SEOUL — Kim Kang-woo had already made the treacherous journey across North Korea’s border into China. Now, he was about to do the unthinkable — smuggle himself back in.
“When I thought about my mother, there was really only one path,” he said. “I had to go back. And if I got caught crossing back in, I was ready to die.”
More than 33,800 North Koreans have made their way to the South in search of freedom from poverty and oppression since Seoul began keeping track of their entry in 1998. Countless others have fled to China, Russia and elsewhere. It is common for defectors who have resettled in South Korea to arrange brokers to help family members back home to escape. But it is rare for anyone to go back into North Korea, and even rarer for them to make it back to South Korea a second time. Yet Kim did both to help his mother — and was duly convicted and imprisoned in the South.
In their first interview with a news outlet, Kim and his mother recalled their terrifying and winding journey to be together again, the determination that fueled them during four years of separation and failed attempts to reunite, and their new life in Seoul filled with trauma and hope.
The Washington Post has verified Kim’s return to North Korea and second escape through court records, but cannot corroborate the accounts of what took place inside the reclusive country. Details of their hometown have been withheld to protect their relatives who remain there.
Like most North Koreans, Kim learned about everyday life in Seoul through a South Korean television show smuggled in from China. As he watched the character Jung Woo in the 2009 miniseries “Swallow the Sun,” in which a homeless orphan eventually finds love and success, Kim thought he, too, may have a chance at new opportunities in the South.
Kim, soft-spoken with an easy smile, was a studious kid growing up in a border town near China. He graduated at the top of his class in high school but could not attend college because he was from a poor family and those opportunities were reserved for people from a higher class. When he turned 20, he reflected on his life as a farmer and laborer who worked to support the nuclear-armed regime while he and his mother sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.
He wanted more. A college degree. A stable job. He told his mother, Im Su-ryuh, he intended to leave for the South and asked her to wait three years. She gave her only son a boiled egg before he left, which he placed right back in her hands. She couldn’t see him off, for fear of raising suspicions from neighborhood watchers, and cried in silence for many nights after he left. Her husband had died making the same trek years earlier.
“He told me, ‘I can’t rot in this country for the rest of my life,’ ” said Im, 51. “I couldn’t stop him, nor could I encourage him.”
Her son’s departure came like a lightning bolt for Im. “I felt like I could still see him right in front of me. I felt sorry that he met the wrong mother, who couldn’t give him a better life. I thought I would never see him again,” she said.
It was pouring rain the night in May 2016 when Kim crossed the Yalu River alone. He arrived in Seoul after a five-month journey through China, Laos and Thailand, a common route for defectors. (Crossing directly between North and South Korea was out of the question; the border is heavily militarized.) Eleven months after he left home, Im got word that her son had made it to the buzzing southern capital.
Kim worked every job he could land — in construction, at a mattress store, at a cellphone store. He thought about his mom each night as he walked home from work, and whenever he ate a delicious meal.
By 2019, he had saved enough money and met a broker he trusted. He could finally arrange his mom’s escape. And he was right on time.
In May that year, Kim booked a plane ticket to China. He wanted to help his mother through the grueling journey to freedom. But risking his life a second time was not in his plan.
After making his way to the North Korean border, he worked with a broker who was to arrange his mother’s escape. But he couldn’t reach his mother.
North Koreans who live along the border use smuggled Chinese cellphones that can pick up Chinese cellular networks for phone calls. His mother finally called on a cellphone she borrowed.
Im told her son, then 23, that she was scared. She didn’t have her own phone and was worried she wouldn’t be able to find him on the Chinese side. Maybe they should try again another time, she said. Then the line dropped.
The plan had fallen apart.
Kim panicked. He was running out of money, and his visa would expire soon. He had exhausted everything to make it to this point and wasn’t sure when he could return.
As he considered going back in to North Korea, he worried for his safety and that of his family. If he were caught reentering after defecting, he and his family could be killed.
“I hesitated because I was terrified. But I felt like I would never see my mom again,” he said.
