How to Break In and Out of North Korea
In previous shows, we’ve covered the secretive state of North Korea, but more along the lines of who’s running the place and what kind of military-might the country boasts. Today’s show will be quite different. People defect from North Korea quite often, and even as we write this, in today’s news Bloomberg published a piece featuring videos of defectors describing what life was like for them before they got out. In fact, since 1953, it’s reported that somewhere between 100,000 –300,000 North Koreans have escaped the country, with 31,000 – almost three quarters of which are women – now legally registered in South Korea. China and Russia house most of the rest of the defectors. But how do you secretly get out, or even in?
The most popular escape route is into China, where defectors jump the border mostly in the provinces of Jilin and Liaoning. This is risky business, to say the least, because with China being a big trading partner of North Korea, it doesn’t exactly help hide defectors. In fact, if defectors are caught, they won’t be given refugee status and will be sent back to North Korea. There, the escapees will no doubt suffer harsh punishment in political prison camps. Many of the defectors will try and make their way to South Korea where a home most likely awaits.
One girl called Ellie Cha was just 19 when she escaped to China. While her father had once been a successful mining boss in North Korea, her aunt escaped, which didn’t look too good for the family left behind. So, they decided to defect. She told the western media that hardly any defectors try and get straight into South Korea as it’s just too dangerous. Cha and her family did what many illegal border runners do around the world, and paid brokers to assist them in their dangerous travels. One by one, they crossed the Chinese border, and had to stay the first two nights in the mountains as their transport didn’t turn up. They then travelled secretly through China, fearing they might get caught and turned back, to cross the border to Vietnam. But things took a turn for the worse when they were arrested by Vietnamese police, spent 6 nights in jail, and were sent back to the Chinese border. Speaking about her father at that time, she said, “He collapsed onto his knees and said, ‘Please, please, for the kids, for the children.” Back in China, they spent months trying to find a place where they were safe, then tried to cross into Laos, Myanmar and finally Thailand. In Thailand, they lived in a refugee camp, and from there they finally got in touch with South Korean authorities who helped them. Thailand is the go-to destination for some North Koreans as the country will send the defectors to South Korea, not the north. So, the Chinese route isn’t exactly easy for most, but it’s the best bet by a mile.
What about the Russian route? The Russian land border with North Korea is tiny at just 11 miles long (17 kilometers). Compare that with the 880 mile (1,416 kilometer) border between China and North Korea. There is one way across by land, and that’s going over the Friendship Bridge over the Tumen River. Still, it’s thought that thousands of North Koreans have escaped using this route. We should mention that it’s also a perilous route because North Korea and Russia signed a treaty in 2014 stating that anyone found illegally entering either country will be repatriated. In 2017, news broke about one man who had escaped to Russia and lived there for 20 years. He was arrested and is about to be sent back. As it’s pretty much impossible to sneak through this border, the majority of the estimated 10,000 defectors living in Russia are said to have escaped from workcamps. So, Russia is not really an option unless you have been sent there to work some terrible job.
What about crossing one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world, the DMZ (or demilitarized zone) dividing North Korea and South Korea. Surely this would be suicide? Well, you might remember the North Korean soldier in 2017 that did just that. The man basically ran for his life. He was shot five times by North Korean soldiers, but news reports tell us he survived and is now in South Korea. Reports state that after his escape, he was in critical condition in a South Korean intensive care unit. In a twist of fate, it turned out that the man had committed a murder in North Korea, though the nature of the crime is unclear, and he could have faced the death penalty.
While thousands choose China, hardly anyone tries this crazy stunt. It’s thought that two defectors successfully crossed the DMZ in 2017 besides the soldier we just mentioned, but there have only been another five since 2012. So, in short, defectors are very unlikely to escape through Russia unless they have been sent there to work. Getting through the DMZ will more than likely get you shot to pieces. China is the escape route of choice, but you better hope you have transport connections and can make it out of the country, either to a kind place in South East Asia or all the way to a hospitable western nation. You could also just stay in China of course and take your chances there.
Ok, sneaking in. First of all, western tourists can visit North Korea, it just has to be through a select few private tour agencies. You can’t just rock up to the border, cross over, get on Tinder, and hit the city for a few beers. While most of these tours only allowed you to go to the capital of Pyongyang in the past, reports state that other parts of North Korea are now opening up to tourists. We found one tour company that said it is easy, just get your visa and join a tour and you are on your way. The U.S. put a travel ban on North Korea, though, and South Koreans and Malaysians also can’t get in. You’ll be departing from either Russia or China. For seven nights, travelling alone, with flights into the country from China and just about everything else paid for, will set you back about $3,000. Most blogs we can find writing about travel to North Korea said it was a good experience, and not what they expected. But one journalist who pretended to be a university lecturer said it was strange indeed, like something from a Franz Kafka novel. He did, however, say it was safe for foreigners. He said he sneaked in, but what he really meant was he got in using an alias in terms of his profession. Journalists and writers are apparently not on North Korea’s most welcome list.
Has anyone really, properly, sneaked in? According to Business Insider, plenty of Americans have tried. One man in 1996 tried to cross the Yalu River between China and North Korea. He was caught and sentenced to a few months in prison. On returning to the US not long after, he was said to have died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Another American man ripped up his visa and just stayed. He was caught and got six years for it. Some attempts have been made by U.S. soldiers on the border that for some reason wanted to get in, with one particular man apparently falling for a North Korean beauty. In fact, the latest case of an American trying to cross into North Korea illegally was in 2017. He was caught, too, trying to get in from the Civilian Control Line just below the DMZ. It seems the Americans are the ones who really want to get into North Korea illegally. They are just not doing a good job of it.
Another way, as Shane Smith of Vice magazine found out, is to get to the Chinese border and bribe some officials. It’s much less dangerous than swimming across rivers. He managed to get all the documents and made a documentary about his visit. South Koreans with sympathies for the North have tried, too, mostly via the swimming tactic or even walking across a frozen river. But all in all, if you really want to sneak into North Korea, your best bet would likely be bribes, or do what those defectors do, and cross somewhere secretly on the Chinese border. If you are European looking, or perhaps African, it’s likely you’ll stand out. We suggest you don’t bother trying, as it’s very likely you won’t be welcomed with open arms.
So, have you ever thought about sneaking into North Korea? If so, let us know why in the comments.