Related Content

Crossing the Perilous Border
Name :
Date :
2016-01-26 14:15:24
Hit :

Crossing the Perilous Border

Testimony of a young defector who passed through the valley of the shadow of death


Yosep BAEK

Escaped North Korea in 2003

Entered South Korea in 2008



I was born in Hoeyang, Gangwon Province in January, 1984. From year 1998, I lived in Shinuiju and I left North Korea in late June, 2003. I then wandered around in China and Russia for years. I finally arrived in South Korea in October, 2008 and now I’m working as a public relations director at the ‘Alliance of Young North Korean Defectors’.


Reasons for Escaping North Korea


I thought about South Korea a lot when I lived in Shinuiju because I had many opportunities to listen to Chinese and South Korean radio broadcasts there. Shinuiju is considered as the most unruly city in North Korea. There was rigid enforcement of regulations, but even the chief of the National Security Agency (Bowibu) listened to South Korean radios.


There were rumors that there was a South Korean radio station in China. Among all programs, the ‘KBS One Nation’ was the most accessible one. We had the best reception from 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM and at dawn. This is not to say those radio programs solely affected my decision to leave North Korea. Listening to both radio broadcastings and watching Chinese TV shows heavily influenced my decision to defect. I watched ‘Dandong TV’ and ‘Central 1-4 TV’ a lot. I could easily watch South Korean TV shows through Chinese TV channels because South Korean culture became popular in China in 1999 and 2000. I watched a lot of South Korean Soap operas two to three years before I left North Korea. I watched ‘Full House’ and other dramas with a famous South Korean actress Song Hyegyo. I also enjoyed watching ‘Ms. Mermaid’ with Jang Seohee in it. I watched many TV shows that invited South Korean singers like H.O.T and Sinhwa. I also listened to many Teuroteu (Trot), which is the old genre of Korean pop music. I learned many Teuroteu songs sung by Tae Jina, Seol Undo, Ju Hyeonmi and many others when I lived in North Korea. Sim Subong’s songs are openly sung by people in North Korea.


When South Korean pop songs became increasingly popular in North Korea, the Chilbosan music group changed the lyrics of South Korean songs and produced the exact same songs in the North Korean version.


The Chilbosan music group was an unofficial music group, originally created as propaganda against the South. However, it now broadcasts South Korean pop music after remaking them. The songs reproduced in North Korea include, ‘Friend’, ‘Maze of Love’, and ‘Hand in Hand’. For example, the Chilbosan changed the lyrics of ‘Maze of Love’ to ‘Grace that can guard my destiny, it is love’. Some people confused these songs for South Korean songs because the singer’s voice is exactly the same as the original one. 


Nevertheless, young people who have listened to the real South Korean pop songs know whether the songs are original or reproduced by Chilbosan music group. When students in Shinuiju go on a field trip to help farmers, they usually have a talent show and are asked to sing. All students sing South Korean songs because they find North Korean songs boring and old-fashioned. When teachers doubt students, they just say that the songs are written by the Chilbosan music group.


Teachers are clueless. Even the government officials working for the Central Party listens to South Korean music. Even in Yanbian in China, people love imitating Korean pop culture. 


South Korean songs are largely welcomed and adored by people in Yanbian. Listening to those songs, I learned about South Korea and developed a desire to move to South Korea. When I was growing up, I imagined South Korea to be a frightening and terrible place to live, but this negative view faded away as I watched North Korea’s ally, China and its people loving South Korean culture. Also, the economic situation in 1998 was awfully difficult for us. There were some people who cut electric wires to sell and make money. When these people got caught, they were shot to death. Ironically, there were slogans like ‘I love my country’, ‘Our nation is the best’ on buses imported from China, and that made me really angry. The slogans did not reflect the reality of North Korea at all.


Every time I spoke, all sorts of complaints came out of my mouth. When I secretly listened to the radio in a small room with my friend, we learned about the increasing gap between South Korea and our world. The differences between the North and the affluent South were vividly portrayed on TV.


My family background had something to do with my decision to run away from North Korea. Since I was a kid, I heard much about politics and ideology. The politics of the North and the South are significantly different. The North Korean politics is very simple. It’s not as complicated as South Korea. North Korea’s political ideology is based on Juche and it stands by the Workers’ Party of Korea. It’s simple and there is no logic in it. Everyone gets brainwashed on the topic of political ideology when they are little. In my case, I was very much affected by my father who was a military officer at the time.


