Published: February 2009
Escape From North Korea
Defection is daunting. So is starting a new, free life.
By Tom O'Neill

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.

Amid the crush of people on the sidewalk, they waited for a guide Chun had hired to lead them to Thailand. Martial anthems blared from loudspeakers, and soldiers regularly marched past. The minutes crawled. The exhausted group huddled near a pillar, wide-eyed at the commotion around them. Sensing that if the five North Koreans stood outside much longer, an official would come up to question them, I invited them to wait in my hotel room.

For the next few hours the North Koreans sat on a long sofa, avidly watching movies on the TV. "He's so handsome," one cooed about Tom Cruise, whom she'd never heard of. They savored Cokes from the minibar and shared the fruit. "I can't even imagine what will happen next," White said, switching the channel. "I just want to get to South Korea; it seems so civilized and wealthy." She would fit in, at least on the surface. She had changed into tight jeans (illegal in North Korea), high black boots, and a frilly blouse, topped off with a heart-shaped pendant around her neck. Red switched into flashier clothes too, but she appeared lost, wrapping her arms around herself as if to squeeze out fearful thoughts. She startled when asked about her plans. "Maybe learn English, take computer classes," she said hastily. No one was thinking that far ahead.

Finally the guide called. The five grabbed their packs and hurried out. Seconds later there was a knock on the door. It was White. Laughing, she handed back the TV remote.

In his loose plaid shirt and khaki pants, Pastor Chun could have been any tourist watching the morning light glaze the brown surface of the Mekong River. Behind him a Thai town woke with a buzz of motorcycle traffic and the call of vendors selling coconuts and fish. Across the river, in Laos, a few figures stirred near stilt houses poking up out of the dense weave of forest. Chun had flown into Bangkok from Seoul the night before and had come to the Mekong shore to meet White, Red, and the other defectors. But his charges were marooned in China, and all he could do now was look across the broad river and pray.

After picking them up at the Kunming hotel, Chun's guide had driven the group over mountain roads to a safe house near the Laos frontier. And there they sat, days later, fidgeting. The guide had learned that Laos had tightened border patrols in advance of a national holiday, and he decided it was too dicey to proceed. Like their Chinese counterparts, Laotian police and military are ordered to seize escaping North Koreans and deport them. While the group waited, Black caught up with them, jittery from his clandestine train trip across China. "I almost got caught," he told them. "When police came to check documents, I pretended I was drunk, ready to pass out, and they left me alone."

News of the delay worried Chun. "They've reached the riskiest part of the journey, having to cross the Chinese border on foot and then traveling through Laos," he said as we stood by the Mekong. "They probably have a 50 percent chance of making it to here."

Chun's calling as a Good Samaritan came at age 40, when the former hotel manager surprised friends and family by joining a seminary. His activism was kindled in 1995 when, as a missionary in the Yanji region, he met his first North Koreans in hiding. "These people had lost all their rights," he said. "The most important thing I could do was revive their humanity." Given the risks, Chun has an impressive record: He has orchestrated the escapes of more than 700 North Koreans, with only a handful of failures. "The North Korean government wants me dead," he said.

But the pastor, now in his 50s and beginning to gray, is no storybook saint. His missionary contacts in China sometimes chafe at what they consider his bossy, reckless decisions; his top guide is a former drug smuggler; and Chun is not above resenting what he sees as ingratitude. "Do you know that of all the people I've helped rescue, only 30 or so have ever called to thank me," he said. But, he added, "they're not bad people. They just can't understand that someone would help them without a reward."

After nearly three weeks at the safe house, the defectors received orders to move. Shouldering packs, they entered the backcountry led by the erstwhile drug runner. The overnight hike took them into the Golden Triangle, the lawless opium-growing territory where the borders of China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand meet. For 16 hours they slogged in the dark through tangled forest and leech-infested streams, terrain their guide knew by heart. Climbing to nearly 4,000 feet, they stumbled out of China into Laos. "We were wet and dirty," Red said. "The ground was steep, and I kept falling. I cried most of the time."

The next afternoon the group reached a house owned by a friend of the guide. Late the next night they were driven to a spot near the Mekong, and from there they hiked to the river, lined with lookout towers. For Red, the combination of darkness, the river's strong current, and the nearby presence of Laotian soldiers made the five-minute crossing to Thailand in a small motor launch more unnerving than even the train trip across China. "I was suddenly scared of being caught; after all we'd been through, there was no guarantee we'd make it."

A Durihana pickup truck found them on the Thai side. It took them to a bus station, and ten hours later the group reached a Durihana shelter in Bangkok. There they ate their best meal in weeks and used cell phones to call friends in China to tell them they were safe. "Our prayers have been answered," Black cried out. The next morning a missionary drove the defectors to the South Korean diplomatic mission, where they requested asylum.

And then they entered a new limbo. After their names were added to a long waiting list, they were bused to an immigration detention center, where they would be warehoused for months, until South Korean officials processed their paperwork.

Defectors entered the packed detention center as fast as they were released to South Korea—30 to 40 a week while the trio was there. In the women's section of the detention center, 450 people were crammed inside a space built for half that many. "There was no room to sit or sleep. Only two toilets worked, and the air was horrible," White said. When people left, they sold their precious space, getting $400 for roughly two square feet. People who couldn't afford to pay ended up standing against a wall during the day and sleeping at night inside the toilet stalls. With help from Durihana, White and Red each bought three square feet. The men's side was also squalid, but less crowded. (Since then conditions have improved, as the South Korean government has sped up its admissions process, thinning out the crowd.)

After nearly 80 days of confinement in Thailand, Red, White, and Black were told to gather their meager belongings for the last leg of their journey. A plane was waiting.

Nothing prepares North Koreans for the impact of Seoul. For Red, the moment of arrival was overwhelming. "I kept touching my face, thinking, Is this real, is this a dream?" she said, recalling the sensation of watching buildings and streets bloom beneath her as she landed at Incheon International Airport. Then came the bus ride along the Han River past downtown Seoul, the embodiment of the South's hypercompetitive, prosperous, fast-paced life, a world more complex and foreign than any the refugees had encountered. What little the defectors know of the South is distorted by North Korean propaganda—the South is enemy territory, the land of murdering capitalists—or by images from soap operas and movies smuggled into the North, or by fantasies that success will come fast and easy in the southern paradise. A North Korean who had been living in Seoul for two years summed up the culture shock: "The difference between North and South is like jumping ahead a century."

After being debriefed to make sure they're not spies, defectors are sent to Hanawon, a high-security facility south of Seoul, where for two months they receive mandatory instruction in South Korean culture and practical matters such as taking the subway and opening a bank account. They're granted South Korean citizenship, paid a settlement bonus of roughly $5,000, with small monthly installments to follow, and provided a housing allowance and employment incentives.

In the mid-1990s the few dozen defectors arriving each year were greeted with adulation and hefty rewards; most were elite members of the military or Communist Party from Pyongyang who brought valuable intelligence. With rare exceptions, today's defectors, averaging more than 2,000 a year since 2006, are farm laborers, factory workers, and low-level soldiers and clerks from impoverished regions. What they bring mostly are problems. Compared with the average South Korean, they are markedly less educated and skilled. Having experienced years of malnutrition and the pain of seeing family members die of starvation, many suffer from serious physical and mental illnesses. Because of these handicaps, says Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, the defector population is in danger of "becoming a permanent underclass." Their life in the South is immeasurably richer and freer, but they crave a sense of belonging. "Most South Koreans are indifferent to their plight," Lankov said. "And to not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence."

