In North Korea, escaping the country is a crime. Escapees who are caught face punishment ranging from a few months of detention to several
years in prison, while those alleged to have committed serious crimes such as coming into contact with Christianity are sentenced to a
political prison camp, sometimes indefinitely.
The majority of North Koreans who wish to escape do so by crossing the Tumen or Yalu rivers, the northern border between North Korea and
China. Despite the fact that all North Korean refugees will be persecuted if deported back to North Korea, China does not recognize North
Koreans as refugees but considers them illegal economic migrants. This is contrary to international law. As a result, North Korean refugees in
China are provided no legal protection and are unable to apply for asylum. UN agencies and NGOs cannot officially operate at the China-
North Korea border to provide assistance. This situation has bred an environment in which criminal circles in China exploit North Korean
refugees—women and children in particular are sexually trafficked and sold as "brides." Women and young girls are repeatedly raped and
beaten. They often give birth to children that are "stateless" and have no legal status in China. For many refugees, getting out of China is a
matter of life and death
Refugee rescue and assistance has been an important part of NKHR's work since our establishment in 1996. We rescue refugees by providing
shelter and a secure route to South Korea through a third country such as Thailand. For those in need who wish to remain in China, we
provide relief assistance such as food, medicine, and clothing. NKHR prioritizes those who are especially in need such as women, children,
and those who may face death upon forcible return to North Korea. NKHR has directly assisted hundreds of North Korean refugees in coming
to South Korea. These rescues are funded by private donations.
NKHR also monitors and advocates for North Korean refugees in third countries. In particularly perilous situations of refugees facing possible
repatriation back to North Korea or other life-threatening circumstances, we alert the media and petition the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR),
foreign governments, and the South Korean government for intervention.
NKHR's rescue assistance does not end when refugees reach South Korea. We provide education and adjustment programs for children and
youth, and we assist North Koreans in legal and other matters when requested.