The Gender Imbalance in People Fleeing North Korea

In the past decade an interesting phenomenon has occurred in South Korea: a small but steady flow of refugees from the northern end of the peninsula.

Here’s a graph:

These numbers can be found at the website for the South Korean Ministry of Unification (an English version can be found here). Interestingly, Wikipedia has a graph of the number of refugees before 2001 – although it doesn’t state the source.

Why this has occurred would be the subject of a fascinating study. Life in North Korea is better than it was during the early 1990s, when the country suffered a famine. Yet the flow of refugees in the early 1990s was practically non-existent. Perhaps the fact that South Korea is now a First World country has something to do with it. Perhaps North Koreans just didn’t think about fleeing to South Korea until the first few people started doing it, and then started telling their family and friends back home. It’s also worth noting that South Korea isn’t the only place with North Korea refugees; China has about an equal or greater number.

As more North Korean refugees enter South Korea, their nature has changed drastically. Previously, the vast majority of refugees were male. Now, however, the vast majority of them are female:

The female-male ratio of North Korean refugees increased steadily from 1998 to 2008, when there were 3.59 North Korean females for every North Korean male. Since then the ratio has fallen to about 2.40 females per male refugee, as of 2012.

Actually, the number of male North Korean defectors has basically remained unchanged throughout the past decade. It’s the number of female defectors which have skyrocketed.

Here’s a graph showing this in more detail:

It’s a mystery why two to three North Korean females enter South Korea for every male North Korean. It’s equally a mystery how this gender imbalance affects the North Korean community in South Korea. Nobody, at least in the English-speaking world, is talking about this phenomenon or even aware of it. Migration does not necessarily have to be female-heavy; more often it’s the males who do the migrating. Mexican immigration to the United States, for instance, is tilted to the male side.

There’s one final interesting note. As of April 2012, the South Korean Ministry of Unification has indicated that 473 North Koreans renounced their country. If this rate of migration held up, by the end of the year only 1,419 North Koreans would defect by the end of 2012 – the lowest number since 2005. It’s worth noting that Kim Jong-un took power just at the end of 2011. Perhaps North Koreans are waiting to assess his rule rather than packing up and leaving.

P.S. A table of North Korean defectors in South Korea as of July 2012 can be found below:

Year Male Female Total Female Ratio
~1998 829 118 947 12%
~2001 563 480 1,043 46%
2002 506 632 1,138 56%
2003 469 812 1,281 63%
2004 626 1,268 1,894 67%
2005 423 960 1,383 69%
2006 509 1,509 2,018 75%
2007 570 1,974 2,544 78%
2008 612 2,197 2,809 78%
2009 666 2,261 2,927 77%
2010 579 1,800 2,379 76%
2011 798 1,908 2,706 71%
2012 (Provisional) 179 431 610 71%
Accumulated 7,347 16,358 23,705 69%
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4 Responses to The Gender Imbalance in People Fleeing North Korea

  1. Ed says:

    There are a few fairly obvious additional points

    First, its much easier for someone in North Korea to cross the frontier into China, legally or illegally, than to cross the frontier into South Korea. This more than counterbalances the greater ease of assimilation into South Korea once you get there (and even living in China seems to be a big improvement over living in South Korea).

    Second, what information gets down to ordinary people in North Korea is obviously strictly controlled in a way outsiders can’t imagine. North Koreans might be miserable, but most of them probably think that its the same crap or worse outside of North Korea too.

  2. Erik says:

    Eduardo, this is a good post but there’s some background details that lead to these issues. 1 – dprk has a compulsory military service for young men that is close to 10 years in length, when they are usually pretty well fed. Also, when not serving in military service, they are usually responsible for trying to provide and if they abandon their home they can be hurting everyone they are related to in the process. 2) Higher numbers in women can be due to more freedom the women have, like a stay at home wife living in n. hamkyeong could go do some selling and trading in china for money and go back and forth quietly. Also many women are sold in to China as sex slaves or wives for rural farmers or others having a hard time finding a wife. When they can they make a break for it and try to get out. 3) some of the refugees live in china 5-9 years before even getting to ROK so the numbers now aren’t necessarily indicating people leaving DPRK now, though that can be low, but more PRC’s tightness on the movements of defectors.

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