North Korean Refugee Rescues: An Update from Our Field Manager
Over the past few years, the impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the day-to-day lives of North Korean people. Pandemic-related border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and unprecedented restrictions made it impossible for North Koreans to escape and reach freedom.
After a painstakingly long pause on rescues, at the end of 2022 we were finally able to start moving people safely again. Our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new, viable routes and adapt to circumstances on the ground. Navigating unprecedented restrictions and developing new routes has led to significantly higher and extremely volatile rescue costs, but our commitment is stronger than ever to help North Korean refugees reach freedom.
We recently sat down with our field manager, Jennifer* to hear directly about the current needs, challenges, and potential of this new era of rescues.
Could you give us a general overview of the situation in China?
So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Activists have been kicked out of the country; brokers no longer want to do this work because of the increased surveillance and restrictions. The number of underground rescue networks has shrunk significantly. Navigating these challenges puts us at higher risk, which means that we have to use more resources, including people on the ground, to guarantee that our groups move safely. Because of the increased costs, we soon might have to ask people to wait to be rescued and it’s agonizing, especially because timing is critical in the underground railroad. There are very few moments when everything aligns and it is safe to travel, but because we don’t have funds, North Korean refugees lose those rare, precious opportunities. The North Koreans I’ve been in communication with are living in constant fear because of the increased use of security technology by the state, such as facial recognition with AI. On top of that, domestic violence continues to be a serious issue for many North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married in China.
Is there a risk of being sent back to North Korea right now?
Refugees who are caught in China are forcibly sent back to North Korea where they are severely punished. However, because of the pandemic, North Korea sealed its borders in January 2020 and has yet to reopen them. This means that repatriation hasn’t been possible yet, but we are hearing rumors that North Korea will start receiving people again soon.
Many people who have tried to escape were arrested and we’ve heard that currently, there are a large number of North Korean refugees in Chinese prisons.
What kind of situations are people escaping from in China?
It’s mostly North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married to Chinese men. Some have been living in China for several years and the pandemic left them stranded with no way to escape. We had heard that some of these women were facing even worse treatment from their Chinese husbands than before. The people who arrived in China in 2019 or early 2020 only had a very short period of time to learn the language, culture, and to adjust before having to quarantine. It has been much more difficult for these people to try to escape from China.
More recently, some of the refugees we’re in communication with have serious health issues. But they can’t go to the hospital because they’re not Chinese citizens and would risk being arrested and sent back to North Korea. They are hoping to make it to South Korea to get the healthcare they need.
And what are some of the challenges that North Koreans in China face day-to-day?
They can’t go outside. There was already a lack of freedom to travel and move around freely before the pandemic, but it has only gotten worse since then. When I speak with them, it feels like they’re losing hope. The reality of how difficult and expensive the journey has become is discouraging, especially because they hear about people who attempted the journey and were caught and arrested. So for people who were connected with us recently, many were shocked to hear about our work. They said it was almost surreal because they didn’t think it was possible to get to freedom at this time.
What motivated these people to leave North Korea in the first place?
It’s different depending on the person. There are usually personal circumstances that lead them to look for better opportunities in China or South Korea. Many people are tricked into human trafficking. Some women choose to live with a Chinese husband of their own will. They believe it’s better to live in China in this way rather than live in North Korea.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
While I'm very grateful that we've been able to resume rescues, it's a shame that we can only move a limited number of people due to increased costs and heightened security. I stay in close contact with refugees in China who are hoping to reach freedom, and some are in urgent situations. A woman who was 4 months pregnant had to make the journey before her belly got too big. Some refugees have health conditions that need immediate treatment, but they’re unable to go to the hospital. My hope is that we can rescue as many people as possible so they can experience freedom and live the full lives that they deserve.
Since restarting rescues last December, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue and resettlement funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape. Your support is needed now more than ever.
Throughout the month of June, all one time gifts made here will go 100% towards our rescue and resettlement efforts. In honor of World Refugee Day 2023 and the countless people waiting for their rare and precious opportunity to reach freedom, give a gift today.
*Jennifer is a pseudonym used to protect our field manager’s identity and avoid compromising this work.
A North Korean Mom and Son’s Harrowing Escape | Harry’s Story
The town I grew up in was surrounded by mountains. When the season was right, my friends and I would hike up to look for pears. Fresh fruit was a luxury in North Korea, but the mountainside was covered in orchards. One day we snuck in when the fruit was still green, hoping to avoid the guards.
I hid in a tree, passing down pears to my friends, when we heard a whistle blow. My heart was pounding; it was like a heist movie. I rolled away and ran out of danger. Somehow, we got away with it. It didn’t even matter that the fruit we ate was not ripe and made our stomachs hurt—we felt unstoppable.
Little did I know that just a few years later, I would be running for my life once again… but this time, it was not a game. I would be escaping from North Korea.
Life in North Korea was normal to me. I went to school and spent time with my friends and older sister. All I knew about South Korea was from the movies I’d secretly watched. It seemed like a scary place, where they trafficked drugs and stole your organs.
My mom was often busy with work. She had a job that connected North Koreans to China, wiring money between families. With her income, we were able to live comfortably. But it was risky. She could usually bribe the guards to let her cross the border safely, but it wouldn’t work forever. One day, she was caught and sent to one of North Korea’s brutal prison camps.
