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Review: Escape from North Korea

Tom O’Neill (2009, February). “Escape from North Korea: Defection is daunting. So is starting a new, free life.” National Geographic Magazine. Accessed online 1 July 2014.


This is the story of “Red,” “White” and “Black.” These pseudonyms are designations for three different North Korean refugees—protecting their identities. They came together through the efforts of a pastor committed to providing dangerous passage for those who escape North Korea into China (China is officially committed to returning discovered refugees to prison and/or death).

“Red” and “White” met each other in the Chinese sex trade, into which they had been trapped by strangers promising to help them escape. “Black” was a rare college graduate refugee hoping to be able to provide for his brother and sister—if he could make it to South Korea. The girlfriend with whom he escaped was seized for sexual profit and never heard from.

Some 50,000 North Koreans, and possibly many more, are hiding in China, most in cities and villages along the remote 900-mile-long border between the two countries. Uncounted others have come for a few months and then slipped back to North Korea with food and money. Yet many stay on, unable or unwilling to return to their cruel homeland. They are left with two desperate choices: Keep hiding—often as prisoners of exploitative employers—or embark on the Asian underground railroad, a perilous journey by foot, vehicle, and train across China and Southeast Asia. Confronted with an obstacle course of checkpoints, informants, and treacherous terrain, numerous defectors have been caught. But aided by a small band of humanitarians and by smugglers charging $3,000 and up, some 15,000 have reached safe haven, most often in South Korea. There, traumatized and barely skilled, they face the most formidable challenge of all: starting over.

A fourth important character of this story is a Pastor Chun. With a sense of calling to help refugees, he has established the Durihana Mission, with offices in Seoul, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. The pastor is described as somewhat controversial—bold, rough, risk-taking, and pragmatic, even using drug smugglers to help. Deeply committed to the cause, piqued by some who never return thanks, and having served a prison term when arrested in Mongolia, the pastor is a striking character.

The article goes on to describe the dangerous hiding and journey of these three North Korean escapees. The author met up with them at points as they moved from safe house to various sanctuaries, alluding check-points and police. They travelled by car, foot, boat, pickup truck, bus and finally plane: first to Beijing, then to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province, to Thailand, to Laos, and finally to Seoul, South Korea.

Now in Seoul, and in answer to the writer’s question about friendships and how she’s doing in her government-provided apartment, “Red” responds:

How can I make friends if I can’t make sense of the society outside? (She and others rarely leave their apartments.) At job interviews I’m afraid to say I’m North Korean, because of the disadvantages that come with it…. Life is tough here, but I’m glad I came. I still dream of being a success. I want to make my parents in North Korea proud of me.

From his (also) unfinished apartment in Seoul, “Black,” who became a Christian through the difficulties of his passage and his contact with Pastor Chun, says that his dream of attending seminary has been dashed because scholarships are only offered to those under 35. He’s working as a day laborer in construction.

Everything is more difficult and complicated than I was prepared for. I need to make money fast to bring my brother and sister out of North Korea…. (But) I’m so relieved to be here. When I read about street demonstrations in Seoul, I get so happy. If I did that in North Korea, I would be sent to prison.

“White” was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Had she been back in China or North Korea, she might not have survived. Now after surgery she looks forward to a difficult transition. She is one of those who have called to thank her helper. “Durihana is helping to pay for my treatment. Sometimes Pastor Chun comes here, and we pray together.”

Since this article was written, new information has emerged about the extent of North Korean refugees. According to, between 100,000 and 300,000 have defected since 1953. An estimated 200,000 are hiding in China and at least 25,000 are settled in South Korea. Other destinations are Mongolia, Japan, Philippines, Russia, Canada (now closing) and a few in the U.S.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What is your interest in Korea: North and South? And how concerned are you about the conditions in North Korea, and the reasons for trying to leave?
  2. Do you understand the odds against those who try to leave North Korea, along with the danger and difficulties of escape?
  3. How difficult is it for us to understand the challenge of refugees in trying to fit into a new culture as North Koreans?
  4. What advice would you give, if you could, to a North Korean your age? What would you suggest the nations of the world do in regards to the lack of goods and freedoms of North Korean citizens? How do you think religious leaders and the church might reach out to citizens of North Korea—and its refugees?
  5. Did you find this article a good initial look into the adventure and challenges of emigration? Does it provide for discussion? What criticisms or suggestions do you have of this article?


  1. Most know of the economic difficulties of North Korea and of its devastating famine (1994-1998, attributed by outsiders to the loss of Russian support, agricultural mismanagement, and a series of floods and droughts). It is estimated that between 240,000 and 3,500,000 Koreans died of starvation and illnesses from malnutrition in those years. North Korea has not yet arrived at food self-sufficiency and must rely on imports.
  2. Also well-known is the suppression of human rights in North Korea. According to the World Report 2014 of the Human Rights Watch: “There has been no discernible improvement in human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) since Kim Jong-Un assumed power after his father’s death in 2011. The government continues to impose totalitarian rule. In response to the systemic denial of basic freedoms in the country, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously established a commission of inquiry in April 2013 to investigate whether such abuses amount to crimes against humanity and who should be held accountable.”
  3. Among the abuses cited by the Human Rights Watch and the UN are Torture and Inhumane Treatment, Executions (on vague charges), Political Prisoner Camps (in which an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 persons may suffer), Lack of Freedom of Information and Movement—to which might be added lack of religious freedom and religious persecution.
  4. Under Kim Jong-Un, North Korean border guards have been given shoot-on-sight orders and border guards who have allowed some to cross (for money or beneficent feelings) are being prosecuted. China is responsible for returning escapees to North Korea or allowing women refugees to be forced into marriage or the sex trade.  (, accessed 1July2014.)
  5. Meanwhile, most of us, and the world, understandably have other things on our minds.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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