It’s grimly ironic that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is neither democratic nor a republic. In fact, it has been one of the world’s most severely authoritarian dictatorships for decades.
Under the rule of the Kim dynasty, which dates back to the ascent of Kim Il-sung in 1948 and continues under the leadership of his grandson Kim Jong-un, it’s no exaggeration to say that the citizens of the DPRK – widely known as North Korea – are effectively held captive by the regime.
So, what happens when North Koreans try and flee, and what routes can they take to leave?
North Korean defection
Freedom of movement is severely limited in North Korea. Strict emigration controls mean that leaving the country simply isn’t an option for most citizens: those who have left the People’s Republic have typically been regarded as defectors and punished in the event of repatriation. Nonetheless, thousands of North Koreans manage to escape the Hermit Kingdom every year. There is a long and well-documented history of North Korean defection.
Exposing the realities of life in the Hermit Kingdom
The recent history of North Korea under the leadership of the Kim dynasty has been shrouded in secrecy and the reality of life there remains closely guarded by officials. The stories of North Korean defectors lift the veil on life in North Korea, providing powerful accounts of devastating poverty and hardship. These accounts rarely chime with the version of the DPRK portrayed by state propaganda. The regime has long sought to control how North Korean society is perceived by the outside world.
The disparity between the regime’s representation of life in North Korea and reality has always been obvious to outside observers but there have certainly been points when even state propagandists have struggled to diminish the grim plight of the North Korean people. Between 1994 and 1998 the country endured a devastating famine that resulted in mass starvation.
A state campaign shamelessly romanticised the North Korean famine, invoking a fable, ‘The Arduous March’, that describes the hardships faced by a heroic Kim Il-sung during his time as the commander of a small group of anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters. Meanwhile, words like ‘famine’ and ‘hunger’ were banned by the regime.
Because visitors to the People’s Republic are uniformly presented with a carefully curated vision of life there, the inside accounts of those North Korean defectors who manage to escape are especially vital. Here are the stories of three North Korean defectors who managed to escape the Hermit Kingdom.
Sungju Lee’s story highlights the obliviousness of North Korea’s more affluent Pyongyang residents to the desperate poverty experienced by much of the country. Growing up in relative comfort in Pyongyang, Sungju had believed that the People’s Republic was the richest country in the world, a notion that was no doubt encouraged by state media and a propagandist education.
But when his father, a bodyguard, fell out of favour with the regime, Sungju’s family fled to the north-western town of Gyeong-seong where he encountered a different world. This version of North Korea was devastated by poverty, malnutrition and crime. Already reeling from this sudden descent into desperate poverty, Sungju was then deserted by his parents who left, one after the other, claiming that they were going to find food. Neither of them returned.
Forced to fend for himself, Sungju joined a street gang and slipped into a life of crime and violence. They moved from town to town, stealing from market stalls and fighting other gangs. Eventually Sungju, by now a weary opium user, returned to Gyeong-seong where he reunited with his grandparents who had travelled from Pyongyang looking for their family. One day a messenger arrived with a note from his estranged father which read: “Son, I’m living in China. Come to China to visit me”.
It transpired that the messenger was a broker who could help to smuggle Sungju over the border. Despite the anger he felt towards his father, Sungju seized the opportunity to escape and, with the broker’s assistance, crossed into China. From there he managed to fly to South Korea, where his father now was, using fake documents.
Reunited with his father, Sungju’s anger quickly melted away and he began to adapt to life in South Korea. It was a slow and challenging process – North Koreans are easily identified by their accents in the South and tend to be regarded with suspicion – but Sungju persevered and came to appreciate his newfound freedom. Having embarked on a life of academia, his studies have since taken him to the US and the UK.
Kim Cheol-woong’s story is fairly unusual because he’s from a prominent North Korean family and enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing. A gifted musician, Kim was afforded a taste of life outside the confines of the DPRK when he was sent to study at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow between 1995 and 1999. It was an eye (and ear) opening experience, not least because his musical exposure had been strictly limited to North Korean music until his studies in Russia.
Back in North Korea Kim was overheard playing, of all things, a Richard Clayderman song. He was reported and faced punishment. Thanks to his privileged background, he was only required to write a ten-page self-criticism paper, but the experience was enough to inspire his escape. Unlike most defectors, his escape was motivated by artistic limitations rather than starvation, poverty or persecution.
To some extent, Yeonmi Park’s awakening was also artistic. She recalls that watching an illegally imported copy of the 1997 film Titantic gave her ‘a taste of freedom’, opening her eyes to the limitations of life in the DPRK. That illegal copy of Titanic also links to another element of her story: in 2004 her father was convicted of running a smuggling operation and sentenced to hard labour at the Chungsan re-education camp. He was also expelled from the Korean Workers’ Party, a fate that deprived the family of any income. Severe poverty and malnutrition followed, driving the family to plot an escape to China.
Escaping from North Korea was only the beginning of Park’s long journey to freedom. In China, she and her mother fell into the hands of human traffickers and were sold to Chinese men as brides. With help from human rights activists and Christian missionaries, they managed to escape once again and travelled through the Gobi Desert to Mongolia. After being incarcerated in an Ulaanbaatar detention centre they were deported to South Korea.
Like many DPRK defectors, adjusting to life in South Korea wasn’t easy, but, like Sungju Lee, Park seized the opportunity to become a student and ultimately moved to the United States to complete her memoir, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, and continue her studies at Columbia University. She’s now a prominent campaigner working to promote human rights in North Korea and around the globe.