Yelling across the table over the loud music, we shook hands and bowed as we were introduced. I was in a karaoke bar in the northernmost tip of China with a group of North Korean defectors who had just crossed into China. Sook-ja, a young North Korean woman, had waded across the icy Tumen River several weeks before, carrying a bundle of clothes above her head. She didn't know how to swim, and yet she had risked her life in order to find her sister who had disappeared in China several years ago. Like many North Koreans, her sister had escaped hoping to find work and to send money back home.
"I talked with the people we know in China, but they don't know what happened to her," said Sook-ja, her eyes welling with tears. "I came all this way to find her, and... she's gone."
"What town did you say she was in?" interjected our guide, Dragon. "I'll ask around for you." Dragon was the liaison who introduced us. He wore a shiny track suit, carried three cell phones in his pockets and sported a tattoo which gave him his nickname. As a North Korean broker he made his living guiding other North Koreans who wanted to escape. He liked to call himself a humanitarian, others might call him a human smuggler.
I had come to the Sino-North Korean border in order to film a documentary about North Korean defectors. Since Kim Jong-un took office, the situation has been dire for those hoping to escape. We are all well acquainted with Kim Jong-un's aggressive foreign policy; A lesser known fact is that he has been equally aggressive with internal affairs. One of his first decrees upon stepping into office was to crack down on defectors and their families.
Along with Sook-ja, four other women and two North Korean men sat nervously in the dim purple gloom. None of them had ever been in a karaoke bar before. They had come to meet Dragon, hoping to be selected to join his next escape group. Not only had they risked their own lives to get there, they had risked the lives of their families punished on their behalf if their defection was discovered.
They had come a long way, yet they were still not in the clear. If they were caught as illegal migrants in China, they would be deported back to the DPRK where they would face torture and imprisonment. I was astounded at their quiet humility and commented on their extraordinary courage. Joon-oh, one of the men said quietly, "I didn't do this because I have big ambition. I just wish for a normal life."
He, Sook-ja and four others were selected by Dragon for the 3,000 mile escape journey across China into South East Asia. They would be able to seek asylum in Thailand, but it would be a treacherous journey to get there.
One of the North Koreans not chosen by Dragon was Kyung-shil, a pretty young woman wearing a sparkly sweater and black high heels. She had defected several years ago and ended up in the hands of traffickers in China. Now she worked as a call girl and sent money to her family back in North Korea. Estimates are that eight out of 10 North Korean women found in China are trafficked and sold to men as brides, or sold into the sex industry. (The one-child policy in China had created a demand for North Korean women.)
I wondered if Sook-ja's older sister had been trafficked.
Dragon told Kyung-shil and the others that he would come back for them on his next trip. For now, he, Sook-ja and my camera crew had a long journey ahead of us where we would travel and film covertly.
We journeyed day and night on buses and trains, jumping off at certain times to avoid inspectors. Dragon knew the schedules like clockwork and we all grew to trust him implicitly. Making documentaries is a leap of faith; That faith is built on the trust a filmmaker establishes with his or her subjects. It's remarkable how quickly trust builds when lives are at stake.
The most heart-wrenching part of the journey was when the defectors were only miles away from freedom. Trekking through the Laotian jungle, having evaded police patrols and crossed two mountains, Sook-ja suddenly broke down in tears. The realization had just struck her: she was utterly alone. She could see now that her elderly mother would never be able to make this physically demanding journey. The whole purpose of her trek was to reunite her family, but she hadn't found her sister, and she would never see her mother again.
"I want to erase my name," she wept. "I want to forget the memory of being born and growing up."
But she didn't forget. She trudged on and made it to Thailand, and eventually to South Korea where she was granted refugee status. Now she is working to save money to return to China (legally this time) and search for her missing sister.
Explore this story further in The Defector web documentary where these six defectors' stories are combined into one interactive journey. Find out what it's like to #EscapeNorthKorea, walk in the shoes of a defector.
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