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In Asia, refugee crises come in all shapes and sizes. From displaced Burmese Muslim Rohingya in Bangladesh to North Koreans fleeing to freedom, the needs are astronomical. 

The United Nations Refugee Agency reported that 2019 witnessed the highest level of individuals fleeing violence since World War II. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has further heightened the danger for our refugee brothers and sisters. 

COVID-19 and the People of North Korea

An often-overlooked population is North Korean refugees who dare to cross the 38th parallel, or the North Korea-China border, to seek freedom. According to Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organization devoted to smuggling North Korean refugees to freedom, few, if any, of those wishing to flee the regime will make it out of North Korea this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.   

But what of the North Korean refugees who managed to get out of North Korea but had not yet made it to freedom when the outbreak began? They may now be stuck in China or other parts of Southeast Asia. Due to COVID-19 regulations in those countries, their movements are restricted. In fact, one report indicated that jails in Thailand, usually full of North Korean refugees waiting for their refugee claims to be processed in South Korea, now sit empty.  

While North Korean authorities claim there have been zero cases of COVID-19, policy changes in Pyongyang suggest otherwise. Increased border controls and reductions in trade between North Korea and China are likely to have dire consequences to already depleted food security and economic stability inside the country.  In addition, North Korea’s dilapidated healthcare infrastructure is unlikely to be up to the task of treating a large number of patients sickened with a new virus that the global healthcare community does not fully understand.

LiNK and the People of North Korea

North Koreans’ lives will get even harder due to the COVID-19 restrictions, and we predict a spike in the number of refugees fleeing once those restrictions are relaxed.  We should watch closely to see whether the rate of resettlement in South Korea begins to increase as restrictions in North Korea are eased and donate to organizations like LiNK.