I lived with my father because my mother died when I was 8. At that time, I was extremely loyal to the Party, but my excessive commitment and loyalty backfired and when my loyalty came to an end, I dropped it instantly without a second thought. Until we moved to Shinuiju, I thought of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il as gods who don’t even go to the bathroom. When I moved to Shinuiju, my step mother told me that Kim Jong-Il had a few wives, and the moment I heard that, my respect and admiration for Kim Jong-Il dropped to the ground. There were also many people who had lost their respect for Kim Jong-Il at the time. In 2003, I was hiding from the police and I had to hide in a small room. I eavesdropped on some women’s conversation and I could not believe what I heard. I was so shocked. It was something I couldn’t even dream of speaking. They said, “Our lives were decent when the Great Leader was alive, but everything went downhill with our Great General.” I was traumatized when I overheard them saying such things. 


The First Defection


One of the reasons why I wanted to defect was because I was hesitant to join the military service, which was mandatory for everyone. Everyone has to join the military service when they turn 16. I always wanted to leave North Korea, but I was too young to escape and didn’t have any opportunities. I ended up joining the army in April, 2000. I applied to work near the front lines so I could escape to South Korea through the DMZ. I was deployed to an army base near the front lines, but I couldn’t make it to the DMZ and it was very difficult to find escape routes to the South. I tried to find escape routes for a year and 8 months, but I failed miserably. I just deserted from my army base. 


In early February 2003, I arrived in Huaryong, China by passing through Shinuiju and Musan. When I first arrived in China, I panicked because I didn’t know anything about China, let alone the language. 


Meanwhile, I remembered hearing over the radio that Christian organizations help North Korean defectors. I visited some churches, but they were having their own problems and refused to help me. At that time, there was a famous gangster group made up of thirty North Korean fugitives escaped from Political Prison Camps and Long-term Prison Labor Camp(Gyohwaso). They started making trouble and the Chinese Public Security Bureau immediately imposed strict laws on North Korean defectors and caught both Korean-Chinese and North Korean gangsters. I got caught, too. It happened on the 12th of February, the day I can never forget. It had only been a week since I had defected from North Korea.


The number of North Korean defectors living in China reached the peak in 2003. Living situations in North Korean significantly deteriorated in that year because of flood damages, and I heard that Kim Jong-Il ordered to kill people who tried crossing the river at first, but when the food crisis became severe and an increasing number of people escaped from North Korea, Kim ordered to let them go. He gave such orders after observing the growing number of defectors and people who criticized Kim in foreign countries. After I was interrogated in the Yanji Prison, I was transferred to Tomun and stayed there for one month.


They checked everyone’s body and bags in Tomun Border Patrol. They let us in only with our underwears. The scale of the camp was quite large. One room could take 13 to 15 people. Women and men went into separate rooms. There was a playground in the middle and there were prison cells on both sides. The warders didn’t hit us for no reason, but they punched us when they found out that we hid things from them. I also entered the camp with my money hid in my body, but they couldn’t find it. A man got beaten up because he hid a needle, which is a very useful tool to unshackle. When I was being sent to Tomun Border Patrol from Yanji, I tried to unshackle fetters with a needle and run away. Less than 10 people get sent at a time by a car that looks like Hyundai Starex, often as once or twice a month when they are transferred from Yanji to the Tomun Border Patrol Office. When we got investigated in the Border Patrol Office, we took a photo with some kind of a plate. It had no number but one’s name with big Korean alphabets.


The investigation in Onsong Bowibu


When I was caught in China and sent to Onsong Bowibu in early 2003, there were about 20 North Koreans who were handed over with me. There were about 7 to 8 men and the rest of them were women. After we were forced into a bigger car, I saw Chinese border patrol officers pointing guns at us, wearing civilian clothes. We were put in shackles. The portrait of Kim Il-Sung was on the wall of Onsong Bowibu and when I saw it my heart jolted. I was terrified. The Chinese officers didn’t push us hard when we were getting off the car. However, as soon as we got off, North Koreans from Bowibu put us inside the building, dragging people by their hair. 

