Choi was worried about her sister in North Korea. The last time they spoke, two months earlier, her sister had sounded desperate. She said she had been imprisoned and beaten, and could no longer bear the torment. She said she wanted to flee and join Choi in South Korea. She said she would carry poison, to kill herself if she were captured.
For Choi (63), a grandmother with large brown eyes and a steely fortitude, getting the rest of her family to South Korea was the most important thing left in life. She had fled North Korea 10 years ago. Her son had made it out too, as had her sister's daughter, now a hairdresser living near her in Seoul, the South's flashy capital.
Choi longed to be reunited with the sister, a 50-year-old dressmaker with her own home business, and also the nephew she had left behind. She wanted to get them to safety, out of the reach of the government that had arrested her husband, her brother-in-law and her son-in-law on suspicions of helping people leave. They had been targeted as enemies of the state and were never seen again.One evening this past summer, Choi got the news she had been waiting for.
As she opened her apartment door, her niece (25) shouted: "My brother called. He said: 'We crossed the border. We're in China. Get the car.'"
Choi, who must go by only her last name to protect her and her family against possible retribution from the North Korean government, was jubilant. But she and her niece felt a new anxiety. They knew well that the journey to South Korea was a long and treacherous one because they had made it themselves.
Defectors usually leave North Korea by crossing into China. The border is tightly guarded by soldiers under the command of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, who views those trying to leave as traitors. Once in China, defectors must rely on smugglers who charge extortionate rates to evade Chinese security and North Korean agents. Capture or betrayal could lead to prison, or worse.
They often make their way to China's southern border to seek passage to a third country, usually Thailand. From there, the South Korean government flies defectors to Seoul. The attitude of the Chinese government makes the journey even more dangerous. Although China's relations with North Korea have soured, China pleases North Korea by detaining any defectors it finds and returning them to almost certain harsh imprisonment, and possible torture.
China has forcibly deported tens of thousands of North Koreans – a conservative estimate since there are no statistics available – and looks the other way when North Korean agents capture defectors inside its borders, according to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
In total, about 30,000 North Koreans have made it to the South, where they are welcomed with free housing, inexpensive medical care and training for the cut-throat job market. However, the passage has become more difficult since Kim became the North’s supreme leader in 2011. Last year, 1,127 North Koreans arrived in the South, just one-third of the annual number before he came to power.
China deports the North Koreans despite having signed a 1951 United Nations convention not to return refugees to countries where they will suffer persecution. The United States, the European Union, South Korea and the UN regularly ask China to stop such repatriations of defectors, whom they consider political refugees.
China has paid no heed. It says it views the North Koreans not as political refugees but as economic migrants seeking jobs. It says it sends them back because it cannot afford to have its depressed northeastern region destabilised by an influx of outsiders.
An unexpected hitch
Choi and her niece started making arrangements for the clandestine overland journey after the sister’s phone call. They soon faced an early hitch. The group of defectors was larger than they had expected. The sister and her son (28) were joined by the son’s girlfriend and two of his friends. Now there were five people to move through China without attracting notice.
Choi and her niece phoned a South Korean man whom they had hired to handle the escape. Known in the smuggling business as a broker, he had arranged the niece’s journey out of the North during less tense times five years earlier. “Get the driver,” her niece told the man.
Most of all, Choi remembered her sister’s warning. She would kill herself rather than be sent back.
The perils of China
The group of five could hardly have picked a more precarious time to flee. Chinese security was on high alert, searching for North Korean defectors. China was angry at South Korea for deploying a US missile defense system, known as Thaad. The Chinese saw rounding up North Korean defectors who were heading to South Korea as a way to irritate the government of the South’s newly elected president, Moon Jae-in.
At the same time, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was pressing an anti-corruption campaign that was making Chinese officials much less amenable to the bribes often offered by brokers to release North Koreans arrested at the border. China also appeared to have given greater access to North Korean security agents to scour its northeast for defectors to drag home.
Making it to South Korea depended on the skill and reliability of the broker. Choi and her niece had paid the broker an advance fee of $13,000 (€10,500), most of it earned by the sale of the niece’s apartment in Seoul. They would need to pay him much more if the group reached the South safely.As the risks of defecting have risen, so have the fees charged by brokers.
Sixteen years ago, when a young North Korean man named Seo Jae-pyoung walked across the border into China, he only had to pay a North Korean soldier the equivalent of $10 to look the other way.
Seo, who is now president of the Association of North Korean Defectors in Seoul, said brokers demand far more money now, even as their failure rates have also gone up. The best brokers, he said, are North Korean defectors based in Seoul who maintain contacts in the North and a roster of drivers in China. A good broker even knows how to locate and free North Koreans who are caught by the Chinese.
The going rate for basic information about a detainee – name, age, date of arrest – is a gift to a Chinese official of a $1,000 Samsung smartphone or a kit of expensive South Korean cosmetics, Seo said. Winning the release of a North Korean costs much more, and in the current atmosphere may be impossible, he said.
The broker hired by Choi and her niece was rusty at the job, and greedy. Instead of handling the sister’s journey himself, he subcontracted the case to a North Korean woman in Seoul who was married to a Chinese man. The husband, in turn, hired a relative in China to pick up the group in a van after they sneaked across the border.
The relative was then supposed to drive them to Shenyang, a city in northeastern China that is often used by North Korean defectors as a base before heading south.
