Escape From North Korea

Defectors give an account of how and why they fled North Korea.

This map shows the typical 3,000 mile journey North Korean defectors must take to safety in Southeast Asia via bus, truck, boat, and train.

WASHINGTON—A family of North Korean defectors has detailed their perilous flight from hunger and oppression along a missionary-backed “underground railroad” to the United States, beginning with several years hiding in northeastern China for fear of being sent back to labor camps across the border.

Suh Won Kyung, his wife Kim Yeon Hwa, and their sons Suh Cheol and Suh Cheol Young arrived in the United States after a tortuous road that took in the mountainous jungle border regions of the Golden Triangle and several months hiding in an embassy.

“We saved much of the money the three of us made while working in China,” Suh Won Kyung said.

“We bought the cheapest food available, didn’t waste a single penny, and managed to save some money, up to about 15,000 yuan (U.S. $2,200).”

With help from missionaries in China’s northeast, the Suh family decided to try traveling the length of China by public transportation.

That route is much riskier than the usual defector route through Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia.

Tighter curbs

Authorities in northeastern China have stepped up controls in recent months on North Korean refugees living illegally on the Chinese side of the border, according to aid workers in the region.

The crackdown, marked by a heavier police presence and more detentions, began in July, according to several witnesses who work with the large number of North Koreans living in the area.

It coincides with stepped-up security throughout China around major celebrations Oct. 1 to mark the 60th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party rule, following a series of deadly ethnic clashes.

“To follow that route, one needs a fake ID, which we didn’t have, or at the very least speak good Chinese. In our case, with neither fake IDs, nor good Chinese-language skills, things were going to be very difficult,” Suh Won Kyung said.

“We took a bus bound for Beijing, but we were asked to present an ID ... I decided to get off the bus, since I was not Chinese, and gave the person who was asking all of those questions about 1,200 yuan, a hefty amount of money, which I had to give up, for our personal safety,” he said.

Suh had already fled across the border to northeastern China and been sent back by Chinese police as an illegal immigrant under an agreement between Beijing and Pyongyang.

“I left North Korea to make some money and overcome dire economic circumstances,” he said.

“However, people like me, who made some money abroad, were forcibly repatriated and assigned to forced labor units, our money was taken away, and the State Security Department, the Ministry of Public Security, and other agencies confiscated our possessions.”

‘Small miracles’

His eldest son Suh described “tense moments” after the family finally made it onto a train in northeastern China.

“We had almost arrived at our destination, when the police showed up to check IDs.  When my brother showed them his, they said it was a fake. My brother’s Chinese was not that good at all, so he was very scared.”

“The police officer whacked my brother over the head and told him to never travel around China with a fake ID again ... When asked for our IDs, my mother and I said that we had left them in Mudanjiang,” he said.

Suh Won Kyung said the entire journey was dependent on a series of “small miracles.”

“These were all very narrow escapes, [and] tell you how difficult and perilous our journey was,” he said.

Pushed by hunger

Suh's wife, Kim Yeon Hwa, was initially extremely reluctant to leave North Korea, as she believed that it was the best country in the world.

“Although we had lost three of our five children to the economic crisis and food shortages, I still believed that our country was the best in the world,” said Kim, who described tying a rope around the waist of the couple’s one-year-old son and leaving him alone at home while both parents searched for food.

“Then we’d come home and our child would eat anything we’d put before him,” she said.

“We were struggling to survive, and, as we lost three children because of the food shortages, I began to change my mind regarding defection.”

Following Suh Won Kyung’s forcible repatriation to North Korea by the Chinese authorities, Kim realized she had little choice left but to flee the isolated Stalinist state.

“After my husband was caught in China and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, I knew we’d all have to defect,” she said.

“In North Korea, all members of a defector’s family are regarded as traitors, so from that point on, I knew that we’d all be seen as traitors, and our life in North Korea would become even harder.”

Months in Laos

The family arrived in Laos in October 2008, and hid for several months in an embassy, where officials refused to help them apply for political asylum in the United States.

“I managed to call the missionary who had been helping us all along, and a while later we were visited by an assistant to a member of the U.S. Congress and somebody from the U.S. Embassy. That is how we managed to reach the United States,” he said.

Western diplomats and rights groups estimate the number of North Koreans living in China at anywhere from tens of thousands to several hundred thousand, including a large number of women trafficked into China as “brides” or sex workers.

Nearly all North Korean defectors flee poverty and malnutrition initially to neighboring China, where they learn about life in other countries.

Some 16,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea, most in the last decade.

Fewer than 100 have ended up in the United States, despite passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which aimed to expedite the processing of North Korean refugees.

Original reporting in Korean by S.K. Lee and Wonhee Lee. Korean service director: Insop Han. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.