There were Korean-Chinese among Chinese officers, and some of them said we had to move swiftly if we didn’t want to get beaten up. The report which contained my information was also sent to Bowibu. The report not only contained information about my desertion from the army, but it was also contained information that I had contacts with Christians. I was desperate to hide such information, but my friend who was caught with me confessed it all. I thought I was naive, but he was even worse. He told everything without hiding anything from the officers. It was also him who got us in prison. He called the security police himself for help because he got stabbed when hanging out with gangsters. When Chinese police officers interrogate North Koreans and write reports, they agree to delete any information about North Korean defectors’ contacts with Christianity. If I tell them I’m not a Christian and ask them not to write about church, police officers usually do as we ask. That’s why my report didn’t have any information about Christianity when it was turned over. But my friend said everything to the police. I lied many times when I was being interrogated. I told that I had come to China to find my mom, but failed and that I got arrested instead, but the police officer found out that I was lying because my friend told them everything about me and they found out that I had been lying.


The Bowibu investigated us from the first day. There were many people when we got arrested. Women had to sit in the hallway, and men were put into cells. The doors looked like dog halls. The cells were tiny.


They were about 3.3 square meters. The toilet was located in the corner and there were other cells for those who were imprisoned for 3 to 5 years. These prisoners were the ones who tried to go to South Korea or contacted the Korean National Intelligence Service. Their lives were more miserable than the guards. They looked like dead bodies. They suffered from malnutrition and they looked like messengers of death. They didn’t let us go near them. So, we had to be stay with 30 other people in an awfully tiny area. If we crossed the line and went over to their side, they beat us up and had no mercy on us. When that happens, guards would make us stand and swore at us badly. During my first week there, I felt like I was losing all teeth due to lack of sleep and extreme stress. 


The detention facility of the Bowibu was a one-storied house. It looked like a traditional Korean house and it was small. The building was short, and was made of offices and investigation rooms at the front and cells at the back. When we first get in, they check our bodies and then, start investigating. They strip us to check our body. Men and women are investigated at different times. About three people are investigated at the same time. Investigators ask their name, age, and other personal information. When in China, people told me to say that I was a teenager because I looked pretty young for my age. I had to lie. I told that I was under 16, not 19. I looked young for my age and everyone would have believed me, but my friend told them the truth and I got beaten up many times for lying to them twice. The investigation lasted more than a week.


They asked us the same questions all over again from the beginning to the end several times. They hit me every time I answered whether it was true or not. When I was being interrogated, they whipped me with their belts. 


They beat me with an iron buckle. I was asked to sit on a chair and answer the same questions over and over again. I was interrogated in the afternoon, and it was a torture waiting for my turn. When I waited for my turn, I could not even move. I got extremely nervous and forgot my calling number. If prisoners don’t answer when their number is called, they get into serious trouble.

I couldn’t go to the toilet whenever I wanted. I had to ask them for permission every time I wanted to go. I would have to say, “No.OO, may I go to the toilet?” I had to wait for an answer. It was okay when I went to pee, but I got bullied by people who had been there for a long time when I went to take a dump. For the first week, I could hardly go to the toilet because I didn’t eat well. As days went by, people didn’t have enough strength to stand up. They all fell onto the ground. When I woke up in the morning, I could not see anything. I think it was because I was always worried and couldn’t eat or sleep well. We were given a bowl of rice porridge, but it was so watery that I could see my spoon head inside a bowl. Everyone’s daily routine there was simple. They sat and waited for an investigation all day. Even when I didn’t have to go for an investigation, I had to wait for others to finish their investigations. It was horrible. I didn’t see anyone who died, but I was horrified because everyone was under extreme stress.


One day, a Chinese woman was misunderstood as a defector was brought there and was gang-beaten. As she wasn’t able to speak Korean, one prisoner who knew Chinese translated for her. The agents from Bowibu are really foul-mouthed. They swore at her harshly like ‘daughter of slave’, ‘daughter of butcher’, ‘dog’, etc. At first I heard how she complained, she said “How could you beat a foreigner like this, yon don’t know how great my country is? How can you treat me this way?” Then, agents cursed her and even pulled her hair. When translator made a mistake, sometimes other defector corrected. She left a few days later.


I was sent to Onsong Labor Re-education Facility (Rodongdanryeondae) from Onsong Bowibu, not to People’s Safety Agency. I had a blood test there. After prisoners are sent from Onsong National Security Agency to Chongjin Detention Center (Jipgyeolso), they stay together, and then they are divided to each district. Some people come to transfer prisoners from Shinuiju to Chongjin, but nobody knows how often they come. It can be once a month or once every 6 months. They transfer people from Onsong Rodongdanryeondae to Chongjin Jipgyeolso in late April. My report was brought to Shinuiju first, and after that I was supposed to be transported. But as I heard once I went down to Shinuiju, I would never be released. I thought I should run away during the transport no matter what happened.


The transfer to Chongjin Jipgyeolso was made by train. Every prisoner should be in fetters, but people’s feet were tied with ropes as fetters were not enough. And because prisoners didn’t eat well for 10 days in Onsong Bowibu while interrogated, we couldn’t see clearly. At that moment, when transport officers ordered a woman to buy something, the mood became distracted. So I took a chance and jumped from the train when it started accelerating to depart again. However the train stopped, and crewmen asked to catch me by officers were in my way. I got caught while running, and broke my legs as beaten on the railroad. Because I was wounded dragged along, I couldn’t be transported, therefore I was sent to the cure facility and the Rodongdanryeondae later again.


Life in Onsong Rodongdanryeondae 


After I was sent to the Rodongdanryeondae again, I was just lying down until May not being able to work. The wound of my leg was full of dead blood and was so swollen that I couldn’t take down my pants. When other people were at work, I was bedridden restraining myself from drinking water as I could go to the toilet only with other hands. There was no cure facility or nurse. If you’re sick, there would be no solution. They didn’t even have any medicines. Even civilians can’t get treatment in North Korea, so there is no help for criminals. I was not able to stand or go to the toilet, but as I was quite young, guards showed a little sympathy for me. They gave me a red medicine from somewhere. Nevertheless, the medicine didn’t work as my wound was too serious. One day, a guard took me to the hospital carrying me on his back. And a doctor said that I should have an operation because blood was already all over inside my legs. At that time, I had to pay for my treatment, not free treatment which was not available anymore. The hospital asked me whether I had money to pay, and I had 200 North Korean Won. But once I said I had money, I was forced to give that money to the guard. It was really hard to decide what to do. Finally I said I didn’t have any money, came back to the facility not having any treatment or operation. That 200 Won was for an escape. After returning from the hospital, I myself intended to cut my wounds by a knife with which I once tried killing myself. However, I couldn’t find a way to disinfect it, and others stopped me to do so. That’s why I didn’t lance wounds even though I really wanted to do.


My legs went unmovable not being able to stand up for 1 month. People around me felt pity that young boy lied down and suffered. They said I should move, otherwise I would be a cripple with legs degraded. They helped me to move my legs. It was so painful at first, but as I practiced bit by bit, I could go to the toilet soon, and followed people who worked after saying I would work, too. My leg had a treatment later in 2005 when I was working at Gyochon Chicken in Shenzhen in China.


There was one Korean oriental doctor in the Christian community, so he drew blood from my leg. Before that, some part of my body used to bulge because of dead blood which was flowing all around the body. The doctor drew much blood from my back. Once I was young, recovery was fast and my legs are fine now. But I heard I would have side effects in my 40s.


Because my knee is not well healed enough, it hurts me even now when it rains or the weather is too cold. When it comes to the daily routine in the Rodongdanryeondae, two meals are given inside, and a person who can go outside to work has to work from the morning. If we do work, we can eat one more meal. So most people want to work outside. We had to build houses and apartments, so we did such things: making bricks, collecting gravel, carrying it, smashing concrete, carrying it, and laying the foundation. I didn’t see any man dying of hard work, but I saw some people who tried running away. Once they got caught, they were beaten. Men and women stayed together, that’s why guards separated us into two sides in one room. Women sometimes went to another room to sleep. Men were fewer than women. Prisoners even can’t drink water from time to time there if the line is too long. And it’s rather better not to wash the face. Because water is so dirty after everyone use it.


