North Korean border guards on the banks of the Yalu Border River between China and North Korea.
North Korean border guards at the Yalu River border with China.

A vast network of brokers help North Koreans escape Kim Jong-un’s regime through a well-oiled system. Some of their remarkable stories were revealed to The Washington Post during its recent visit to a Thai detention centre.

The 11 interviewed were recovering from the last leg of their journey, which started with a dead-of-night escape across a river into China and ended with them turning themselves over to the police in Thailand. The quickest route from North Korea to Thailand is 2,700 miles through rivers and over mountains. At all times they must evade local police, who may repatriate them.

“We have to know the exact locations of checkpoints. We need to be able to tell them where to wait and when to cross,” said Kim Sang-hun, a Seoul-based Christian activist who helps North Koreans escape. The route can take them through China, Vietnam and Laos before reaching the safety of Thailand’s border, the Washington Post was told.

The motivations of the escapees differed. A fisherman said he “realised that what we were told by the media was all lies”, after listening to South Korean news on a radio he had bought in China. A 50-year-old woman had spent more than two years in a North Korean re-education camp and said she had decided to push on from China to Thailand out of fear of further incarceration if she was repatriated. Two 23-year-old school friends were prepared to be sold to Chinese men as a way to make money for their families, according to the Washington Post.

Often the escapees have no idea which route they’ve been taken on or whether they can trust their brokers. But those interviewed said the perilous journey was worth it. “I was worried that we were being used as guinea pigs on the route. But if we were going to die, we were going to die,” the fisherman said. “We had already decided to kill ourselves rather than be sent back to North Korea.”

Last year some 1,418 escaped to South Korea. If everything goes smoothly, defectors can be in a Thai detention centre within 10 days and in South Korea within a month.

North Korea heads the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List of 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian.