North Korean Refugees Embark on a Blind Journey to Freedom

A view over the Tumen River.

A view over the Tumen River.

How can a North Korean refugee explain what happens between the moment of deciding to escape from North Korea and the first footstep in a  country where they are free from persecution? Escaping from the country is a difficult process and all North Korean refugees put their lives at risk to do so. Surely no one will say that the journey was easy.

Nonetheless, successful escapees admit that they play down the dangers when telling their families back home in North Korea, and explain that escaping from North Korea was not as difficult as they’d expected.

Lee Nan-hee, who escaped in 2012, told us, “In my family, my older sister was the first to escape from North Korea and make it to South Korea. When I was in North Korea, my sister contacted me a few times, but she didn’t tell me over the phone what the process of escaping was like. She told me she’d describe it to me once I got to China.”

She continued, “I had several neighbors who went back and forth from China, so I wasn’t too afraid. It was only after I arrived in China that my sister told me that I must move on to a third country. When I heard that, I felt like the world was turning dark before my eyes.”

Nan-hee added, “At the time, I thought it would be better to face the danger rather than to go back. As it was, I came close to death five times before I arrived in a third country. Thinking about it now, if my sister had told me from the beginning that I would need to go through a third country, I would have been scared and might not have had the courage to escape from North Korea.”

Apart from those very few who escape North Korea through the DMZ or by sea, the majority of refugees must cross the river into China. As they are not recognized as refugees by China and face repatriation to North Korea where they will be punished, refugees must then go through a third country such as Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam or Thailand before reaching asylum in a third country such as South Korea.

Oh Suk-chul, from Pyongyang, escaped North Korea in 2004. He said that his mother escaped North Korea first, “My mother told me to get  safely to Yanji in China before she would tell me anything more.” He testified, “I didn’t know from the beginning that I would need to go through a third country to find asylum.”

He added, “North Korean citizens don’t have much access to external information, so telling them that they need to move through a third country sounds like an impossible journey. Explaining the escape process would be like telling people to give up on escaping from North Korea altogether.”

Other North Korean exiles we interviewed also said that they did not tell family members who remained in North Korea about the escape route, saying that this was the best way of keeping their loved ones alive. Nan-hee, who recently spoke to her mother in North Korea, said, “As my sister did for me, I did not tell my mother the full escape route in advance.” She continued, “Hiding this is a good thing for my mother. You have to lie to your family to keep them alive.”