Book Review: a Nuanced Look at North Korean Defectors

Jo Cheon-hyeon's book The Defectors takes down the myths about the North Koreans who leave their country.

Book Review: a Nuanced Look at North Korean Defectors

Image: The Defectors by Jo Cheon-hyeon.  Credit: Bori Publishing.

The majority of the North Koreans who have left their country do not wish to live in South Korea or any other “free country”’; indeed, a significant proportion hope to return home after a brief stint earning money abroad. This, and many other surprising observations about North Korean defectors fill Jo Cheon-hyeon 조천현’s recent book, The Defectors 탈북자.

Through his book, Jo, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, presents an ethnography of the hundreds of North Korean defectors in China that he has met for over 20 years. Particularly valuable is the survey of 100 North Korean women he conducted from 2001 to 2003, which showed 41 wanting to go to South Korea, 34 wanting to return to North Korea, and 21 wishing to stay in China.  A shocking case features a young woman from a middle class family in North Korea who was kidnapped by human traffickers, sexually assaulted, then sold in China. She escaped but decided to stay in China; she would damage her family’s standing if she returned to North Korea, and her rapist was now in South Korea.

Jo is also withering in his criticism of NGOs that, out of political motivations, endanger North Korean defectors with amateurish stunts such as rushing into foreign embassy buildings in Beijing. The book, published in January, is a must-read for anyone interested in North Korea.

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