You are here

Life after North Korea: Helping Defectors Find Hope

Share a story

Have a story you want to share? Send it to us at the following address: enews@globalpeace.org

By Hyangsook Kwak

The Korean peninsula has been divided between North and South Korea since 1953. In North Korea, about 18 million people out of the 25 million in its population experience serious human rights violations, economic struggles, food insecurity, malnutrition, and other health issues under the current regime.

Hoping to find life and a new beginning, more than 1,000 North Koreans flee from their homeland every year to South Korea for political, ideological, religious, economic, or other personal reasons. Today, an overwhelming 85% of the 33,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea are women (as of 2018). They have had to make a hard transition and adjust to a totally different society not only as women, but also as workers, students, and mothers.

Although defectors are welcomed and provided some government aid to settle in their new homes, it is still a constant struggle for North Korean women defectors to manage and establish their lives, let alone navigate South Korea’s complex system so different from the society they were raised in. The heartbreaking story that was reported in recent news, about late Han Seong-ok (and her 6-year-old son), illustrates how many women defectors have to fight every day to overcome the “vicious cycle” of finding stability and adapting financially, socially, and culturally. This is no easy feat.

The women’s division of Global Peace Foundation, Global Peace Women, is continually taking action to help create a more welcoming and secure environment for North Korean women defectors in South Korea through initiating various programs with partnering organizations to ensure North Korean women defectors receive the support and guidance they need to succeed.

Global Peace Women attends the Chuseok Festival
hosted in Seattle, Washington

Most recently, volunteers and staff from GPW International organized and implemented two fundraising projects in the Greater Seattle area to help improve the livelihood of North Korean women defectors. One fundraiser was held on September 21st at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center (APCC) during the 2019 Chuseok Festival, a major three-day harvest holiday for Korea in September.

The second fundraiser was held during the United States Thanksgiving holiday period in November. The fundraisers included participants in their 20’s to those in their 80’s who shared the vision of the Korean Dream while raising a total of over $3,000 through online as well as offline fundraising activities. The funds are expected to provide assistance and support to North Korean women defectors so they can transition smoothly and adjust to South Korean society and culture.

GPW’s ongoing work has included developing and coordinating women’s leadership workshops, helping and connecting with North Korean women defectors through service projects (e.g. making kimchi together), initiating projects for income generation, mentorship, job training, and technical skills development programs (e.g. flower arrangement classes, cooking classes), and creating and organizing cultural, sports, education, and health programs (e.g. annual table tennis festivals).

Inspired by the intergenerational effort to help those affected by the tragedy on the Korean peninsula, one volunteer said, “It was beneficial to have people of many age groups, some young and some elders, volunteering in our tabling activities to engage with so many people at different levels.”

GPW shares about the Korean Dream at the 2019 Chuseok Festival

Volunteers met over 300 people alone while at their table and are already making plans to continue their efforts at the 2020 Chuseok Festival hosted by the APCC. “I can see the quality of our work developing every year,” said one GPW staff member, “And we’re so grateful to be allowed to open our booth at the APCC, where we meet with people who have a genuine interest in our activities for the Korean Dream.” Responding, a visitor expressed, “The work you do is very important, especially with the current state of Korea we hear a lot in the news. Yes, we need to help these people as much as we can.”

GPW continues to develop awareness campaigns and creating programs that allow North Korean women defectors’ to build a better quality of life while achieving the Korean Dream.

Learn more about the Korean Dream and how you can get involved today.