officially classified as illegal immigrants. However, the Thai government deports defectors to South Korea

Only a few choose this option due to the dangerous sea voyage. Once safe in Japan, fugitives are allowed to transit to South Korea

Hard to reach but Manila allows North Koreans transit to Seoul

Distance chart

The safest place to escape is across North Korea’s northern border with China. If Dandong is the starting point and a South Korean consular mission is the end goal, these are the distances to cover

Thae Yong-ho (55)

Considered the highest-ranking North Korean defector, Thae was a deputy ambassador to the UK. Unusually for North Korean diplomats, he was allowed to live with his family because of his loyalty to Kim’s regime. He defected with his family to South Korea in 2016

North Korean defectors entering South Korea

Punishment places

Those sent to camps include officials accused of poor job performance, people who criticised the regime, and anyone suspected of involvement in anti-government activities



Some prisoner are victims of the regime’s “three generations of punishment”, in which several generations of a prisoner’s family are also sent to the camp without having committed a crime themselves

Balloons to the North

South Korean activists regularly send balloons to the North carrying bags containing a wide range of anti-Kim material in the form of waterproof plastic leaflets, flash drives of documentary films or books

The balloons carry a timer attached to a fastener which releases the package after three to five hours of flight over North Korea

Overseas labour camps

According to recent reports, more than 50,000 North Korean workers are estimated to be currently working abroad in forced labour

Pyongyang’s labour export programme stipulates most overseas earnings are the property of the state. It is estimated the North Korean government earns between US$400-US$500 million a year through remittances from overseas workers

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