Published: February 2009

North Korea

Driver near North Korean border

Escape From North Korea

Defection is daunting. So is starting a new, free life.

By Tom O'Neill
Photograph by Chien-Chi Chang

A frigid November day pressed against the windows of a shabby apartment building in the Chinese city of Yanji, ten miles from the North Korean border. Three stories up, footsteps stopped outside a door. At the sound, two young women hurried to a back room and shrank against a wall. Then came a knock. The women, defectors from North Korea, bowed their heads, expecting the worst. If the Chinese police found them without identity cards, they would be deported in handcuffs and chains. Back in North Korea, they would be sentenced to years of hard labor in a prison camp.

Their former boss, the Korean-Chinese owner of an Internet sex operation, was hunting them as well. For the past year Red and White (aliases I gave them in my notebook in case police stopped me) had been held in a room as virtual prisoners, forced to "talk dirty" and take off their clothes in front of a camera for online clients in South Korea. The night before, Christian missionaries had helped them escape and brought them to this safe house.

The knocking continued. A man called out, "Are you there? Open up." White recognized the voice: It came from one of their rescuers. She rushed to the door and fumbled it open. Stand­ing there was a thin man with an awkward smile, holding up a cooker and a bag of rice. "You must be hungry." Bowing in greeting, the women led him into the kitchen. Soon the room filled with their chatter. The missionary also brought a message: "Be ready to leave soon. The call just came."

Some 50,000 North Koreans, and possibly many more, are hiding in China, most in cities and villages along the remote 900-mile-long border between the two countries. Uncounted others have come for a few months and then slipped back to North Korea with food and money. Yet many stay on, unable or unwilling to return to their cruel homeland. They are left with two desperate choices: Keep hiding—often as prisoners of exploitative employers—or embark on the Asian underground railroad, a perilous journey by foot, vehicle, and train across China and Southeast Asia. Confronted with an obstacle course of checkpoints, informants, and treacherous terrain, numerous defec­tors have been caught. But aided by a small band of humanitarians and by smugglers charging $3,000 and up, some 15,000 have reached safe haven, most often in South Korea. There, traumatized and barely skilled, they face the most formidable challenge of all: starting over.

The exodus from North Korea began in the mid-1990s as a devastating famine broke out across the country. In the worst hit areas, people were reduced to eating roots, grasses, and tree bark. More than 2.5 million people would perish. At first the Chinese openly aided the desperate border crossers. But following protests from the North Korean government, China cracked down. Police regularly raid neighborhoods and villages to ferret out North Korean runaways, who live in terror of being caught and deported. In North Korea, crossing the border without permission is punishable by three to five years in a prison labor camp, and conspiring with missionaries or others to reach South Korea is considered treason, with offenders starved, tortured, and sometimes publicly executed. Human rights organizations and various foreign leaders, particularly in the United States and the European Union, are urging China to honor its international agreements by treating the North Koreans as refugees, a status they're entitled to because of the punishments they face if deported. But China maintains that the defectors are illegal "economic migrants." In the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics, Chinese authorities intensified their efforts to apprehend defectors, capturing and deporting dozens, perhaps hundreds, a week. Yet they keep coming.

Most sneak across the narrow Tumen River, which forms roughly a third of North Korea's border with China, crossing in summer, when the river is shallow enough to wade, or in winter, when it's possible to walk across the ice. The Chinese side of the Tumen looks strangely benign—it isn't crawling with soldiers or bristling with electrified fences. On the opposite bank, in North Korea, bunkers every few hundred yards look more like abandoned hunting blinds than guard posts. Visiting the Chinese side, I asked my driver why the border isn't better protected. He smiled faintly. "The North Koreans figure they'll catch troublemakers before they ever reach the river, and the Chinese are sure they can find North Koreans anytime they want."

Apart from the guard posts, the view across the river betrays nothing of the North Korean reality beyond: the dozens of prison camps for citizens deemed insufficiently loyal, the malnutrition and hunger that stalk as many as a fourth of the country's 23 million people, the number of people in uniform—at least a million—who bully and spy on the citizenry. Collective farms, most appearing to lack electricity, dot the river plain. A single-lane bridge leads to Namyang, a town of unpainted apartment blocks, its streets empty except for a few military vehicles and bicycles. The only color is a giant mural of a smiling Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea and father of its present leader, Kim Jong Il, both held up as deities.

