12 May 2014

Risking near-certain death to escape from North Korea

North Koreans caught trying to flee their country face execution. But for one mother and her son, the risk was worth it.

No one is really sure how many North Koreans manage to escape each year, but we do know that far fewer are getting out. Since Kim Jong-un took power at the end of 2011, the number of defectors who make it to South Korea has dropped by more than 40 per cent.

That does not mean, however, that people from this land of gulags and food-shortages have decided to simply stick it out at home. “The desire to leave hasn’t changed,” says Tim Peters, director of humanitarian organisation Helping Hands Korea, but “it’s difficult to get out. There are more troops on both sides of the North Korean-Chinese border.”

It’ s not hard to understand why North Korea’s ruling clique requires its citizens to stay put. Defectors carry something with them that is proving increasing damaging to the regime: evidence of how the country works.

In February, a special United Nations commission presented an excoriating report on human rights abuses in this secretive nation, based on information provided by hundreds of former nationals – some in public hearings, the majority in private.

“The gravity, scale and nature of (human rights) violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” said the report. The commission’s head, Michael Kirby, went further, arguing there were “many parallels” between the evidence he had heard and crimes committed by the Nazis.

No wonder, then, that some North Koreans are willing to risk it all to leave the country of their birth – and they really are risking their lives.


(Photo: John Sparks and CK Park, who helps North Koreans fleeing their country)

Plotting escape

In north east China, we met a pair of defectors shortly after they had crossed the border. We found them in a safe house on a desolate stretch of road, looking drained and nursing badly frost-bitten feet. A mother called Young-Hee Park and her son Jae-Woo had been smuggled across the border, into China, but their escape plan had gone badly wrong.

The man they had hired to guide them on the Chinese side of the frontier had not turned up. “We crossed the border into China but the broker wasn’t there so we had to hide in the mountains for three days. We didn’t eat and we thought we were going to die,” said Young-Hee.

Eventually Jae-Woo flagged down a local bus and dragged his unconscious mother on board. He took a massive risk – Chinese soldiers regularly inspect vehicles near the border – but this desperate couple were fortunate. “It was very cold and the guards were huddled up. They glanced at the bus but they didn’t try to stop us,” Jae-Woo told us.

Eventually, they found a family willing to help them – members of a network offering shelter to defectors – but they could not stay long. Typically, North Koreans move south, for countries like Thailand and Laos, where they apply for citizenship at South Korean embassies.

Suicide or execution

It is a hazardous trip. If caught in China, the government’s policy is clear – Jae-Woo and his mother would be sent back to North Korea and almost certain execution. However, as you will see in our exclusive report, these two said they had no intention of being taken alive.

They were carrying rat poison and lumps of opium – enough to kill themselves if captured. “We keep it in the mouth like this,” said Young-Hee, pointing to a ball of opium wrapped in plastic. “If we are captured and cannot move our hands, we can still chew and swallow,” added Jae-Woo.

With the help of a South Korean missionary known as “the priest” and the financial support of organisations like Helping Hands Korea, the couple were soon traveling south towards Laos. It was a difficult journey – six nerve-shredding days on a variety of different forms of transport, filmed in its entirety by Channel 4 News journalist Danny Vincent, with Channel 4 News cameraman Matt Jasper in Laos.

The cost of freedom

The pair were frightened of being captured by Chinese police and the state of their feet, but they eventually made it to the capital of Laos.

It was here, in Vientienne, that they learned the full cost of their epic journey. Doctors told Young-Hee that her feet were so badly damaged that all 10 toes would require amputation. Still, she told me she could live with it. “It’s OK, I’m happy with this. When I was in the mountains, I didn’t think I would survive.”

They also reaped the benefits of completing what must surely be one of the world’s most terrifying journeys. Mrs Park’s daughters, who had defected from to South Korea years earlier, grabbed a late-night flight to Laos, to greet their mother and brother in person. I can tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen.

(Young-Hee Park and her son Jae-Woo are now in Seoul where they are receiving medical care and support at the South Korean government’s resettlement centre. Soon, they hope to move in with the rest of their family.)

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