June 10, 2009
Posted by Christine Ahn
Lost in the flurry over North Korea’s detention of Laura Ling and Euna Lee is the story they sought: the plight of North Korean women refugees in China.
Approximately 80 percent of recent defectors in China are women who fled North Korea in search of a better life, only to discover that they had been sold as brides. According to The Washington Post, “North Korean defectors are mostly women from working-class and farm backgrounds who fled because of hunger and poverty, not political oppression.” In 2004, the South Korean Ministry of Unification conducted a survey of over 4,000 defectors in South Korea, and found that 75% left North Korea for economic reasons or to join their families in the south, and only 9% left because of political repression.
What the media fails to explain are the root causes of North Korea’s famine and poverty. In the mid-1990s, over 600,000 North Koreans died from famine caused by the worst natural floods and droughts and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the socialist trading-bloc. North Korea’s ability to rebuild its economy has suffered under the weight of U.S. sanctions, which have been in place since the Korean War. According to Zathi Zellweger of the Swiss Development Corporation, despite North Korea’s efforts to liberalize, “No investor is interested in North Korea as long as there are sanctions.”
As tensions escalate between North Korea and the U.S., what is salient is that the Korean War is not over. Although fighting temporarily ceased with the 1953 armistice, the Cold War lives on, emboldening regimes in South and North Korea to repress dissent and militarize the peninsula. The way forward to end the war and to free the journalists would be as Laura Ling told her sister Lisa, “if our two countries communicate.”
Christine Ahn is Communications Research Analyst at the Global Fund for Women and also Korea policy expert and peace activist.