For Red, whose family lived within sight of the border, China appeared a seductive paradise. "I could see so many lights from apartment blocks and a power plant. China looked so rich." She had been raised on a collective farm in the province of North Hamgyong, the poorest part of North Korea and the source of most border crossers. "I grew up seeing people getting sick and dying from eating grass," she said. Lately she also noticed that entire housing blocks in a nearby city had been nearly emptied of women. They had all escaped across the border. As recently as 2003 the ratio of men to women fleeing North Korea was roughly equal; now women make up more than three-quarters of the traffic, a gender imbalance unusual in the world's refugee movements. With most men either in the military or working on farms or in factories, women can slip away from homes and jobs more easily, and once in China they more readily find work, though increasingly, like Red and White, they're caught up in the sex industry or are trafficked as brides to Chinese farmers.

Red escaped on a rainy July night. The teenager had been worried that she was a burden to her family and was embarrassed to start a job that required her to read news of the "Dear Leader"—Kim Jong Il—over a town loudspeaker. Her aunt left with her, and after paying guards about $15 to look the other way, they reached the Tumen. With panicked arms, Red paddled across on a raft of roped-together inner tubes. Her aunt didn't make it, forced back by a leaky float. Terrified and alone, Red, then only 15, set out walking. She was soon taken in by a North Korean woman who had been sold as a bride to a Chinese farmer. For the next three years Red worked out of sight as a farmhand and dishwasher. Eventually, after stealing money from an employer and traveling to Yanji, she ended up in the computer sex operation, facing a camera next to White.

White had waded across the river one October night. She had been living in an industrial city in the northern part of North Korea with a sick mother and two younger siblings. She was often hungry, unable to earn enough at her jobs, first in a chopstick factory and then selling fruit on the street. When a man approached her, offering work in China in the computer industry, the 26-year-old White naively agreed, thinking she'd stay in China long enough to buy medicine for her mother. The North Korean broker drove her to a remote spot on the Tumen and told her to look for a car waiting on the other side. Shivering after the crossing, she saw a car and jumped in, no questions asked. She had been tricked. White would spend the next year locked in a room selling sex.

From his office two stories above a food market in Seoul, South Korea, Pastor Chun Ki-won had made the call—the signal for defectors to leave on the underground railroad—many times before. Founder of Durihana (Two Become One) Mission, one of numerous Christian organizations that have sprung up in South Korea to help defectors, Chun has masterminded the escapes of hundreds of North Koreans trapped in China, providing them sanctuary in South Korea, the U.S., and other countries. He belongs to a diverse group of activists, humanitarians, traffickers, and fellow missionaries who operate the Asian underground railroad. Some hope to precipitate the collapse of North Korea; others want to convert North Koreans to Christianity. What binds most of them is the instinct to aid people under severe duress. "Their sufferings in North Korea and China are indescribable," Chun says. "I have no choice but to help them."

Pastor Chun is no stranger to the risks. In 2002 Chinese police, alerted by informants, arrested him near the Mongolian border, on the escape route he pioneered. Nine North Koreans he was guiding were also caught, sent back to North Korea, and never heard of again. The pastor spent eight months in a Chinese prison, after which he was sent home to South Korea and banned from returning to China. Chun's arrest and imprisonment caused a stir in South Korea, exposing the plight of North Korean defectors to a wide audience.

Red and White came to Chun's attention when a love-struck online client of White's figured out that she was a North Korean working against her will and instructed her on how to contact Durihana over the Internet. White's covert emails pleading for help moved Chun to activate his network in China, setting in motion their rescue from the sex business. Fearing that Red and White's enraged boss would soon recapture them, he moved them to the top of his list for the underground railroad.