The Second Defection


The second defect was in 20th June, 2003. My legs were not fully healed and it was hard to use them because I was beaten when I got caught after trying escaping during the transport to North Korea. And it was summer, so I got myself almost killed trying to cross the river because of the floodwater. The river in Tomun area is usually shallow enough to cross by swimming, but due to the flood, the width of the river was too wide at that moment.


When I went to China after crossing the river, my legs hurt too much and I was exceedingly tired as I crossed risking my own life. Nevertheless I couldn’t stay longer because Tomun was very dangerous for me. But I could never run away to the mountain because of my legs, so I thought I should walk along the highway on which I’d laid my eyes before, and go into. While walking along the highway, I was in fear at its height for being caught. I hid whenever any car came. I was too slow, and it made me think I would make it to Yanji. By dawn, I was exhausted and the situation was dangerous for me. The sun rose, so I would be easily discovered soon. What’s worse, my condition was getting lower so rapidly that I could barely cross the fence in the highway. I walked submitting to my fate. When I was walking, a patrol car approached behind me and talked to me, which was so natural because there was no one who was walking on the highway except me. They know clearly whether we’re defectors or not. Even though I was caught, I had no idea of resisting because I was too drained. When we went to the border patrol, I fortunately saw one old Korean-Chinese. I begged him for mercy saying “I’m the same Korean like you, please save me. You don’t need a boy to catch, do you?” Moved by a nation thing, the Korean-Chinese said he would only send me to North Korean land, not to Bowibu. He took me into the country, and dropped me at some safe place near the border. 


Afterwards, I stayed in hiding in the North and again, I crossed the border and went in China. During the escape, I was caught several times, and lived in hiding in Yanbian and Dalian. I didn’t know there were brokers who helped to immigrate. I only tried to find out where to go for entering South Korea buying a map and reading it. I went to Kunming through Dalian and Shanghai and crossed the border to Hanoi. Because I still had only one idea that I should go to South Korea, I desperately went down the river.


At first, it seemed to me difficult to cross the border. But after looking into the lay of the land, I found one river that flows from China to Vietnam. Consequently, I jumped into the river under cover of darkness with a tube in August. I was swept away in the current which almost killed me. Soon, I noticed a Vietnamese post, so I had to get out of the river and come out of the mountain. But I couldn’t get out, as the area was a jungle.


While wandering in the mountain, I happened to visit a Chinese village, and I was able to enter Hanoi as I met a Chinese-speaking man in the village. In Hanoi, I went to the South Korean Embassy. However, I got caught by the police right in front of the embassy gate. It was the summer 2005. One officer from the South Korean embassy interviewed me, but he said once I got caught by the Vietnamese police, I should go back.


Although I risked my life to go there, how dare could they say that? I began bearing hatred towards South Koreans, and I decided never to go to South Korea.


The South Korean Embassy in Vietnam didn’t take me in so I was sent to the border side of China and I decided to go to Hong Kong then. I easily got on the boat that was heading to Hong Kong in the port of Yenten. I got to Hong Kong, but I couldn’t get to the city because I couldn’t ask any questions in Chinese. Instead, I headed to Shenzen and worked at a furniture factory. The police officers there had no idea where North Korea was so it was very safe for me to stay. They knew I couldn’t speak Chinese well, but no one doubted my identity. There were so many Chinese people who couldn’t speak the official language, Mandarin so I was perceived as a North Korean defector even with my language barrier. 


I couldn’t speak Chinese and didn’t even have a work permit at the time. I realized that I couldn’t survive without speaking the language so I studied Chinese hard. I stayed in Shenzen for about 2 years and I worked at many different places. When I first got there, I worked at construction sites, but when I picked up the language a bit, I worked as a waiter. I upgraded my job little by little. I worked as a cashier at some point. After making some money, I made a fake ID.


To Russia and to South Korea


I first attempted to go to Russia in early 2006. At the time, I was working as a cashier and I learned how to use a computer since 2005. I started going to church by that time. I would go to internet cafes and surf on the internet. I was looking for information on Christianity and North Korean defectors and I happened to find a church website where North Korean defectors’ testimonies were listed. I was touched by a testimony that was written by Lee Minbok. I promised myself to live like his legacies written in his testimony. His email address was there so I sent an email to him. I liked how he criticized North Koreans who are only concerned about barely surviving in South Korea without any goals or missions to make a difference in this world. I wrote, “There are people who don’t want to live like that. Keep up the good work” in the email.


