Why are the majority of North Korean defectors female?

Their role as breadwinners and the need to make money pushes N. Korean women towards China
July 31st, 2013

SEOUL – Fewer social obligations in the North translates into more defections to the South among women, statistics show.

However, with most of their work experience coming from illegal marketplaces, these women face a different set of challenges when they arrive.

About 68.7 percent of North Koreans to have ever defected to South Korea are women, a four-month survey conducted by the North Korean Refugees Foundation showed.

The survey, made public earlier this year, showed that the number of North Korean defectors entering the South has increased three-fold since the 1990s, and female defectors actually make up more than 70 percent of those coming since 2006.

The increasing ratio of women defectors is likely the product of easier mobility for North Korean women. While North Korean men have to participate in the organizational structure of North Korea, women are free from fulfilling such social requirements.

“When men don’t show up at work the office starts searching for them,” North Korean defector Park Ji-woo told NK News. “Men are scared to move around.”

Women, by contrast, can move across the border and into China with relative ease, she said.


The majority of the defectors were in their 20s and 30s.

 “Young people desire for adventure and are willing to accept challenges for a better future,” a government official told the Daily NK in 2010. “They are also able to adapt to survive the harsh environment encountered while fleeing.”


More than half of the defectors were unemployed in North Korea. Among those who were employed, the female population typically worked in the service and professional sectors while male population took administrative or military-related jobs.

 “When it comes to working at a factory or a farm, there is no distinction between men and women. However, men are required to serve in the military for 10 years, which counts as a job,” Park said.



Food shortages and economic difficulties were the most commonly cited reasons for defecting. However, the motive differed between men and women.

 “Women work in the market areas so they are the breadwinners of the family,” Park said. “They are affected immediately by financial hardships; that’s why they head to China or Korea for financial reasons.”

Son Jong-hun, a North Korean defector who recently planned to re-defect to North Korea after 11-years in South Korea, left North Korea more than a decade ago because his life was threatened after a seemingly innocuous comment about the foreign military technology, he told NK news in his recent interview.

Like Son, most North Korean men escaped from life-threatening situations caused by political and ideological reasons while women left over economic concerns.


“In North Korea, even when you work hard, you get nothing in return; there is no concept such as a privately owned property,” Park said. “That’s why North Korean defectors are happy to earn extra sources of income in South Korea.”

“But defectors with college degrees escape for different reasons. They served in higher positions in North Korea and when they move up the political ladder, surveillance by the state and by one’s peers increases. This becomes a burden and a source of stress for them. That’s why they enjoy such freedom from surveillance in South Korea.

“(In the North) they receive more distribution from the state, so they are less likely to defect for economic reasons,” she said.



Female defectors are larger in numbers but they participate less in economic activities in South Korea compared to the male defectors.

 “I don’t think these stats reflect reality,” Park said. “Many defectors claim unemployment compensation from the South Korean government. Depending on the situation, some people receive more money when they are unemployed, so they intentionally remain unemployed. This probably is one of the problems of South Korean social welfare.”

“Even when female defectors work, they usually work at a restaurant as a server, which is usually a part-time job,” Park said.  “For men, they usually work in blue-collar jobs—a full-time job. That’s why male defectors’ rate of economic activity is higher than females’.”

North Korean female defectors have began to appear more frequently on South Korean TV through programs like Now On My Way to Meet You—a popular talk-show hosted by women who escaped from the North. The show is a combination of comedy and documentary, helping South Koreans, especially the young, understand the reality of North Korean defectors in a casual context.

This publicity for female defectors’ beauty and humor, contrasts with images of male defectors such as Son, who publicly announced his intent to re-defect to the North, and of Park Sang-hak, who was taken into custody earlier this month for attempting to send fliers to the North.

Infrographics and images: NK News


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About the Author

Shinui Kim

Shinui Kim (@tls1011) is a staff reporter at NK News Seoul and former research intern at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS. She also worked at Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the U.S. as an intern. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Yonsei University.