Red answered at the first knock, throwing open the door of her 12th-floor apartment in Incheon, near the airport. Eight months had passed since I'd seen her hurry from a hotel room in China, a scared, dark-eyed teenager on the run. Her face was rounder now, her arms fleshier, thanks to regular meals. She'd streaked her hair red and was dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt. Proudly, she showed me her home of seven weeks, a spotless two-room apartment, bare except for a mattress on the bedroom floor and a desk crowned with a personal computer. A sheet of paper taped to a wall showed pink Chinese characters for happiness.

"Kimchi!" she squealed, using the Korean equivalent of "Say cheese!" as she shot pictures and video with her new camera. Deft as any South Korean youth, she downloaded the images and zapped them to my wife in the U.S.

Red showered bars of chocolate on my lap and ordered me to eat. I suspected that I was a rare guest. "Do you have many friends?" I asked. She shook her head vehemently. "How can I make friends if I can't make sense of the society outside?" She confessed that she rarely left the apartment, self-conscious about her accent and not understanding the language South Koreans use, with its liberal sprinkling of English words. Red also didn't feel confident about her job prospects. Language courses and classes in hairstyling cost too much for her monthly $400 government check, and with only a high school education, she was probably limited to low-wage jobs. She had already quit a job at a gas station and now was thinking about working in a cafeteria. "At job interviews," she said, "I'm afraid to say I'm North Korean, because of all the disadvantages that come with it."

We ate fish and rice at a nearby restaurant, where Red snapped more pictures, giggled, sent messages to fellow defectors on her cell phone, and practiced saying "computer" in English. "Life is tough here, but I'm glad I came," she said, before returning to her sanctuary. "I still dream of being a success. I want to make my parents in North Korea proud of me."

White was sharing a hospital room with five other women in the provincial city of Cheonan, near the Hanawon resettlement facility. At Hanawon doctors had diagnosed her with thyroid cancer, and they immediately operated. If she had remained in North Korea, or even in China, she almost certainly would have died. Now she had a chance of healing.

She rose unsteadily from her hospital bed to greet me, a shy smile on her face. A scar from the surgery extended around to the base of her throat. The intense young woman I remembered, with the deep laugh and showy clothes, now teetered in baggy pajamas, her voice a hoarse whisper. "I called Pastor Chun to thank him," she said. "Durihana is helping pay for my treatment. Sometimes Pastor Chun comes here, and we pray together." White, Chun had told me, is a committed Christian—"the real thing, a good, pure spirit."

White had already visited the apartment she hoped to move into. "First I will buy a computer and a refrigerator," she said, "and I will cook North Korean dishes." She caught me staring. I couldn't help it. She had spent a year locked in a room in China, followed by three months in a crowded detention center in Thailand, and now three months in a hospital room, during which time she had learned of her mother's death and her brother's imprisonment. How could she look so beatific? She walked outside with me to the taxi stand to say goodbye, and when I looked back from the car, White was still standing there, smiling at the spacious sky.

Black moved into an apartment in downtown Seoul, not far from the Han River. Traffic noises and the hum of cicadas drifted through his windows. On a wall hung the wooden cross he'd held so tightly in China, and a Bible lay open on the floor amid other books. He hadn't bought any furniture yet. "Everything is more difficult and complicated than I was prepared for," the 40-year-old said. His dream of attending seminary was dashed when he learned that scholarships were restricted to those under 35. For now he was a day laborer at a construction site. "I need to make money fast to bring my brother and sister out of North Korea," he said.

Whenever he heard himself complaining to me, Black apologized. "I am so relieved to be here. When I read about street demonstrations in Seoul, I get so happy. If I did that in North Korea, I would be sent to prison."

We hailed a taxi to take us across town to a student neighborhood filled with cheap, noisy restaurants. Horns shouted, and signs and pedestrians swept past in a blur. Eight months earlier, in a missionary's van in China, Black's shoulders had been hunched, his eyes alert to danger, his hand clutching his cross. Now amid the glorious tumult of his new home, Black closed his eyes and dozed off. He was safe, and he was free.