A family’s escape from North Korea through a minefield and stormy seas

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Mr Kim

Earlier this year, Mr Kim pulled off a seemingly impossible escape from North Korea. He fled by sea with his entire family – his pregnant wife, his mother, his brother’s family, and an urn containing his father’s ashes.

They are the first people to have fled the country this year and make it to the South. When Covid struck, North Korea’s government panicked and sealed the country off from the rest of the world, closing its borders and cutting off trade. Defections, once fairly common, virtually ceased.

Mr Kim told the BBC how he masterminded such a remarkable escape, in the first interview with a defector to have got out since the pandemic. He revealed new details about life in the country, including cases of people starving to death and increasing repression. He asked us not to use his full name, to help protect his family in Seoul and back in the North.

The BBC cannot independently verify all of Mr Kim’s account, but much of the detail tallies with what we have been told by other sources.

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 The night of the escape was a turbulent one. Fierce winds swept up from the south, bringing a storm in their wake. This was all part of Mr Kim’s plan. The rough seas would force any surveillance ships to retreat, he hoped.

He had been dreaming of this night for years, planning it meticulously for months, but this did little to temper his fear.

His brother’s children were asleep, knocked out by sleeping pills he had fed them. He and his brother now had to carry them through a minefield in the dark, to where their getaway boat was secretly moored. They inched along, careful to avoid the beams from the guards’ searchlights.

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The boat used by Mr Kim and his family to escape

Once they reached the boat, they hid the children in old grain sacks, disguising them to look like bags of tools. With that, the family set sail for South Korea: the men armed with swords, the women with poison. Each clutched a single eggshell, hollowed out and filled with chilli powder and black sand, to crack into the faces of the coastguards if a confrontation ensued.

Their engine roared, but all Mr Kim could hear was his thumping heart. One mistake now, and they could all be executed.

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 When I met Mr Kim in the outskirts of Seoul last month, he was accompanied by a plain clothes police officer – a typical safety measure for recent defectors. It had only been a few weeks since he and his family were released from the resettlement centre that North Koreans are sent to after arriving in South Korea.

 ”There has been a lot of suffering,” he said, as he began to recount the past four years.

In the early days of Covid-19, people were “extremely scared”, he said. The state broadcast images of people dying around the world, and warned that if the rules were not followed, the entire country could be wiped out.  Some people were even sent to labour camps for breaking Covid rules, he said.

 When a suspected case was reported, guards would quarantine the entire village, he said. Everyone would be locked up and the area sealed off, leaving those inside with little or nothing to eat.

“After they’d starved people for a while, the government would bring in truckloads of food supplies. They claimed to be selling the food cheaply, so people would praise them – like starving your baby, then giving them a small amount, so it would thank you.”

Mr Kim said people began to question whether this was part of the state’s strategy to profit from the pandemic.

As more people survived Covid, they began to think the state had exaggerated the dangers, he said. “Now many believe it was just an excuse to oppress us.”

It was the border closures that caused the most severe damage, he said.

Food supplies in North Korea have long been precarious, but with less coming into the country, prices skyrocketed, he said, making everyone’s lives “so much harder”. In the spring of 2022, he noticed the situation deteriorate further.

“For seven or eight years there wasn’t much talk of starvation, but then we frequently started hearing about cases,” he said. “You’d wake up one morning and hear: ‘oh, someone in this district starved to death’. The next morning, we’d get another report.”

A poster from state broadcaster KCNA from May 2022IMAGE SOURCE,KCNA
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This poster from the state broadcaster KCNA tells people to stringently follow Covid rules

One day this February, Mr Kim said a customer from a neighbouring county turned up late to a meeting. He told him the police had rounded up everyone in his village over the suspected murder of an elderly couple. But after the autopsy, they announced the couple had starved, and rats must have eaten their fingers and toes while they were dying. The gruesome scene had made the investigators suspect foul play.

Then in April, he says two farmers he personally knew starved to death. The farmers had the hardest time, he said, because if the harvest was bad, the state would force them to make up for it by handing over more of their personal food supply.

We cannot independently confirm these deaths. The 2023 Global Report on Food Crises stated that since North Korea’s borders closed, it has been “challenging to obtain accurate information on food insecurity” but there were “indications the situation is worsening”. In March 2023 North Korea asked the World Food Programme for help.

