In Depth

How hard is it to escape North Korea?

Kim Jong Un’s border crackdown has made fleeing the regime harder than ever

A young North Korean soldier who used thick fog to sneak across the border undetected has become the fourth soldier this year to defect across the DMZ. South Korean soldiers fired warning shots as North Korean troops searched for the defector, who is now being taken care of by South Korean authorities.

In November,  dramatic video showing a soldier escaping across the North Korean border despite being shot five times was shared around the world.

The 24-year-old soldier, identified only by his surname, Oh, drove through the Joint Security Area, where North Korean and South Korean troops stand almost face-to-face, before crashing and fleeing on foot as his comrades fired at him.

The security camera footage, released by the United Nations Command in Seoul, is all the more remarkable because Oh’s escape differed in almost every respect from the experience of most North Korean defectors.

So how many people actually make it out of the North Korea - and what are their methods?

Getting out

The number of successful defectors peaked in 2009, when 2,914 North Koreans arrived in South Korea, but since then the number has more than halved. Only 1,418 made it across in 2016, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which predicts an even smaller figure for 2017.

“Increased border controls by both North Korea and China are thought to be the primary reason for the drop,” CNN reports.

Statistics gathered on successful defections make it clear just how atypical Oh’s high-profile escape was.

Almost four out of five North Korean defectors are women. The majority are aged between 20 and 40, and are educated to high school level. Only 2.5% come from a military background.

Almost two-thirds come from North Hamgyong, the northernmost province in the country. The reason for this, says NK News, is topographical. While most of the North Korea-China border runs along the wide and powerful Yalu River, North Hamgyong and part of neighbouring Ryanggang sit on the Tumen River, a narrow waterway that is shallow enough to be forded on foot in some places and that often freezes solid in the winter.

The first challenge facing a would-be defector is money. Paying a “broker” to facilitate the crossing and arrange transport on the other side can cost the equivalent of several thousand pounds, the South China Morning Post reports. Those unable to raise the money may get lucky and find a broker willing to accept payment after the defector reaches South Korea.

Although the Tumen River is generally less perilous than the Yalu, a guard’s torch beam or an unexpected burst of moonlight can lead to detection and capture.

Charles Ryu, a North Korean refugee in the US, told the Daily Intelligencer how he was tortured by police after being caught on the wrong side of the Chinese border at the age of 14. He spent nine months in a forced labour camp, which he describes as a “living hell”.

Two years later, he tried to escape again - this time successfully. After swimming across the river under cover of darkness, he “walked for three days without water or any food”, he said. “My feet were bruised and blistered, bleeding.”

Since Kim Jong Un’s crackdown in 2016, crossing the Tumen is even more perilous.

“An order was handed down at the beginning of the month stating that defectors should be shot on the spot without exception,” a North Korean informant told Daily NK in November 2016.

“Even though the dead bodies are drifting downstream, the border guards have no intention of fishing them out,” another source told the news website. “In fact, they seem to be using the bodies to serve as a warning to other residents attempting to escape.”

As risky as the Chinese border crossing is, for the vast majority of North Koreans it is the only route out of the country.

“Heavily mined and fortified with barbed wire, rows of surveillance cameras and electric fencing”, as well as thousands of troops, the 155-mile-long border with South Korea is almost impossible to traverse, says the BBC - only a handful of people have managed it.

Staying out

China may be the first point of call for the majority of defectors, but it is far from a safe haven.

As Pyongyang’s chief ally, China does not grant North Koreans refugee status, and defectors who cross paths with the Chinese authorities are frequently arrested as illegal migrants. Many are deported back to North Korea, “where they are met with almost certain punishment”, CNN reports.

North Koreans in China must live under the radar, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Traffickers have been known to “sell” female defectors, with or without their knowledge, as sex workers or as brides for Chinese men.

“I knew I was going to be sold, but I was prepared to go,” one woman told the The Washington Post.

The vast majority of defectors who make it to China head for South Korea, usually via Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, a journey that “involves travelling almost 2,700 miles on buses, motorbikes and boats, in taxis and on foot over mountains”, says the newspaper.

A South Korean pastor who helps would-be defectors escape North Korea told CNN that the whole journey could cost up to $20,000 (£15,000).

A handful of defectors are able to obtain asylum in the US or Canada, but an untold number continue to live in secrecy in China, many concealed within ethnic Korean enclaves near the border.

The invisible barrier

For many North Koreans, the chief obstacle to escaping the hermit kingdom is not the physical difficulty of crossing the border but the fear of the repercussions for those they leave behind.

The concept of songbun - family status - is central to North Korean society, determining opportunities for education and employment according to perceived loyalty to the system.

A defector in the family can have serious consequences, ranging from exclusion from membership in the Workers’ Party of North Korea - without which social advancement is all but impossible - to arrest, torture and imprisonment in a forced labour camp.

Thae Yong Ho, the former North Korean deputy ambassador to the UK, who in 2016 became the highest-ranking official ever to defect from North Korea, told Al Jazeera of his fears for his siblings still inside the country.

“Even though I am physically and mentally free in South Korea, I still can’t get rid of this nightmare of my family members,” he said.

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