Lying to Live: Escapees

Friday 17th April, 2015
North Korean refugees in front of the Japanese embassy in China.

North Korean refugees in front of the Japanese embassy in China/Photo from BBC


Starting from the very moment of deciding to defect, to finally setting foot in the South, how could one explain the process that is escaping North Korea? Defectors make the difficult journey knowing well that they are risking their lives. It is not a process that could be described as easy.

However, it has recently become evident that escapees have hidden the truth about their escape from their families back home in North Korea, by assuring family members that ‘escaping North Korea isn’t as hard as it seems’.

Lee Nan-hee, who escaped in 2012, recounts, “My older sister was the first in my family to escape and settle in the South. While we were still in North Korea we did hear from my sister a few times, but she did not explain entirely her method of escape. She told us only to arrive in China safely.”

She continues, “We knew people in our neighbourhood who frequented China, so we didn’t have any great concerns. Once we arrived in China, it was only then that my sister informed us that we had to further travel through via a third country [to arrive eventually in South Korea]. As soon as we heard this, I began to lose confidence.

She testifies, “At the time, I believed that instead of retreating, it was better to confront it”. Further, she recalls how she “faced death five times while in transit”.

“Now that I think about it, if my sister had told me at the start that I had to pass through a third country, I would have reconsidered everything, and would have hesitated to escape. I would have been too frightened,” she reflects.

Only a handful of defectors cross the DMZ by land or sea, while most cross the Yalu/Amnok or Tumen rivers into China, and move through Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand or other countries before landing eventually in South Korea.

Oh Seok-Cheol, born in Pyongyang, who escaped in 2010, says that his mother escaped North Korea before him. “My mother told me only to arrive in Yanji City safely,” he recalls. “I didn’t know that I had to pass through a third country after that.”

Furthermore, “North Korean citizens don’t have many opportunities to encounter or even hear about the outside world, so passing through a third country would seem like a near-impossible task. Telling them what is really involved in escaping is as good as telling them to give up on escaping at all.”

Exiles agree that not disclosing the full route of escape to their families was a way of saving them. Lee Nan-hee, who spoke with her mother in North Korea recently over the phone, says, “Just as I did to my older sister, I did not inform my mother of the full route of escape. Hiding the truth like this is all for my mother’s good. We have to lie to our family to live.”


Reporting by Choi, Dami



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