Escaping North Korea The Long Road to Freedom

Over a decade ago, a former North Korean military officer fled south after being accused of negligence and threatened with death. Now he coordinates the escapes of fellow North Koreans. But the price of freedom is often the lives of loved ones left behind.


Kim Yong Hwa has been sitting at his desk since 6 a.m., smoking, cursing and waiting. It's a small office in Seoul, the South Korean capital, with a gray steel door and a double security lock. Finally the phone rings. "The water level has gone up in the river," says a muffled voice on the other end. "It'll cost extra."

The conversation relates to three men, two women and two children from North Korea. They are waiting at the Tumen River, which forms the border between their country and China. They want to defect, but they can't swim. The caller, a trafficker who works for Kim, wants more money -- the equivalent of €30 ($41) per person -- to pull them over to the Chinese side with a rope. "The money is on the way," Kim shouts into the phone. "Bring them over. We have the money."

Kim, 60, has often dealt with similar situations in the last decade. In that period, he has helped about 7,000 people to flee from North Korea. He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt, a safari vest and thin trousers. There are deep wrinkles on the skin of his sunburned forehead. Although Kim's office is more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from the demarcation line dividing the Korean peninsula, he practically lives between two worlds.

Kim was also on the other side once, when he served as a staunchly loyal officer in the North Korean army. His experience taught him how the system works -- and how to outsmart it. He smuggles mobile telephones into the country and builds secret information channels, and he bribes officials to issue fake travel permits and border guards to look away at just the right moment.

After hearing the stories North Korean defectors tell once they are in Seoul, it is easy to understand why they risked everything to escape the regime. Officially, the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" provides its citizens with all of life's essentials. But, in reality, many could hardly survive without the black market or a private garden in the mountains to at least have something to eat.

Hungry soldiers steal farmers' supplies at night, say farm workers and military defectors alike. According to a 41-year-old woman who defected from South Hamgyong Province, the adult children of another couple in their village asked their parents to commit suicide so that the family would have two fewer mouths to feed. They did, she said.

'Erosion from Within'

Kim Kwang Jin, a financial specialist who escaped from North Korea, speaks perfect English and held a senior position within the North Korean Communist Party. As the representative of North Korea's North East Asia Bank in Singapore, he commuted back and forth between there and Pyongyang -- until the day he decided not to return home.

Kim Kwang Jin is one of the higher-ranking defectors from the regime's inner circle. Like Kim Yong Hwa, the refugee helper, and many others, he lives in Seoul. The two men are working toward a common goal: the overthrow of a system that holds everyone hostage. This includes those who are still there as well as those who have left and must now fear for the lives of their relatives. The regime punishes relatives for the deeds of those who dared to leave.

The former banker still meets abroad with fellow bankers who are supposedly loyal to the regime. They don't mince words when they get together. He says that only the elites -- including members of the secret police, military officers, judges and senior government officials -- are still receiving daily food deliveries, or so-called "rations." Many live in downtown Pyongyang, in the government district surrounding Changgwang Street. The area looks like Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, a major boulevard in the formerly communist part of the German capital lined with buildings consisting of large apartments with seven or eight rooms and two or three baths.

The regime derives its support from its roughly 2.5 million protégés in the capital and some other major cities who receive regular benefits, says Kim Kwang Jin. However, it is otherwise suffering from "erosion from within." And if the regime collapses one day, Kim adds, the people will take their revenge on dictator Kim Jong Un "like a Ceausescu or a Saddam Hussein."

North Korea's powerful neighbor China wants to prevent such a collapse, as it could lead to chaos and revolution. Beijing supports Pyongyang economically, which explains the shocking presence of luxury goods in the North Korean capital: BMW sedans, flat-screen TVs, Gucci perfume and DVDs from the United States. And, of course, all of this can only be purchased with hard currency.

A train travels regularly back and forth between Pyongyang and the Chinese border city of Dandong. On the return trip, the train compartments are filled with premium goods, and the dining car looks like a mobile officers' mess during Europe's Imperial Era. The tables are piled high with rich food, and North Korean officers, with girls on their arms, occasionally put out their cigarettes in the main course, which hardly anyone has touched.

Trusted Enough to Execute Others

On the other side of the demarcation line, in his office with the gray steel doors and double lock, Kim Yong Haw gathers information about his former country. He is well known, and little escapes his notice. He sometimes uses three phones at once, and he hates being idle. He avoids the silence he fears. New defectors have just arrived -- two brothers -- and Kim has to stop at his clothing store to get them new things.

Kim escaped the nightmare of the North Korean dictatorship a long time ago. He too crossed the river once, but he still hasn't fully left his own past behind. And the few people with whom Mr. Kim has shared his whole story come to understand that sometimes the hardest part is forgiving yourself.

His family belonged to the elite. His grandfather fought the Japanese with the guerilla force lead by Kim Il Sung, the country's founder, and his father was wounded in the Korean War. He used to take his son to school in a Mercedes. The son followed in his father's footsteps and became a military officer. He was in charge of security for a strategically important railway line along the east coast.

One of the highlights of his career came with a call from the Ministry of Public Security, when a superior informed Kim, a captain at the time, that he had been chosen to execute a party official. "I was beside myself with joy," says Kim. "It meant that they trusted me, that I belonged and that my livelihood was secure."

On the day of the public execution, a group of onlookers gathered to watch five soldiers shoot five offenders. The condemned prisoners were blindfolded and tied to wooden stakes. On a piece of newspaper, Kim draws a sketch of how this sort of thing usually looks in North Korea.

Kim's victim appeared to be in his mid-40s. The man had allegedly made the mistake of claiming that Kim Il Sung's state philosophy was inconceivable without the teachings of Marx and Lenin.

Kim shot the man with his service weapon, first in the chest, then in the head and finally in the stomach, so that the head would tilt forward. Those were the regulations, he says. After the execution, relatives were required to throw stones at the bodies to demonstrate that they loved their leader more than their own family member.

The Horrific Price of Freedom

About 25,000 of North Korea's 24 million citizens now live in South Korea. More than 1,500 arrived in 2012 alone. Many die en route, either by starving or freezing to death while marching across the Changbai Mountains in the border region between North Korea and China. Some of the bodies are still there, preserved in the ice.

For those who make it, the Chinese authorities pose an additional threat, because Beijing considers them to be "economic refugees" and sends them back to North Korea. As a rule, those who are returned to North Korea are either sent to a labor camp or executed, depending on their class and motive.

Still, at least 250,000 illegal North Koreans are hiding in China. They live in dark corners of Chinese society, as forced prostitutes, garbage collectors or low-wage workers, constantly in fear of being turned in.

Only three days earlier, refugee helper Kim had once again hired a few thugs to go into a Chinese brothel in Dandong. He had learned that five North Korean girls were being held there. He shows us photos of the young women: They were made up like dolls, with heavy black eye makeup and red lipstick. The youngest is reportedly 13.

"Do you know what it's like when people are prepared to eat other people?" Kim growls. "What do you know?" The West, he says, will never understand what happens in this other world.


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repeshc 10/17/2013
1. D. Rodman ... go to hell
I recently made a couple of trips to Seoul. It is difficult to imagine the humanitarian horror only miles north of here during my short time exploring this vast and vibrant metropolis. I've been told by US military people that the presence of the foreign militaries for the continuing peace mission is intended as much to keep the South Koreans from invading the north as well as the North coming south. I can imagine how furious these people are after the devastation of WWII led to the Chinese enabled ruthless totalitarian existence dropped like a lead weight on more than half of their country.
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