Asia Pacific

What Does It Take to Escape North Korea?

North Korean labor camps Russia, North Korean gulag, torture in North Korea, Pyongyang news, China illegal economic migrants, North Korean defectors, North Korean prison system, Kim Jong-un news, UN North Korea report, North Korea escape routes

Demilitarized Zone, Panmunjeon, South Korea © Vincent St. Thomas

December 09, 2017 00:23 EDT

Despite the deadly ramifications of fleeing Kim Jong-un’s regime, North Koreans are risking their lives for freedom.

When it comes to human rights, North Korea, according to Amnesty International, “is in a category of its own.” Under one of the world’s most isolated and repressive regimes, people live in a tightly-controlled propaganda bubble enforced by a police state where a brutal prison camp system is a throwback to the worst horrors of Joseph Stalin’s gulags.

Yet, despite all the efforts to clamp down on dissent, North Koreans continue to flee. Over 30,000 have crossed into South Korea alone since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Even considering crossing the border means putting your life on the line.

If they decide to take the risk, they have a number of dubious options: One is to face the nearly impenetrable barriers of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and aim for the safe haven of South Korea. In November, a North Korean soldier whose daring dash across the DMZ drew worldwide attention barely made it to the other side and still remains in hospital in South Korea. Defectors who successfully make it into the south are welcomed and treated as refugees. The government provides them with access to financial aid, housing and education.

Across its northern-western border, Russia and North Korea have signed an agreement to repatriate each other’s citizens living in the neighboring countries illegally. While it is hard to imagine why Russians would attempt to flee to North Korea, their counterparts — many of whom have escaped Siberian labor camps — exist in constant fear of deportation and being captured by North Korean agents.

The preferred route, which is much less heavily guarded, is to brave one of the river crossings to China. Not only is this a long, dangerous trek, but safety upon arrival is not guaranteed. China is one of few North Korean allies. Rather than considering defectors to be refugees, Beijing classifies them as illegal economic migrants. Those who decide to remain in the country undocumented might become victims of human trafficking, and many who are caught are sent back to North Korea where they face imprisonment, sexual violence and torture.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea outlined the endless human rights violations committed in the country’s prisons. Although Pyongyang denounced the UN report as a “fabrication,” it brought to light more of the violence and repression the regime has meted out upon its people.

In this video, Now World looks at what it takes to escape North Korea.

*[This post has been updated on December 18, 2017.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy

Photo Credit: Vincent St. Thomas /

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