Author - Garima Rana
There is simply no other country in the world today that can be even remotely compared with North Korea. Without any exaggeration it is literal 21st century glimpse into what Nazi Germany would have looked like had it survived after 1945. It is the world’s most hardcore totalitarian regime where absolute loyalty is always demanded and if there even the slightest sign of disloyalty to the country’s absolute ruler then they can be sent to one of the regimes numerous concentration camps for life where a person can expect a gruesome fate of starvation, literal slave labour, live medical experiments, constant torture and random execution depending on what the guards feel like doing to them. There is no such thing as due process or human rights in North Korea and hundreds of thousands of people are existing right now within these camps living out this hell every day. This isn’t history it’s happening right now.
North Korea is without a doubt the world’s most difficult country to escape from, primarily because North Korea doesn’t allow them to escape. The penalty for even trying to leave the country is treason, camps and in many cases death and even if they successfully do get out, the North Korean regime has a tendency of going after the family members who stay behind .This means that the spouse or children or parents and even grandparents can be rounded up and sent to a lifetime of horror in one of the camps if they are left behind in North Korea. For many people this is all the deterrent that’s needed to keep North Koreans in line.
But if someone has to escape regardless of the risks and the consequences, there are a few ways a person can escape North Korea, unfortunately none of them are easy and they all have their own challenging geographic issues.
The most obvious destination for escape is to South Korea which is the exact polar opposite of North Korea. It is a free liberal and rich democracy. South Korea claims legal authority over the entire of Korean Peninsula and officially considers all 26 million North Korean citizens as their own citizens. This means that if a person can make it to South Korea, then they are guaranteed citizenship, future and are affectively in the clear. But moving just the short distance from the north side of one peninsula to the southside is probably the most difficult journey that a human being can make in the 21st-century. Walking directly across the southern border is almost impossible because it’s literally the most heavily militarized location on the planet. It’s completely covered with high walls, electric razor wire, millions of mines and is defended by millions of soldiers with live ammunition who have explicit orders to shoot to kill anyone foolish or brave enough to try getting across. An escape through here might be the quickest but it’s also the most dangerous and risky. The odds of success are low but despite that many have still tried and come out victorious. In 2017, a man drove his car directly up to the military demarcation line between the two countries at the border and crashed, got out, sprinted across the border under a hail of machine gun fire from the North Korean border guards and collapsed on the South Korean side behind a wall before being rescued. He was shot five times and lost half of his blood during the quick attempt but he still managed to survive and now lives in the South Korea.
Escaping directly to South Korea is very risky so people take alternatives. While the southern border of North Korea is almost completely impenetrable to escape the eastern and western side are covered in ocean which present their own challenges. Buying a boat and escaping with that is impossible since most North Koreans are severely impoverished and there is no possible way to buy a boat anyway. Even if they did not have the money for most people, simply swimming to South Korea which carries the risks of drowning or getting caught by the North Korean patrol boats. In 2016 a man decided to defect with a friend using this method, they somehow managed to reach near the coast of South Korea where South Korean ships quickly spotted them and came to the rescue. They were successful but many others haven’t been.
For most people getting to South Korea directly by running across or swimming around will result in death or capture so that leaves getting to South Korea indirectly via another third country. There are three other countries nearby North Korea besides South Korea where one can escape but none of them are good options. If a person can make to Japan it is probably the best bet because they will be guaranteed freedom and sent to South Korea, but to make across the sea of Japan, which can often be dangerous and is prone to typhoons and it’s in the best case scenario probably have nothing better than a small boat as a result there have been only three confirmed successful cases of North Korea defectors actually making it directly to Japan.
So, the other options are to the North border which is significantly less defended or patrolled and is comparably much easier to cross than the south but doing so necessary dates crossing into either China or Russia, neither of which are particularly very good options. The border with Russia is only 17 km wide and it’s easily patrolled by both sides. Even if a person makes it to Russia, the official state policy is to immediately deport all North Koreans refugees back into North Korea anyway and as a North Korean they will definitely be standing out there due to the difference in appearance. A person can make up to the South Korean consulate in Russia and earn freedom but getting up there undetected by Russian police would be almost impossible and as a result escaping into China is a significantly more popular and less risky option. Here the border is over 1300 km long and a river that flows through remote mountainous and rugged terrain patrols and border security through most of this area is light and best months to escape or either during the summer when the river’s depth is at the lowest or during the winter when they are usually frozen enabling them to simply run across into China. It’s relatively easy to get into China but China can’t be the new home forever. China isn’t safe because just like Russia, China’s policy is to immediately deport all North Korean defectors straight back to North Korea where shortly they will be facing gruesome end. On the bright side though many of China’s border provinces like Yanbian have significant Korean ethnic minorities of their own who are naturalized Chinese citizenship meaning that it’s fairly easy to hide out here for a while and avoid detection from the Chinese authorities while the next move can be plotted. A foreign broker can be hired to assist the escape which can cost up to US$18,000 which is an absolute fortune as the average North Korean earns just nearly around $1300 a year that is over 10 years of an average North Korean’s pay. If not a broker, then next best option is to continue to the South Korean Consulate building in China which is closely guarded by the Chinese police and makes it very difficult to reach.
The next option is to escape to another country across China which is more sympathetic to the situation of North Koreans but the problem with that is that China is huge and there aren’t many countries around it who will even help them. Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar all maintain close relations with North Korea as well and just like China or Russia they will most likely deport them back to North Korea if they are caught and getting into India, Bhutan, Nepal or Pakistan would require hiking through the Himalayas which pretty much illuminates any of them as easy options and so that effectively leaves only to friendly and realistic nearby destinations to escape into, Mongolia or Thailand.
Mongolia is the closest and the government here is sympathetic to the plight of North Korean defectors. If a person can make it up to here, they will deport them to South Korea rather than North Korea upon arrival, on surrendering to the Mongol police. The only problem is that to get to Mongolia they must pass through formidably difficult freezing and hostile terrain of the Gobi desert which is one of the world’s largest desert with an abundance of dangerous wildlife, hostile temperatures and very few resources to survive. Navigating through the desert takes a lot of skill that one is unlikely to have ever learned back in North Korea but nevertheless some people have made it in.
The next option is to get to Thailand from China but the problem is that Thailand doesn’t share a border with China which means that they will have to get across the rugged and mountainous terrain of China’s province and then through the remote and dangerous jungles of Laos or Myanmar before finally getting into Thailand, where they will safely deported to South Korea.
South Korea is merely 400 miles away from North Korea but the escape is very dangerous and difficult. These are the only few options to escape that are available to the average North Korean stranded within the country and they are all hard and desperate. Escaping from North Korea is never easy for anyone, all of these options are difficult and even if a person does make it out, they can still very easily be dragged back against their will and killed there. There are countless of stories of people who have defied the odds and escaped through