The names of the North Korean defectors have been changed in this article to protect their identities.
Gilze en Rijen and Musselkanaal, The Netherlands – Kyung-Ae Choi*, a North Korean woman in her early fifties, first arrived in Europe on a fake Chinese passport, in 2012.
It had been given to her by a Chinese broker who arranged flights for her and her three children to France.
“I couldn’t understand what the writing [on signs] meant, but it all looked like English to me. That’s when I realised that I was in Europe,” she told Al Jazeera, at a reception centre in the Netherlands.
She had seen written English before in a North Korean film, People and a Hero, which she had watched in secondary school.
From Paris, guided by the Chinese broker, Choi took several trains and buses to a reception centre in Ter Apel, a Dutch village in the northwest.
“I was as cheerful as a kid,” she said of her first train ride in Europe, describing an unprecedented sense of freedom.
She is currently living at a reception centre in Gilze en Rijen, in the country’s south.
North Korea considers the US and South Korea as enemies, while its view on Europe is more neutral.
Jihyun Park, outreach officer at Connect to North Korea
Choi crossed the North Korean border to China in 1998.
North Korea has a 1,400km border with China, a border barrier – the 250km Demilitarized Zone – with South Korea, and a 17km terrestrial/22km maritime border with Russia.
It is safer to cross into China than South Korea, so most of the 30,000 or so North Korean defectors living in the South travelled via China.
Most defectors from the North are eventually offered South Korean citizenship, leading to some European countries deporting asylum seekers there.
But right activists protest against this, saying North Koreans complain of discrimination in the South, which is ill equipped to handle so many refugees.
There are currently 91 North Koreans in the Netherlands, 25 of whom are refugees, according to official statistics.
|The view from the Gilze en Rijen reception centre [Je-Seung Lee/Al Jazeera]
Because she is undocumented, Choi is unable to work.
At the centre, her family lives in two small rooms and receives 112 euro ($130) a week for living expenses. Her children attend a local school.
Each month, Choi is obliged to meet the Repatriation and the Departure Service (DT&V), an organisation under the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security in charge of expediting the departure of foreign nationals who are not entitled to remain.
“I really feel like I want to die [after each meeting]. I have even thought about leaving the kids behind and killing myself,” said Choi, explaining that she suffers with stress, insomnia, and depression.
The Supreme Court has denied her permanent residency application twice. She is now making a third attempt, but fears another rejection.
Choi’s husband was caught by Chinese authorities. While she is not certain of his whereabouts, she assumes he is back to North Korea.
China considers North Koreans as illegal economic migrants, not refugees, and usually sends them back.
“They tell me to provide evidence on why my husband and family back in North Korea will be sent to prison camps if I move to South Korea. But this is something that you cannot prove with a piece of paper,” Choi said.
“I want to stay in the Netherlands, not for myself but for the future of my children and for the lives of all of my family back home.”
Family members of defectors are often punished in North Korea with imprisonment or forced labour.
Why North Koreans seek safety in Europe
Jihyun Park, outreach officer at Connect to North Korea, an NGO in the UK that campaigns for the rights of North Korean defectors worldwide, said many prefer to go to Europe instead of the US or South Korea.
“North Korean people think that it would be safer to go to Europe, for not only themselves but for their families back in North Korea as well,” said Park, who is also a defector.
“North Korea considers the US and South Korea as enemies, while its view on Europe is more neutral.”
North Korea has 13 embassies across Europe – including in Germany, Britain and Italy, but not the Netherlands.
There are none in the US and South Korea.
Reaching Europe is a carefully arranged process that often involves a broker introduced by a local Korean church in China.
“A lot of Korean churches in China shelter and feed North Korean defectors who live terrible lives in China,” said Park.
Elsewhere in Europe, the UK is home to one of the largest North Korean communities.
Some 1,300 North Koreans have sought asylum in the UK since 2003, but only 544 have been accepted as refugees.
The Home Office considers many North Koreans secondary migrants, and not genuine asylum seekers, because they have rights in South Korea.
“The topic of North Korean refugees and their struggle to remain in Europe is often overlooked,” said Park.
Occasionally some people make jokes about the nuclear missiles in North Korea, but the popularity of K-pop [music] made it easier for me to make friends quickly.
Ban-suk Jung, 18-year-old North Korean in the Netherlands
Ban-suk Jung* is Choi’s oldest son.
The 18-year-old was born in China, where he had a difficult upbringing and was unable to attend school regularly.
“I feel much more relaxed [in the Netherlands], I am free to make my own choices and can choose not to do things I don’t want to do,” Jung told Al Jazeera.
“Some people get surprised when I tell them I am from North Korea. But most people are friendly and understanding. Occasionally some people make jokes about the nuclear missiles in North Korea, but the popularity of K-pop [music] made it easier for me to make friends quickly.”
The teenager said he feels trapped, however, living in a reception centre.
“I don’t have a dream. It is hard to dream when you don’t know what you can do or where you will be. Right now, all I can think about is getting the permanent residency, and then I will be able to think about what I want to do and plan my future.”
In addition to persecution, Park, the activist, said economic difficulties motivate people to attempt to leave North Korea.
More than 10 million people, or 40 percent of the population, are believed to be in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
|Overview of the Musselkanaal reception centre [Je-Seung Lee/Al Jazeera]
Eun-Hyang Kim* arrived in the Netherlands in November, 2012.
The 80-year-old lives at a reception centre in Musselkanaal, a village in the Dutch province of Groningen, about 10km from Germany.
Like Choi, Kim first left North Korea by crossing the Yalu river to China.
There, she worked in Harbin as a caretaker at a local Joseonjok church for five years before travelling to the Netherlands.
When she she flew from Beijing to Paris, she suffered from airsickness. It was the first time she had ever been in a plane.
When she landed, her Chinese broker took her to a reception centre in Ter Apel, where she checked herself in as a North Korean refugee seeking asylum.
She moved to a centre in Musselkanaal, in the north, on September 11, 2017.
She has her own studio room, with a bathroom, kitchen and single bed. There is one window and a small TV.
Kim takes the bus to spend her weekly 58-euro allowance at a local market for food and other basic necessities.
Despite still being considered an undocumented migrant, she receives free healthcare on account of her age.
“They give me food, a place to sleep and even my own house if I am granted permanent residency,” said Kim. “Where else in the world would do the same?” said Kim.
As the daughter of an executed political “criminal”, Kim said she wanted to protect her son from being sent to a prison camp.
In order to do this, she fled alone, leaving her son behind.
In Korean culture, the father’s bloodline is considered more important and since her son’s maternal grandfather was the “criminal”, Kim believed he would be safer if she wasn’t in the country.
Kim said she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about her son and granddaughters.
“I am 80 years old, how long will I live?
“Just don’t tell me to go to South Korea. It pains me every day that I cannot live with my son, but as a mother, I would rather die here alone than go to South Korea and put my son in grave danger.”