Amnesty International’s North Korea specialist, Choi Jae-hoon, said he had heard of cases of starvation, from escapees in Seoul who had managed to speak to family back home. “We are hearing that the food situation worsened during the Covid period, and that in some areas farmers tended to suffer the most,” he said. But Mr Choi noted that the situation was not nearly as catastrophic as during the famine in the 1990s: “We’re hearing that people have found ways to survive within their means.”

 Mr Kim himself found ways not only to survive, but to thrive. Like most people in North Korea before Covid, he made his money selling items on the black market – in his case motorbikes and televisions smuggled from China. But when the borders closed, stifling virtually all trade, he switched to buying and selling vegetables. He figured everyone needed to eat.

 He set himself up as a “grasshopper seller”, hawking his items covertly at home or in alleyways. “If someone reported us, we’d pick up the food and run, like a grasshopper,” he said.

“People would come to me, begging me to sell to them. I could ask for whatever price I wanted,” he said. Mr Kim found himself richer than ever before. He and his wife could afford to eat stew for dinner, with any meat of their choosing.

“That counts as eating very well in North Korea.”

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The life Mr Kim describes paints a picture of an exceptionally savvy and, at times, unscrupulous businessman. Now in his 30s, he hustled and saved for more than a decade, finding ways to outsmart the North Korean system.

 This was partly because he became disillusioned with the system at a young age. From as early as he can remember, he and his father would sit watching South Korean TV in secret. They lived so close to the border they could tune into the channels on their set. Mr Kim became captivated by a country where people were free.

 As he got older, the corruption and injustice he witnessed in the North began to chip away at him. He recalled one incident where security officials raided his home. “Everything you have belongs to the state,” they said. “You think this oxygen is yours?” one officer jeered. “Well, it’s not, you bastard.”

 Then, in 2021, Mr Kim said powerful crackdown squads were formed to try to supress what the state deemed “anti-social behaviour”. They would arbitrarily stop people on the street and intimidate them. “People started calling these crackdown officials mosquitoes, like vampires sucking out our blood.”

The most serious offence was consuming and sharing outside information, particularly South Korean culture. The crackdown on this, Mr Kim said, had become “much more intense. Once you get caught, they’ll shoot you, kill you, or send you to a labour camp.”

 In April last year, Mr Kim said he was forced to watch a 22-year-old man he knew be shot to death in a public execution. “He was killed for listening to 70 South Korean songs and watching about three films and sharing them with his friends.”

The authorities told the onlookers they wanted to punish the man harshly, to set the right precedent. “They’re ruthless”, Mr Kim said, “everyone is scared.”

Yeongpyong island

  We cannot independently verify this execution, but in December 2020 North Korea passed a new law, stating that those who shared South Korean content could be executed.

Joanna Hosaniak from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights said Mr Kim’s account of the execution was “completely unsurprising”. Ms Hosaniak has interviewed hundreds of defectors over two decades. “North Korea has always used public executions as a means to control the population,” she said. “Whenever it implements new laws, it introduces a wave of executions.”

As Mr Kim recounted these memories, he became distressed. He said it was a friend’s suicide last year that had finally broken him.

Desperate to divorce a woman he no longer loved and marry another – the friend was told by officials that the only way he could get a divorce was to spend time in a labour camp. He sunk into debt trying to find another way out, before ending his life. Mr Kim visited his bedroom after his death. The carnage on display spelt out what a slow and agonising end he must have suffered. He had clawed the walls until his nails came out.

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 Although Mr Kim had fantasised about escaping hundreds of times, he could never bear to leave his family behind. By 2022, life had become so desperate, he felt he could finally convince them to join him.

 He targeted his brother first. He and his wife ran an illicit seafood business, but the government had recently cracked down on unofficial sellers. Despite owning a boat, they could no longer fish. With money tight, he was easily persuaded.

 For the next seven months, the pair meticulously plotted their escape.

 Over the course of the pandemic, many of the well-established escape routes across the country’s northern border with China had been blocked off. But the brothers lived in a small fishing town in the far south-west of the country, close to the South Korean border. This gave them an alternative, yet risky, way out – by sea.

map showing the route taken by Mr Kim

 First, they needed permission to access the water. They had heard about a nearby military base, where civilians were sent out to catch fish that was then sold to pay for military equipment. Mr Kim’s brother enrolled in the scheme.

Meanwhile Mr Kim started befriending the coastguards and security guards who patrolled the area, surreptitiously mining them for information about their movements, protocols and shift patterns, until he was confident he and his brother could take the boat out at night, without getting caught.

