Escaping North Korea

A fascinating, and sometimes heartbreaking, story about those seeking to escape from North Korea, and those who help them.

Some 50,000 North Koreans, and possibly many more, are hiding in China, most in cities and villages along the remote 900-mile-long border between the two countries. Uncounted others have come for a few months and then slipped back to North Korea with food and money. Yet many stay on, unable or unwilling to return to their cruel homeland. They are left with two desperate choices: Keep hiding — often as prisoners of exploitative employers — or embark on the Asian underground railroad, a perilous journey by foot, vehicle, and train across China and Southeast Asia. Confronted with an obstacle course of checkpoints, informants, and treacherous terrain, numerous defec­tors have been caught. But aided by a small band of humanitarians and by smugglers charging $3,000 and up, some 15,000 have reached safe haven, most often in South Korea. There, traumatized and barely skilled, they face the most formidable challenge of all: starting over.

Related: Photo gallery, author’s field notes


Read more about North Korea.