Here’s What Really Happens to North Koreans Who Leave Their Country

Over the past 20 years, thousands of North Koreans have defected from their country to start new, better lives in nearby areas. While many who have escaped live under the radar, some become activists and talk about their stories. Those who have been willing to speak have detailed the gruesome conditions of what it’s like to escape such a depressed country. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Why do they leave?

Nampo, North Korea

Most of the people are poor and hungry. | Aleks66/iStock/Getty Images

North Korea’s people are very poor and very hungry. About 70% of the population relies on food assistance, and North Korea does not always have food to give them. Plus, it is hard to find work. Those who have jobs are only earning an average of one or two dollars per month. North Korea is unsanitary, and diarrhea and pneumonia have become the leading cause of death for children under five because of unsafe water and poor sanitation. Many families want to seek refuge in safer, cleaner countries. Unfortunately, that process is not so easy.

It costs a lot of money

China's Border With North Korea

Most try and cross the river into China. | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Some daring North Koreans choose to walk across the demilitarized zone that separates North Korea from South Korea, but it is the riskier of the two options. Most people leave by crossing the Mekong River into China. The process is a broker system, and according to Newsweek, families pay around $2,000 each to be smuggled. With the average North Korean making less than 0.1% of that per month, it is a very expensive process, especially when families with children are trying to escape. The families are then smuggled across the river and brought to safe houses, but that is only the beginning of their journey.

It can take years to see freedom

It can take over a year to finally be free. | Mark Ralson/AFP/Getty Images

When a North Korean makes it to the safe house, they’re then put onto buses to take an 80-hour trip through Vietnam, according to Newsweek. Afterward, they hike through the mountains along the Laos border. At any time, the trip can go wrong and they can be arrested and sent back to North Korea. For one defector, Yeonmi Park, the escape took more than a year before she finally touched down in Seoul.

They are at the mercy of their smugglers

barbed wire and a wooden fence with a sunset behind it

Most smugglers are only in it for the money. | AFP/Getty Images

Many activists truly want to help North Koreans. However, a lot of smugglers are only in it for the money — or worse. In Park’s case, one smuggler threatened to turn her and her mother in to the police if Park did not have sex with him. Park said her mother could not bear the thought of that, and offered up herself instead. At the time, Park was only a teenager and had already seen her dad fall ill and her mother be sexually assaulted right in front of her.

They must live in seclusion

Security area North Korea border

They can be sent back at any time. | Frank Bucter/iStock/Getty Images

North Koreans can be caught at any time and sent back home. In an interview with the Telegraph, Park she had a great aunt who lived in China and helped her find shelter along with her parents. They had no running water and no access to health care. Her father died from cancer while in hiding. They had to bribe someone to cremate him in the middle of the night. It is too risky for defectors to ask for any public help in an area that would take legal action.

Even when they are free, they are not

North Korea Defector protesting with sign

Things aren’t great even for those who manage to escape. | Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly one year after her father died, Park and her mother finally made it to South Korea. Both were able to get jobs, and Park was able to go to school. However, the official handling Park’s refugee case warned her that she had been added to a list of North Korean defectors who needed to be eliminated. “I am still not free. They still have power over me. They still try to control me,” she told the Telegraph.

What happens if they are caught?

Military in North Korea

They will likely be beaten and tortured. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

In North Korea, punishments are never light. Defectors who are caught usually do not see death, though. They are sentenced to long-term “reeducation camps,” which are essentially hard-labor camps. North Koreans are starved and forced to work in mines and perform other laborious tasks with little to no energy or nourishment. Plus, forms of torture like beating and interrogation are also tactics used in the camps. The camps require some to make leather goods, which exposes them to toxic chemicals. North Korea has never allowed anyone to come in and look at these camps, but satellite images of the camps have helped explain to researchers how terrible they are.

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