Then came the hardest of his tasks: convincing his elderly mother and wife to join him. Both were opposed to leaving. Eventually the brothers shouted their mother into submission, threatening to cancel the trip if she did not join them, and hold her responsible for their misery to the end of their days.

“She was distraught and cried a lot but finally agreed,” Mr Kim said.

His wife, however, was immovable, until one day the couple learnt they were expecting a baby. “You’re not just your own body any more,” he argued with her. “You’re a parent, do you want our child to live in this hellhole?” It worked.

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After talking for several hours, Mr Kim and I headed for dinner, where he ran through the final preparations for his escape. Fearful the authorities would desecrate their father’s grave after they left, the brothers went to dig up his body. After repacking the ground to appear untampered, they took it into the surrounding wilderness and burnt it.

They went on to survey the remote minefield they would later need to cross in the dark. They pretended to pick medicinal herbs, while mapping a clear route through it. The coastline had been recently planted with landmines to prevent people leaving, Mr Kim said, but with fewer guards on duty there, it offered the safest way out.

Then it was a matter of waiting for the weather and the tide to turn.

At 10pm on 6 May they set sail, travelling as far as they were allowed, then continuing on. Low tide had exposed reefs and boulders, which they navigated ever so slowly, hoping to disguise themselves as floating rubbish on the radars.  All the while, Mr Kim’s heart was pounding, his clothes soaked with sweat.

As soon as it felt safe, they went full-speed with the currents. Mr Kim looked back to see a ship following, but it could not catch them. Within minutes they had crossed the maritime border.

Yeonpyong islandIMAGE SOURCE,AFP
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The stretch of sea Mr Kim had to cross to make it to Yeonpyong island

 ”In that moment, all my tension released. I felt like I was collapsing,” he said. They flashed their light as they approached the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong and were rescued by the navy, after nearly two hours at sea.

Everything had gone exactly as planned. “It was like the heavens helped us,” he said.

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 Mr Kim’s escape is exceptional for several reasons, said Sokeel Park from Liberty in North Korea, an organisation which helps refugees from the North resettle in the South. Not only have sea defections always been extremely rare, he explained, but since the pandemic it has become almost impossible for people to defect.

“These sea escapes take meticulous planning, incredible bravery and for everything to go miraculously well,” he said. “There must be many more North Koreans who have tried but not made it.”

“The only people who can defect now are the rich and well-connected,” added Pastor Stephen Kim from JM Missionary, who helps North Koreans defect through China. Around 1,000 used to make it across the Chinese border each year, but to his knowledge only 20 have crossed during the past four years, and just four of them have arrived in South Korea. In October, he and Human Rights Watch accused China of sending some defectors back to the North.

Pyongyang is currently deepening its ties with China and Russia, while turning its back on diplomacy with the West. This has made it increasingly difficult for the international community to address these reported human rights violations.

South Korea’s government has made North Korean human rights one of its top priorities, but its vice-unification minister Moon Seong-hyun said it had “limited tools to use”.

“What we have been trying to do is to increase people’s awareness, by continuously raising these issues through the UN and elsewhere,” he said. “There is a tendency for North Korea to listen to countries in Europe,” he added, citing the UK and Germany as examples. But Seoul’s role has largely been reduced to helping the dwindling number of refugees who make it to the South, supporting them with counselling, housing and education.

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After their rescue Mr Kim and his family first had to be debriefed by South Korea’s intelligence service, to check they were not North Korean spies. They were then educated about life in the South at a resettlement centre. Despite being so physically close, their old and new homes are worlds apart, and defectors often struggle with the transition.

Mr Kim stands on a street corner in Seoul
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Mr Kim says he has found adjusting to life in Seoul easier than the rest of his family

 The family moved from the resettlement facility into an apartment in October, just as Mr Kim’s wife gave birth. She is healthy, but finding it difficult to adjust, he said, though his mother is having the toughest time. None of them had ever ridden a subway before, and she keeps getting lost. Each mistake further knocks her confidence. “She is kind of regretting coming here now,” he admitted.

But Mr Kim, who was already so familiar with South Korean culture, said he was adapting easily. “The world I imagined and the world I am now physically navigating feel very similar.”

As we were speaking, he curiously picked up my AirPods case from the table beside us, turning it over in his hand. I opened it to reveal the wireless headphones, but still he looked confused. It wasn’t until I placed the buds in my ears that a wave of understanding flashed across his face, and he laughed.

There will be many more of these surprises and challenges ahead. This is only the beginning of his journey.

Additional reporting by Hosu Lee and Leehyun Choi, Illustrations by Lilly Huynh