A couple of weeks later, I got a response from him. He asked me if I had that kind of faith. I was fired up with an ambition to bring back justice to North Korea at the time. I wanted to go back to North Korea and lead a demonstration against the government. I wanted to set Shinuiju on fire. I told him I would risk my life to do that, but he told me I was crazy and discourage me. He told me to come to South Korea and do something more meaningful, but I told him I didn’t like South Korea because the government had rejected me once. I told him how angry I was with the South Korean government, but he calmed me down by saying the government didn’t do it deliberately. I didn’t know how to get to South Korea because I had never tried at the time. I asked him if he knew the escaping routes to South Korea and he told me that I could hire a broker and find the route, but he opposed that idea because I had to pay my own money.


He told me to find another way. He then told me to use the UN channel and told me good things about Russia. He directed me to go to Russia because the UNHCR was not allowed in China, but was active in Russia and thus, North Korean defectors didn’t get repatriated. The border was near Havarosk where Hasaman Lake is located, but it was notorious for being dangerous. He told me he took that escaping route and convinced me to take the same route by sending so many emails. He told me he got on a tube to cross the border and ordered me to do the same. I was terrified to go to Russia, but I believed in God so I decided to obey and went up to Heilongjiangsheng. The Chinese-Russia border was right next to North Korea. I was scared, but people encouraged me to cross it so I rode a tube on a river that flowed from China to Russia, but the Chinese police spotted me.


I went to the Russia Border Patrol Offices’ side in order to escape from the Chinese police officers. When I was running away from them I saw a wire sticking out so I just climbed over that barbed-wire fence. There was another fence. After climbing over two fences, I found myself standing in front of an electronic fence. It was impossible to jump over the fence and the police officers were chasing after me so I just decided to go somewhere that didn’t have any fences. Given that the area had electronic fences, I thought that area was a militarized zone. I kept wandering around passing through the fences and I got lost at some point. I had lost the sense of direction at the time so I freaked out. I couldn’t eat for the next 5 days. I kept walking around and I somehow ended up in a Korean church. I found out later that the route I had taken was very dangerous. I was very lucky. Lee Minbok thought that route was safe and wanted to make it an escaping route for other North Korean defectors after witnessing my successful defection.


I visited 17 churches, but they didn’t accept me by saying that they had experienced difficulties by helping North Korean defectors. I was lucky because the last church I visited took me in. While hiding in that church, I called the Korean Embassy. The Embassy told me they couldn’t help, but they gave me the number to the UNHCR so I called the UNHCR, but they told me to get permission from the Korean embassy first. In the meantime, the Radio Free Asia asked me for an interview. I agreed to do the interview and that interview made my life miserable again. I got caught the next day. I later found out that Korean churches were all wiretapped. When I entered Russia, I had a Chinese ID with me so the Russian government thought I was Chinese and wanted to deport me back to China. I told them that I was North Korean and the government officials wanted me to prove my identity. I ended up telling them my name, my social status and address in North Korea. When I was identified by the North Korean Embassy in Russia, the North Korean embassy sent an official letter, requesting the Russian government to repatriate me by saying, “He belongs to our country. Send him back.”


At that time I was holding onto a leaflet that I had picked up in China. It was the leaflet that made by the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR). I saw the leaflet in the prison and told the Russia government, “This is a violation of human rights. You cannot send me back to North Korea.” I was brought to trial 7 times. The Russian government told me I was going to be repatriated back to North Korea so I fasted for 15 days and fainted. I even wrote a pledge with my own blood.


When I got caught near the border, I called someone in South Korea. I think the Christian group that had talked to me on the phone contacted the NKHR. My case became a hot issue at the time so the National Intelligence Service took actions. It was the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008. When I was imprisoned, I was invited to do an interview for refugee status. I got out after 3 months, but the police officer followed me out and I got arrested at a pastor’s house. The pastor called the embassy and someone at the embassy told the pastor to wait two hours. After a couple of hours, the Consulate sent a car and took me to the embassy. At last, I was able to make it to South Korea.