UPDATED at 8:20 A.M. EDT on 2019-10-22
A group of 13 North Koreans traveled through China and crossed the Mekong River into a Southeast Asian country at the weekend, ending a grueling two-month journey which spanned 6,000 kilometers (more than 3700 miles) in a quest for asylum in South Korea.
Among the group that reached the Southeast Asian destination on Saturday were a two-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, while the rest ranged in age between their teens and 50s. Their journey took them first through China, where they had to hide out for more than a week to avoid surveillance.
Through China and then Vietnam and Laos, they used 13 means of transportation and crossed seven mountains in the darkness of night before reaching the third Southeast Asian country, which could not be identified to protect the safety of the asylum seekers.
Their fates were uncertain even as they were crossing the Mekong on a tiny boat in the pitch black darkness, because they had no clear idea who they were supposed to meet once they crossed.
Once on the other side, they were met by officials from the South Korean human rights group Now Action Unity Human rights (NAUH), who had been searching for them.
Eight of the 13 left North Korea with the intent to travel all the way to the final Southeast Asian destination, while the remainder had first settled temporarily in China before joining the others, the asylum seekers who hope to be eventually resettled in South Korea told RFA's Korean Service.
A female member of the group, identified by the pseudonym Kim Jin-hye because she is concerned for her safety, told RFA’s Korean Service she left North Korea in July because she was being forced to join the military and had to give up her dream of becoming a doctor.
“Should I say I am in distress [after this journey?]” Kim asked.
“It’s only harder if you keep thinking about how hard it is. It wasn’t hard for me because I kept thinking this is the only way I can achieve my dream and [secure] my future,” she added.
Incompetence and corruption
Another woman in the group, in her fifties, identified by the pseudonym Lee Chun-hwa, said she decided to seek asylum because she hated the incompetence of North Korean authorities, who she said make strong crackdowns on minor infractions.
She also disliked the rampant corruption in North Korean society and said it was her wish to travel to other countries as she pleased. She said that even North Korea’s rich are looking for ways to get out.
“People think that the state just drains money from us. It would be nice if the state would let us be in charge of our own business,” said Lee.
“So it means that the people are all saying ‘Let’s leave. We will be able to be in charge of our own affairs in South Korea, We can enjoy freedom. Let’s go look for our freedom there.’ Many of the rich people want to come because [the authorities] are giving them a hard time,” Lee said.
After the NGO picked up the group, they spent one night in the third Southeast Asian country. They then boarded motorbikes to turn themselves in at the local police station. One of the them held a cell phone with the English phrase “I want go [sic] to South Korea.” written phonetically in Hangul, the Korean alphabet.
Another female member of the group, identified as Lee Jung-sim, is the mother of the 2-year-old. Her 12-year old niece, small enough to pass for a much younger child, was also a part of the group. Lee’s mother had escaped into South Korea 13 years ago.
“Now that I’m here, I break into tears just thinking of seeing my mother. It’s been 13 years. I have tears just thinking about meeting her for the first time in 13 years,” Lee said.
Before leaving for the police station, a 20-year-old member of the group identified as Park Soo-young vowed that the group would make something of their lives in South Korea.
“I’m so happy that you all helped us when we arrived and after all we’ve been through. Thank you to all who helped us,” said Park.
“Because of you, we were able to make it here safely to prepare for our trip to South Korea. We will live our best lives in South Korea. We’re not afraid. I know we’re on the right path,” she said.
Ji Seong-ho, founder of NAUH, who himself escaped North Korea in 2006, led the effort to rescue the 13.
He told RFA that many people that attempt to leave North Korea are arrested in China, as Beijing intensifies crackdowns on those who try to flee. He noted that the number of North Koreans fleeing to Southeast Asia has declined in recent years, but that many still make the journey hoping to escape to freedom.
Ji said the latest rescue was nerve-racking and moving.
“Everything’s done. We were all so nervous and we were deeply moved — to tears,” said Ji, adding, “There were also tearful goodbyes. But this is like a gateway to South Korea, a free country.”
Southeast Asia is a popular destination for North Korean asylum seekers who usually request that they be given permanent resettlement in South Korea.
Based on previous cases, the 13 defectors are likely to be incarcerated for illegally entering the Southeast Asian country as they wait to be granted asylum.
They will undergo background checks and questioning by authorities, a process expected to last two months.
It was not immediately clear how the group were able to contact the NGO and arrange a spot to meet after crossing the Mekong, but usually NGOs are contacted by asylum seekers in China to get assistance in finding brokers that can help them reach Southeast Asia.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification more than 33,000 North Koreans have entered South Korea over the past several decades, including 546 as of June this year.
Reported by Jungmin Noh for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
CORRECTION: The story has been edited to protect the safety of the asylum seekers.