My mom spent two years in the prison camp, forced to do intense labor every day while barely being fed. She told us later that she had shared a concrete cell with 50 other people and they lacked basic things like soap, toilet paper, and sanitary products. Guards would abuse their power and find any reason to assault them.
Many people in the camp were also women who had been arrested for crossing the border, trying to find ways to make a living and take care of their children. Dying in prison meant your crimes would be passed on to your family. And so, many of those women endured faithfully until they were released, and then passed away afterward.
When my mom finally left the camp, she quit the work she was doing and told her clients she was done. But one of them refused to hear it.
He was a South Korean fisherman whose boat had been thrown off course by a typhoon, and North Korean authorities refused to let him return home. One night, he showed up drunk at our house and threatened my mom. If she didn’t take him across the border, he would turn her in. So she had no choice. None of us did.
My mom took me with her and brought the old man to the border of North Korea. We were supposed to meet some brokers who would take him across, but they couldn’t agree on a price or a place. After a few days of waiting, everything went wrong.
The police had discovered our plan. They had our photos and were already putting up wanted posters for our capture. There was no way we could go home now. The choice was made for us. We had to flee the country with the old man.
I thought I would die that night. Armed soldiers patrol the river bordering North Korea and China, and are told to shoot defectors on sight.
If caught, my mom would have faced life in prison for her second offense—no better than a death sentence. But somehow, we made it to the other side.
In China, we waited three days in the mountains for our brokers. Every moment spent at a standstill was a huge risk, because Chinese authorities pay local citizens to report North Korean refugees. When it became clear that help wasn’t coming, we headed for a nearby village, laying low in the grass until the cover of night.
By nightfall, we took our chances and entered the village. Luckily, we met a kind woman who introduced us to a new broker. This broker helped us get to another city where the old man was picked up by South Korean officials and flown home to his family. As for me and my mom, we couldn’t go back to North Korea. So we went to see my middle sister, who had already been in China for quite some time.
Before I was born, my mom took my two sisters to China with her. She wanted them to stay there safely, but my oldest sister refused and returned to North Korea with my mom. My middle sister was left behind, sent to live with a trusted friend. But the unthinkable happened. At 12 years old, she was trafficked and sold to be married to a much older man. Every night, she would stand by the water well, threatening to hang herself if the man came near her.
But one year later, the inevitable happened. When she was just 13 years old, she had a baby.
Like many other young North Korean women, my sister went across the border seeking a better life, but ended up living her teenage years in captivity, with no laws or family to protect her. Every day she had imagined running away, until finally she did. She reunited with my mom in North Korea when she was 20.
But not everything went as hoped. Though she was happy to be together with our family again, it turned out life was just as hard in North Korea. In the end, my sister returned to her daughter in China just a few years later.
It had been years since we last saw my sister, and it was my first time meeting her daughter, my niece. We were the same age. For a month, we all enjoyed the bittersweet reunion. Then my sister connected us with another broker, and my mom and I finally escaped for good.
We eventually reached South Korea and it turns out, it wasn’t the dangerous country I had seen in movies.
Still, the memories of everything we had been through tormented me. I was angry at the old man who pressured us into his escape plan. I hated that my mom chose such a risky job in the first place.
Later we found out my oldest sister had been tortured by North Korean authorities when we left, leaving her devastated by mental illness. They wanted her to confess that our family had helped the old man escape. Someone had to take the blame. My older sister, who was once strong and reliable, would never be the same again.
When I first reached South Korea, I hid my past. Everything was terrifying and different—the culture, the lifestyle, and even the language. My new friends would hang out at internet cafes and I didn’t even know how to use a computer.
But I started learning. I studied hard in school and got a job to support myself. I began reading books to develop my own philosophy for my new life. I even started playing video games and for better or for worse, became just as obsessed as everyone else.
When I got to high school, I finally told my friends the truth about my life. Their response was so different from what I had expected. I found that rather than being cruel, they were curious. I realized the importance of my story, and how sharing my family’s painful experiences could change people’s perspectives about North Korea.
In 2019, at the end of high school, I met someone from Liberty in North Korea. I was so curious how she spoke about North Korea. She invited me to attend their Changemakers Summit and I had never experienced anything like that before—South Koreans, North Koreans, and even foreigners who were all young, open-minded, and interested in how to make an impact on this issue.
Truthfully, I never saw myself as an activist. I didn’t think I had what it takes.
But if I could change how just one person saw North Korea—to see the people and their resilience, bravery, and hope instead of the regime—I realized I was already acting as an advocate.
These days, I’m working and studying full time. After coming to South Korea my mom got her masters degree and is now writing a book about her life. My middle sister eventually escaped and joined us in South Korea too. She got remarried and finally gets to live a normal life. Even though we’re all pursuing different things, we’re still together, holding tightly to the hope that we will someday reunite with my older sister.
Today, I can be my own person. I can buy fresh fruit whenever I want, or walk along the Han river anytime. After all of the running and all of the pain, I am finally free to choose my own life.
Harry’s story echoes that of many North Korean refugees, who live with the weight of their past while grasping onto hope for the future. After what happened to his oldest sister, Harry says he has nothing left to lose. That’s why he chooses to speak openly about the horrific things he and his family have experienced, hoping to bring change and one day reunite with her in a free North Korea.
Help us continue to to sustain refugee rescues, empowerment programs, and efforts to change the way the world sees North Korea.