You’ll Never Guess How Much Money You Need to Defect From North Korea and Escape From Kim Jong Un

Thousands of people defect from North Korea every year. Leaving the impoverished country isn’t easy or cheap, but the people escaping have good reasons to get out: The horrendous prison camps,  the forced child labor, and the laundry list of crazy rules they have to follow are a few of them. When they decide to leave, this is how much defectors pay to get out of North Korea and escape Kim Jong Un.

We’ll discuss the cost throughout the years before revealing how much it costs now (page 6), plus we’ll discuss some interesting tidbits about defectors (pages 8 and 9).

Why defect from North Korea at all?

Children stand besides a railway track in the industrial city of Chongjin on North Korea's northeast coast

North Korea is incredibly poor. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • Freedom is the main reason people get out of the country.
  • Most citizens make less than $1,000 a year.

In case you haven’t heard, life is tough in North Korea. The ruling family, led by Kim Jong Un, hoards wealth and eats sumptuous foods while the masses starve.

Meanwhile, the typical North Korean makes about $4 per day. Most people make less than $1,000 a year unless they have one of the few good jobs or are one of the elite rich kids. The rulers are repressive, there are a lot of common foods people can’t buy, and health problems are widespread. In short, life is tough.

Next: Door No. 1 or door No. 2?

The ways people defect from North Korea and get to South Korea

Map of North Korea and South Korea

Any way you go it’s a treacherous journey. | hansslegers/iStock/Getty Images

  • The direct route is extremely dangerous.
  • Get into China, then endure a combination of south Asia border crossings.

Most North Korean defectors start their new lives in South Korea, and there are basic basically two ways to get there.

One method is going directly across the border, which is what a defecting soldier did in 2017. It’s the most direct way to go, but it’s also extremely dangerous since the border is heavily guarded.

The other method is crossing the Yalu or Tumen Rivers in the north to get into China, but that’s just the first stage. As Global News reports, many defectors pass from China to Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar in some combination before arriving in South Korea.

Next: North Korean defectors open their wallets. 

Getting out of North Korea was somewhat affordable in 2009

north korea military members in unifor, with a south korea military member in fatigues

The cost of defection keeps getting higher. | Korea Pool/Getty Images

  • It was about $2,800, which is a lot but is far less than it is now.
  • A defector tells her story to Al Jazeera

When Um Yae-run decided to defect from North Korea in 2009, it cost her roughly $2,800. With the help of a broker, she took the northern route into China. She tells Al Jazeera that she left her mother and daughter behind in North Korea on her way to freedom.

Next: Getting out of North Korea isn’t getting any cheaper.

The price to defect from North Korea keeps increasing

Security area North Korea border

The price has more than doubled in the past decade. | Frank Bucter/iStock/Getty Images

  • The cost to defect North Korea quickly grows.
  • One defector paid $6,000 to get her daughter out.

The woman we just discussed, Um Yae-run, spent $2,800 to defect from North Korea in 2009. She left her daughter and mother behind, and when she saved up enough to fetch her daughter a few years later, it cost $6,000. That was more than double what she paid and three to six times what most North Koreans make in a year.

Next: The cost to defect during Donald Trump’s presidency is the highest ever.

Prices spike during Donald Trump’s presidency

Republican debate donald trump

Trump’s hawkish rhetoric has driven the cost even higher. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

  • Minimum of $9,000 at the end of 2016
  • Most crossings cost more than that

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, the price spiked to $9,000 to defect from North Korea through China. However, that’s a bare minimum. According to the defector Um Yae-run, the starting cost is more like $9,300, but as we are about to see the true cost is more than that.

Next: The price to defect is out of control now.

In 2018, the cost is years of a North Korean’s pay

People read North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun

The average North Korean would need to save a year’s salary to safely defect.| Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images

  • The price is in five figures these days.
  • It takes more money to bribe border guards near China now.

Getting across the river into China costs anywhere between $13,000 and $16,000 per person in 2018, according to a Radio Free Asia report. In the same report, Kwang-il Jeong, the head of a defector-led organization, says that border guards require bigger bribes to help or they refuse to help at all. Increased danger and difficulty leads to higher prices for defectors.

Not only that but many North Korean defectors in the south face discrimination and homesickness. Those aren’t monetary costs, but they impact overall well-being.

Next: Weighing the risks 

Why do the brokers risk it and help people defect from North Korea?

Masikryong, or Masik pass' ski resort, near North Korea's east coast port city of Wonsan

People caught defecting are usually killed. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • There’s a death penalty for anyone helping defectors.
  • Getting paid $1,800 to $3,700 per person is too much to turn down.

In North Korea, helping a defector is extremely dangerous since there is a death penalty if you’re caught. Heck, even Chinese and South Korean people who help have to feel nervous given Kim Jong Un’s affinity for murder across borders. But the brokers who help people defect make anywhere from $1,800 to $3,700 per person, which is too big of a payday to turn down.

Next: This is who leaves North Korea.

Women are the ones leaving in droves

North Korean cheering squad hold their national flag and cheer on track and field athletes in the Asian Athletics Championships

North Korean women are more likely to defect. | Choi Won Suk/AFP/Getty Images

  • An overwhelming majority of defectors are female.
  • More than 50% each year since 2002

Women defect from North Korea a lot more than men these days. Ever since 2002, more than 50% of the people escaping are women, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. In 2017, 83% of the 1,127 people who successfully defected were women.

Next: The reasons it costs more to defect from North Korea.

Costs aren’t rising just because defecting is more dangerous

Kim Jong Un sits with students.

Kim Jong Un has beefed up security. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

  • The number of defectors in 2017 was the fewest since 2001.
  • More security makes it harder to get out.

Data from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification shows the number of North Korean defectors entering the country is declining.

There were well more than 2,000 defectors every year from 2006 to 2011. The 2017 amount was the lowest since 2001. Brokers still want to make their money, but since they have fewer clients they charge more.

Plus, it’s harder than ever to get someone out of North Korea. According to Seeker, Kim Jong Un beefed up security to cut down on the number of defectors. It seems to be working.

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