Could you face guards who shoot to kill? Swim for hours or even days in the open sea? Or cross a vast, hostile desert? What kind of place can push a person to make these extreme choices? Some people have to go through hell before they can finally get free.
Located in eastern Asia and home to about 25 million people, North Korea is one of the world’s more secretive countries. After World War II, Korea was divided into two countries. The U.S. occupied South Korea, and the Soviet Union occupied North Korea. North Korea is known for the cult of its leaders, developing nuclear weapons, and isolation from the rest of the world.
North Korea’s leaders ban many things, from foreign movies to skinny jeans and non-socialist haircuts, like mullets. It’s difficult to travel inside the country without permission, and leaving is almost impossible. Today we’ll see three stories of people who escaped North Korea and lived to tell the tale. What happens if you get caught escaping? Which border is the safest way out? And why could your neighbors be your worst enemies?
Although traveling across the border with South Korea may seem like the fastest way to freedom, it’s also the most dangerous. You could get shot when crossing the Korean demilitarized zone. If you get captured, you could be tortured or sentenced to life imprisonment. Crossing the Sea of Japan or the Yellow Sea will be difficult since it’s almost impossible to get on a boat.
The northern border with China is the best option for many escapees, including the protagonists of our three stories.
Number 3. Undercover in China
Hyeonseo Lee was 17 years old when she crossed the Yalu River from North Korea into China in 1997. But China is not a safe place for North Korean defectors. The Chinese government always monitors the North Korean border and its nearby towns. Someone reported Hyeonseo while she was living by the border, and the Chinese police caught her.
But she spoke Chinese so well they thought she was a local. She finally moved to Shanghai, bought a Chinese ID card and lied to everyone around her about her identity. After 10 years in China, she went to South Korea to start a new life. But when she found out her family was struggling, she went back to North Korea and escaped again with her mother and brother.
Her secret to surviving was learning Chinese. Speaking both local languages is very helpful when crossing borders. And it is crucial to keep your identity secret and be very selective about whom you trust.
Number 2. A mother’s strength
In the 1970s, Lucia Jang was loyal to leader Kim Il Sung, just like any child in North Korea. But her family was not allowed to join the Communist party. They were forced to live in poverty, hunger and shame. Jang married an abusive partner who sold their baby during the North Korean famine in the 90s. They separated. Then Lucia started illegally crossing into China to get food for her parents.
She married illegally in China, but got deported and sent to jail in North Korea for three years. After being released, she went back to China and became pregnant. But she knew that China would not recognize her baby as a citizen. She returned to North Korea. But the authorities determined her baby would be killed when it was born, and she would be imprisoned again. She fled to a relative’s remote home and gave birth in secret. Later, Lucia carried her baby son across a river into China.
Jang then discovered an underground network for Korean escapees that led her to Mongolia. Next, she found a way to South Korea and eventually Canada. Jang says her secret was to take it one step at a time, and becoming a mother gave her a reason to keep on fighting.
Number 1. The fourth time’s the charm
Scott Kim and his mother were starving when they first escaped to China in 2001. He was 17 years old. They worked as farmers for a year until a neighbor reported them. The police brought them back to North Korea. He was sent to a detention center and treated like an animal.
But Scott told them he was 15 years old, and the authorities sent him to an orphan’s medical center. He escaped soon after that, went back to China and worked on a farm. Chinese authorities captured him a second time while he was looking for his mother.
Back in North Korea again, the authorities sent Scott to a labor camp on a mountain. He had to chop down trees for months. He escaped, got caught again and was sentenced to a political prisoners camp for the rest of his life.
A broker helped him bribe the authorities, and he made it back to China. There, he worked to pay his debt to the broker. But Scott went back to North Korea to take care of his sick mother. When a broker offered to smuggle him to South Korea, he took the opportunity and left his mother behind.
The night he escaped, his mother died. He had to choose between going to her funeral or continuing his journey.
Knowing that his mother would want it, Scott continued to South Korea. Now he owns a business there and enjoys his freedom.
Brokers and smugglers were key in Scott’s path to freedom. Working hard and saving money saved his life. Escaping North Korea takes a lot of mental strength, determination and sometimes years of planning. Sometimes you don’t even need a dictator or national borders to be trapped like this. There are millions of people being abused by cults without even realizing it.
Would you know a cult if you saw one? Or could that new self-help group you joined be leading you down a dangerous path?
- “North Korea”. 2022. HISTORY.
- “How Kim Jong Il Starved North Korea“. Weissmann, Jordan. 2011.The Atlantic.
- “Freedom, Sanctions And North Korean Ice Cream“. 2022. Time.
- “North Korean Defector Lucia Jang Shares Her Horrific Story At The Human Rights Film Festival | Shedoesthecity”. 2014. Shedoesthecity.
- “‘Treated Like Animals’: A North Korean Defector Tells The Brutal Story Of What Happened To Him After He Was Caught Trying To Escape“. 2022. Business Insider.