Lost on the border
The Yalu River separates China and North Korea. At Hyeseon, a North Korean border town, it narrows to a skinny ribbon. The river is low in the summer. The sister’s group waded across, the water up to their calves. It was late afternoon. Once across, they got lost in the woods. For two days, they wandered along the wild eastern edge of China in hills above the town of Changbai, looking for the driver. Behind them lay certain punishment in North Korea. Ahead was the vastness of China, and their own uncertain future.
Every few hours, Choi’s nephew called her apartment in Seoul. “Where is the car?” he pleaded. They were cold and hungry, he said. “We are ready to die,” the nephew said at one point. They had brought poison with them and were willing to take it, he said. Choi believed her sister carried opium tucked into her clothing. Opium was common in North Korea, where poppies grew all over the place, Choi said. It was often used in small doses to cure colds. In larger doses, it was lethal, and used in suicides.
In the phone call, her sister had mentioned being beaten during three months of detention in 2015. If her sister were returned to North Korea, the punishment would be unimaginable. In Seoul, Choi and her niece were frantic. “We didn’t eat, we didn’t drink anything,” she said.
Finally, the North Koreans found their way out of the woods. The driver located them at 2am on the edge of Changbai. Her nephew phoned. “We’re saved. We’re going to live,” he said. Photographs sent by the driver showed the five wearily huddled in a van: the sister, her heart-shaped face creased by a slight frown under bobbed hair, and her nephew, with a perplexed expression on his face, in a brown jacket. There was also her nephew’s girlfriend, about the same age as him, with long hair, slouching in the car seat as she stared into the camera, and two friends in their late 20s in dark attire.
They chatted excitedly on the phone in the van as it travelled toward Shenyang, but the driver asked the women in Seoul to stop calling. Their calls could be monitored by Chinese surveillance. The last word came from the group came at 10am, when they were approaching their destination.
Then there was silence.
The group vanishes
At first, the broker in Seoul and his subcontractor, the North Korean woman, could not explain what had happened. “We are looking for them,” the woman told Choi in a curt voice. Soon, the woman provided an explanation: The five had been taken hostage. Such claims are a common ploy by brokers to extract more money from anxious relatives, Seo said. Several days later, she changed her story: “They must have been arrested.” More money would be needed for their release.
Carrying a wad of cash, the subcontractor jumped on a plane to Changbai, where she thought the group was being held. Choi’s niece was so upset she wanted to go too, but Choi told her to stay: “Do you want to die in China?”Instead, the niece took the advice of a pastor and staged a one-person public vigil outside the Blue House, the presidential office in Seoul.
Worried about being identified by North Korean agents, she disguised herself by piling her blonde-tinted hair on top of her head in a bun and wearing outsized sunglasses. She held a sign written in her own blood pleading for the South Korean government to find her mother and brother.
The North Korean woman who went searching for the group in China returned empty-handed. She said one Chinese official told her no amount of money would suffice to get information on the missing group. She said a second official told her that they were dead.
The Chinese driver of the van was arrested, and then released after a few days. He told a North Korean in Seoul who had used his services that the five were dead, but gave no further information. Choi’s niece turned her efforts to contacting western embassies in Seoul for help. She met on numerous occasions with South Korea’s ministry of foreign affairs.
Word seeped out from North Korea that photographs of the five had appeared on a municipal notice board in their hometown – a sign that they were dead. An informer in the town told the subcontractor that the nephew looked in the photo like he had been beaten. The informer said local officials had summoned residents to an indoctrination session and warned them that they, too, would die if they tried to defect.
Rumours circulated in the defector community that five bodies had been returned to North Korea. But there was no concrete evidence, no photographs of the bodies.
The plight of North Korean defectors caught in China has been a hot-button issue in South Korea, in part because North Korean nationals are treated under the South's constitution as citizens. Some who have fled have accused Moon of ignoring China's crackdown on defectors in order to build closer ties with Beijing.
The foreign ministry in Seoul said it had asked China about the fate of Choi’s sister and her four companions. Sometimes China quietly responds to such requests by releasing the defectors; more often, there is no answer. In the case of the five, China did not reply.
The case was unusual, South Korean officials said. Typically, they can figure out what has happened to defectors from a variety of sources – their own intelligence agents, Chinese officials and whatever trickles out of the North, like the reports of the posted photos.
Asked about the case, China’s foreign ministry in Beijing repeated its standard line: that China treated fleeing North Koreans as illegal migrants who were dealt with according to international and domestic laws, and sometimes humanitarian considerations. A senior ministry official refused to accept copies of the photographs of the missing five, or to inquire about them at the Chinese detention centres along the border.
Human Rights Watch said that what little information it had suggested that the five had killed themselves. But there was no definitive proof, a spokesman said. "Fear of extremely harsh interrogations and beatings experienced by returned North Korean defectors continues," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the group's Asia Division. "The likelihood they will then face years of forced labour obviously prompts such desperation that some consider suicide."
Choi, always neatly dressed in tastefully tailored jackets and pressed pants, berated herself for not masterminding a better escape plan. Her sister had helped her flee North Korea a decade ago. Why couldn’t she successfully reciprocate?
Her moods fluctuated. Her face puckered with anger and grief. She fretted that her sister was either dead or being treated brutally. It weighed on her that she probably would never see her again. “I did it when the broker’s fee was cheap,” she said, sitting on a park bench not far from her apartment in the outer suburbs of Seoul. “Now I think: ‘Why did they even try to leave when it was so difficult?’”
What does she think happened? “My niece and I believe my sister and her son took their lives,” she said. “But it’s not clear whether all five killed themselves.” – New York Times