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The Underground Railroad of North Korea

by Bill Hayes

Writing in GQ, Doug Bock Clark reports on The Underground Railroad of North Korea.

First, the woman called “Faith” would have to evade the soldiers and surveillance cameras on the border. But even once she’d sneaked into China, the danger would only have just begun. To reach a South Korean embassy, where she could receive asylum, she would still have to clandestinely journey thousands of miles across China and then several Southeast Asian countries. If she was discovered anywhere along that trek, she would likely be repatriated to one of her nation’s infamous gulags, where prisoners slave with so little food they capture rats to eat. But after more than 30 years of never daring to criticize the dictatorship out loud, even after enduring a famine, she was willing to risk anything to free herself.

By late 2017, thanks to the help of a secret network of activists who serve as an underground railroad of sorts for North Koreans seeking asylum, Faith had managed to make it over 2,500 miles from her home. As she approached China’s border with Vietnam, where many refugees have been arrested — she recognized that she was facing one of the most hazardous passages of her odyssey. Faith, her two preschool-age kids, and five other North Koreans hiked on a mud path through farmland and jungle, following a Vietnamese man in silence, for speaking Korean would blow their cover to anyone they passed. At the end of the trail, a soldier appeared, guarding a bridge over a river, and their guide hailed him. Safety lay just beyond the soldier. She waited for him to respond. In this moment, she would discover if her bravery had won a better life for her and her children — or if she had doomed them all.

Faith was born in the People’s Paradise of North Korea in the late 1970s. There her easy life was envied by the rest of the world—or at least that was what she was taught. At home, she and her mother were supposed to polish their household portrait of the smiling Great Leader each day, though they only cleaned it in advance of inspections, since they could be punished if it wasn’t shiny enough. A giant version of that portrait, with its you-will-be-happy smile, greeted her at every school, factory, and railroad station. And after turning 16, like all adults, she pinned a button with the portrait over her heart each morning. Of course, Faith’s actual life was nothing like what the dictatorship’s propaganda depicted. In the mid-1990s, as a teenager, she survived a famine that reduced the population to scavenging pine bark, insects, and frogs, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. But if the ever-present secret police caught anyone complaining, the whiners could end up in the gulags, so Faith sang patriotic songs and echoed the slogan that North Koreans had “nothing to envy” about the lives of foreigners. But because Faith lived just a few miles from the heavily guarded Chinese border, sometimes people from her hometown sneaked across the river snaking through the mountains to search for food, and by the mid-2000s she had become exposed to goods smuggled in from outside—especially DVDs of South Korean soap operas. North Koreans are taught that South Koreans are an impoverished people ground beneath the heels of American “imperialist wolves,” so images of South Korea’s futuristic megalopolises amazed her, especially when she compared them with the dreary Soviet-style farming town where she grew up. But what really kept her binge-watching all night, while keeping an ear out for police, were the love stories. In North Korean cinema, heroines fall for the Great Leader and the Party, so she was amazed by glimpses of a world where personal romance came first.

Such a life, however, was beyond her grasp. She married and had a child. By 2012, she was actually relatively well-off, as she illegally traded mountain herbs. And though North Koreans were no longer starving in the streets, life remained bleak. (A 2018 United Nations report found that 43.4 percent of North Koreans are undernourished.) Still she was sick of “voluntary” communal-labor assignments, such as shoveling gravel to build roads, and the lies that undergirded North Korea’s “rotten” society. She was also having domestic problems with her husband. So when cross-border smugglers told her that they could get her a job in China, from which she could earn money to ultimately buy passage to South Korea, she decided to leave her husband and child behind and risk the gulags trying to sneak out of the country. Once she had saved up enough in China, she told herself, she would pay the smugglers to bring her kid (but not her husband) over the border and then she would usher them to a better life. When Faith arrived in China, however, the smugglers stunned her by revealing that she was to be sold to a Chinese husband. The smugglers, it turned out, were far from the good men she took them to be. Rather they were merchants in North Korean women, exploiting the gender imbalance created by China’s one-child policy—which unintentionally encouraged patriarchal parents to abort female fetuses, creating a surplus of 30 million Chinese men, thousands of whom are so desperate for partners that they buy North Korean wives. “I didn’t know anyone and I couldn’t speak the language,” Faith would later say, “so what could I do?” Several bids were made before she was ultimately auctioned off for about $800 to a poor Chinese farmer. [more]