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Field Notes
Escape from North Korea
Photograph by Chien-Chi Chang
Tom O'Neill
How did you get access to North Koreans hiding in China?

This story had a lengthy incubation. National Geographic had long been trying to figure out a way to cover North Korea, particularly a way to get behind its "Triumph of the Will" façade. Several years ago I visited Pyongyang with a photographer in hopes of winning permission to report on the hermetically sealed country, but approval was denied. Later I met in Washington D.C. the first group of North Korean defectors accepted into the United States. Their unvarnished stories about the harsh realities of life in North Korea made us realize that the best approach to glimpsing North Korea beyond its veil of propaganda was to talk to citizens who had fled.

It took another year to find an activist—Pastor Chun Ki-won of the Durihana Mission in Seoul, South Korea—who would accept the risk of putting us in touch with North Koreans hiding in China and allowing us to follow them on their escape to South Korea. Cooperation came with ground rules. To protect the defectors and family members still in North Korea, National Geographic agreed not publish the real names of defectors or specific facts about their past in North Korea. We would not identify missionaries aiding them in China or reveal exact details about escape routes. We would not publish any photos of defectors, particularly ones showing their faces, unless they expressly gave their approval. Durihana and the defectors ended up showing the National Geographic team such trust that we followed the ground rules to the letter.

What precautions did you take during field coverage?

Photographer Chien-Chi Chang and I went to China knowing that Chinese security forces closely monitor the movement of foreign journalists near the border. We couldn't afford to do anything that would lead police to the hiding places of defectors. My "cover" was traveling as a tourist to Manchuria on a honeymoon with my Korean wife, So-Young Lee. To further reduce chances of attracting attention, I did not travel with the photographer. Chien-Chi and I kept our calls short and spoke in codes, sometimes changing our phone numbers. At times we laughed amongst ourselves at these cat-and-mouse tactics, but they were doubly necessary once we learned just days before my arrival in China that a safe house harboring eight defectors in Shenyang had been raided after a visit from South Korean journalists. All of the defectors were captured and sent back to North Korea.

Were there any close calls?

Time spent on the border was nerve-wracking. If we were going to be caught, it would be probably because a neighbor would inform police about our suspicious comings and goings. Each time I visited defectors I hid my myself inside a large hooded winter jacket, and when I ate with missionaries who helped run the underground railroad, we usually found a private room in a restaurant. The hairiest moment came after the defector's long train trip across China. Because their guide failed to show up at the station to pick them up, they were left standing around in the midst of many soldiers and police. I was scared for them and dropping any pretence of journalistic detachment I hustled them into cabs and took them to a hotel room. This made my wife and me accomplices to illegal activity. If caught I would have been deported, but my wife, because she is South Korean, could have been sentenced to several years in prison. We never betrayed worry to the defectors and after several hours the guide finally showed up to lead them toward the Laos border. I practically shouted with joy several weeks later in South Korea when I received a cell phone call from Chien-Chi that the defectors had successfully exited China and reached Thailand where they requested asylum.

Any updates on how Red, White, and Black, the main characters in the story, are doing in South Korea?

I hope to never lose touch with these three. They are all so brave and kind, like most of North Korean defectors I met both in China and South Korea. White continues to recover from cancer surgery, but is still not well enough to move into her own apartment. Black left his construction job and is now working at a historical site in Seoul. He says he wants to train as an interior designer. Red had some bad luck with a boyfriend, a fellow defector, who beat her up, and afterward she moved into Durihana housing with White. Meanwhile, Pastor Chun continues to spirit North Koreans out of China.

What do you hope the story accomplishes?

If a genie is listening, here are my three wishes:

1) China quits hunting down and repatriating North Koreans in hiding and instead provides them with refugee status or legal work permits.

2) South Korea, now ambivalent about accepting 2,000 or more defectors a year, restores some of its subsidies it has cut for North Korea defectors and provides them with better work training and education so they don't drift to the bottom of society.

3) North Korea stops imprisoning citizens who try to leave the country without permission, closes down its political prisoner camps, now believed to hold as many as 300,000 people, and establishes a fairer food rationing system to eliminate chronic hunger.

Did you have any fun at all?

Sure. I loved traveling and working with my wife, So-Young. On a professional level she was indispensable in gaining the trust of the defectors; she even talked her way into the Bangkok immigration jail to interview a defector about conditions inside. On the personal side, the chance to act as partners on an important assignment, to spend practically every waking and sleeping moment together for six weeks—a rarity for us— to hike with her along the Mekong River in Laos, and to meet her friends in Seoul where she grew up and worked, was a dream come true.

For more related content, read "On The Border," an eight-part series about North Korean defectors published in Chosun Ilbo.