As More Take a Chance On Fleeing North Korea, Routes for All Budgets

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 18, 2007

SEOUL -- Brokers here are busily selling what they call "planned escapes" from North Korea.

Given enough money, the brokers say, they can now get just about anyone out of the dictatorial Stalinist state that human rights activists call the world's largest prison.

A low-budget escape through China via Thailand to Seoul, which requires treacherous river crossings, arduous travel on foot and several miserable weeks in a Thai immigration jail, can cost less than $2,000, according to four brokers here.

A first-class defection, complete with a forged Chinese passport and an airplane ticket from Beijing to Seoul, goes for more than $10,000. From start to finish, it can take as little as three weeks.

North Korea's underground railroad to the South is busier than ever because the number of border guards and low-level security officials in the North who are eager to take bribes has increased exponentially.

With the disintegration of North Korea's communist economy and the near-collapse of its state-run food distribution system, the country's non-elite population is in dire need of cash for food and other essentials, experts agree.

"More than ever, money talks," said Chun Ki-won, a Christian pastor and aid worker in Seoul who says that in the past eight years he has helped 650 people elude Chinese authorities and settle in Seoul.

Religious groups once dominated the defection trade in North Korea, but in recent years defectors themselves, many of them former military and security officers, have begun to take over, several brokers and religious leaders said.

This new breed of broker, based in Seoul, uses personal and institutional contacts to hire North Korean guides and to bribe officials. The guides make clandestine contact with defectors, then escort them to the Chinese border, which in most places is a river that they swim in summer and walk across in winter after it freezes. On the other side, Chinese-speaking guides take over.

"I didn't know it could happen so fast," said a 37-year-old North Korean defector who paid $12,000 to a broker in Seoul in 2002 to get her 11-year-old son out. The woman did not want her name published because this month she and her siblings are paying another broker to smuggle out their mother.

"It only took five days for my son to be plucked out and taken across the river into China," she said, adding that two weeks later he was in South Korea. "I was dumbfounded when I got a call from officials at Seoul airport and my son was here."

For years, North-to-South defections amounted to just a trickle. Most of those coming out were men in their 30s and 40s who held positions that made fleeing relatively easy, such as diplomatic work abroad or border duty with the military. Generally, they escaped without help.


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