As the two women waited anxiously for the signal to leave, a few miles away another North Korean I'll call Black was praying that his turn would come soon. A Korean-Chinese missionary arranged for me to meet Black in a private room at a restaurant in Yanji. He entered wearing a dark nylon jacket, too thin for the piercing winds outside. His face looked careworn. Over a bowl of steaming beef marrow soup, he smiled warily, reluctant to talk until I assured him that, to protect his family in North Korea, I wouldn't disclose his name or any details of his life there.

Black said he'd escaped across the frozen Tumen River two years earlier. He was a college graduate, a rarity among defectors, and during his days as a security guard in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, he'd grown disillusioned with the corruption and bribery that he said pervaded the "workers' paradise." For years he'd planned his escape, saving the several hundred dollars needed to hire a broker in North Korea to arrange passage for him and his girlfriend to China. First they'd be driven to the Tumen River. But when it came time to leave, Black was afraid they'd be too conspicuous in a car and insisted that they instead walk through the mountains to the crossing point, a seven-hour ordeal that permanently damaged the nerves in his toes.

"Crossing the Tumen was easy compared to what happened next," Black said. Like White, Black had been tricked by his broker, sold to a Korean-Chinese gangster to carry drugs and money back and forth across the Tumen. "I refused to help," said Black, who was otherwise vague about how he survived those early days in China. His darkest time followed the sale of his girlfriend to an aging addict, after which Black lost contact with her. Eventually Black heeded the advice whispered among defectors: "Head for a cross." Thirty or more churches around Yanji offer temporary refuge to North Koreans, along with food and clothing. Their pastors stay out of trouble as long as they don't openly proselytize or draw attention to their support for the defectors.

As soon as Black found shelter at a church, he took Bible lessons and became a star convert, attracting Pastor Chun's notice. Chun prefers that the North Koreans he helps adopt Christianity, but he accepts that a defector's professed belief may be skin-deep, a means of survival. "Many are not real Christians," he told me. "For them it isn't that different from believing in Kim Il Sung to believing in God. They change in head, not heart."

Black's faith seemed intense, and as he talked, the missionary beamed. He said that the turning point in Black's education had come when they were in an Internet café. "I asked him to type in 'Kim Jong Il personal life' on the browser, and when stories came up of affairs and illegitimate children, I watched the light come on in his face as he realized he had been fed lies all his life."

At one point during the meal Black pulled a small wooden cross from under his shirt and held it as if it were a warm, breathing thing. "My dream," he said, "is to attend a seminary in South Korea and then to return to my home village to preach the Gospel." When I mentioned that if he were caught in North Korea carrying a Bible, he could be shot, Black said, "I am following God's plan."

The moment came. Pastor Chun received the go-ahead from his operatives for the escape to begin—a 2,000-mile train trip from Beijing to Yunnan Province, followed by an arduous trek on foot over mountains into Laos, cutting through jungle to the Mekong River. Crossing it puts the refugees in Thailand, where North Koreans can apply for asylum. Red and White would leave first, and Black a few days later with another group.

Accompanied by a Chinese guide, Red and White were driven overnight to Beijing and dropped off near a railway station in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The plan called for them to board a train to Kunming, Yunnan's capital, their rendezvous point with three other North Koreans. I would catch the same train. Chun's relayed instructions to the defectors were succinct: Stay quiet, pretend to sleep or hide in a restroom if police come to check IDs, and pray to God. If arrested, don't reveal the names of those who helped you.

Once on the train Red and White climbed to the top bunks in a sleeper car and huddled under blankets. Occasionally they sneaked looks out the windows, watching vistas of frozen fields and cities veiled in coal smoke give way to green fields and thick fruit orchards. At one stop, White dashed outside to buy a bag of mandarin oranges. Several times during the 40-hour journey, police and railroad agents came down the corridors to check tickets and identifications, but Red and White lay inert in their beds, and the officials ignored them.

Reaching Kunming, they joined the crowd milling about in the station's cavernous waiting room. Soon they spotted the other defectors. The leader was a 30-year-old former taxi driver, who carried a cell phone and fake documents and spoke passable Chinese. An 18-year-old woman wearing a stylish beret had, like Red and White, been a sex industry worker. The third defector was a 57-year-old mother, determined to join a daughter who had already made it to South Korea.

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