Journalist Tracks North Koreans' Harrowing Escape

The Underground Railroad

National Geographic magazine reporter Tom O'Neill followed three defectors' journeys along the "underground railroad." One of them, whom he gave the code name Black, crossed the Tumen River to China and hid in a church in Yanji. With missionaries' help, he took a 40-hour train from Beijing to Kunming. From there, he was driven to the Golden Triangle, where he hiked through mountains and jungle to cross into Laos. Finally, he took a boat across the Mekong River to Thailand and applied for asylum in South Korea.

Map of the Asian Underground Railroad i i
Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Map of the Asian Underground Railroad
Lindsay Mangum/NPR

Every year, thousands of North Koreans try to escape a life of brutal hardship by slipping across North Korea's 900-mile border with China. They're often aided by smugglers who charge $3,000 and up for their service, and in some cases are almost as oppressive as the government the defectors are trying to flee.

The escapees live in constant fear of arrest and deportation back to North Korea, where they can face torture, imprisonment or even execution.

National Geographic magazine reporter Tom O'Neill followed the Asian "underground railroad" with three defectors and wrote about the journey in the magazine's February issue. And for their protection, O'Neill gave them code names: Red, White and Black.

O'Neill found the defectors through a missionary who was trying to help the North Koreans escape. Black was a college-educated man from North Korea's capital Pyongyang, and Red and White were two women in their 20s who came to China with the help of brokers who sold them to people who ran sex chat rooms. O'Neill met them when they were ready to flee through China in an attempt to make it to Thailand, where they could apply for asylum.

"They were convinced they were going to be caught in China," O'Neill tells NPR's Michele Norris. "They could not be sent back to North Korea because they would be sent to prison. They were desperate. They weren't running for freedom, like 'Oh, we're going to the promised land.' For them, they were on the run."

Vulnerable And Exploited

O'Neill says the defectors think that when they get to China, they'll find a better life in the short term, "and then they realize they're stuck in China," he says.

He says he thinks some North Koreans would prefer to be in China if it were legal, because they're closer to their relatives and figure they can go back home. But they have to live underground, which is stressful.

"I think why most of them decide to leave is the pressure and the living in fear if they're caught. They have no documents. And they're really exploited," O'Neill says. "They're vulnerable — they can't complain to any police, they can't get justice anywhere."

North Koreans first started defecting in the late 1990s during the famine, when nearly 2 million died. During that time, the Chinese and the Korean-Chinese welcomed them "almost out of a humanitarian impulse," O'Neill says. But then North Korea complained China was harboring its people — and China needs North Korea's iron ore and secure borders. So the Chinese authorities agreed to crack down, especially leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

There are now about 15,000 defectors in South Korea. They have saved money and are sending it through various channels to the border to get people out.

Not A Hollywood Ending

But O'Neill says that even after the defectors successfully make it to South Korea, they still face a hard life.

"The thing is, most of the defectors now are poor, no skills," O'Neill says. "Seoul is so hypercompetitive, so dependent on the advancement of education. When the defectors get to South Korea, it's not the promised land. They start at the bottom."

O'Neill says he hopes South Korea will give more training to the defectors and help to bring them into mainstream society.

"That's the final irony," he says. "They were hiding in China, and then when I met them in Seoul, they were hiding there. And the weirdest thing: They're homesick."

He says that defectors "miss their homeland," even if they had lost their parents to starvation, had dead-end jobs or were starving, themselves, when they lived there.

"If you don't feel at home in Seoul or somewhere else, you're going to miss a place that everyone else on earth is going, 'That's living hell, you should leave,' " O'Neill says. "But it's not a Hollywood ending, that's for sure."

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