For two days, he watched North Korean guards’ movements from the Chinese side of the river to learn their schedule. The second day, as the guards stopped for dinner, he crossed back in. Then he dashed into the woods.
A lot had changed in his hometown, and he realized he had changed, too. He had pierced his ears and dyed his hair dark brown. He had worked to get rid of his North Korean accent while working in retail, and caught himself using South Korean slang. He couldn’t blend in as easily as he had hoped.
He made his way back to his mother’s house and knocked on the door. Im was stunned. The two held each other in silence and cried. Then immediately, Im feared for their safety.
“He is crazy. My happiness lasted a short moment, then the hair on my skin stood up. If he’s caught, he would be immediately executed and the rest of us would go to a prison camp,” she said.
Over the next 22 days, Kim worked to arrange brokers on either side of the border to get both of them into China. But it was not easy to arrange the trip so quickly, especially when brokers were incredulous when he told them he had returned to North Korea.
One of the many calls he made during those days got picked up by government surveillance, Kim said. When Kim was not in the house, intelligence officials raided his mother’s home and detained her. Interrogators beat her and baited her to admit that her defector son had reentered, she said — a charge she repeatedly denied.
Kim hid at the house of a friend, who told him he needed to leave North Korea for the sake of his family. According to South Korean court records, Kim left North Korea for the second time the day after his mother was detained.
He crossed the Yalu River once again, without his mother.
Kim received a phone call after he landed in Seoul. It was a South Korean intelligence official. “We have been waiting for you,” the man said.
That’s how Kim learned the South Korean government had tracked his journey using cellphone records. He was interrogated for weeks, as the police worked to determine whether he was a spy.
It is illegal for a South Korean to enter North Korea without approval from the Unification Ministry. According to the South Korean judge’s ruling in Kim’s case in August 2020, Kim faced a maximum three-year prison sentence. But the judge showed leniency after Kim expressed his regret and prosecutors determined Kim had no history of breaking a similar law affecting inter-Korean relations. His sentence was reduced to six months’ imprisonment and two years of probation.
After one of the interrogation sessions, Kim received a call from a broker. His mother had safely made it out of North Korea. Kim couldn’t believe it, and demanded a photo and a chance to talk to her by phone. After he heard his mother’s voice, he arranged for his South Korean contacts to help her make her way through China, Laos and Thailand.
“I was incredibly happy. I felt like I was born again,” he said, remembering the phone call.
“I never thought that day would come,” Im said.
By North Korean standards, South Korean prison was quite luxurious. There were regular meals, with a rotating menu. Kim could read as many books as he wanted. His debts to brokers piled up because he could not work, but otherwise, life was comfortable.
He had not told his mother about his arrest, but when she arrived in Seoul and couldn’t reach her son, she became suspicious. His friends, upon prodding, eventually revealed his whereabouts.
“My heart sank. My son, who had simply wanted to get a college education, was in prison because of me,” she said.
Im wrote her son letters every week. Sharing her observations about life in the South helped her feel less alone.
I got my driver’s license today.
Today is your grandmother’s birthday. Remember when we celebrated together in North Korea?
I rode the subway today, and sat next to a young man who looked just like you. I wished you were here with me, and that it was really you riding the subway next to me.
She counted down the days to her son’s release on Sept. 13, 2020. At midnight, she waited outside the prison. She had imagined he had been living in prison conditions like in North Korea, and had worried about his health.
They finally reunited outside the prison gates, more than four years after Kim first fled North Korea.
“When he came out, he looked so weak and small in my eyes,” she said.
“I actually gained so much weight … I barely moved!” he said.
“I never notice when he says he gained weight,” she said. “I just want him to be healthy.”
Im’s Seoul apartment, one of the units provided by the South Korean government to defectors, is decorated with her knitting and cross-stitching projects. She is not working but is receiving training and other support from the South Korean government so she can eventually find a job. She enjoys gardening on her balcony and is impressed at how she can control the temperature in her apartment so her plants can keep growing. In North Korea, her plants died in the winter because there was no heating system.
Kim lives 40 minutes away. He drives over in his Mercedes-Benz, which he is determined to pay off as soon as possible. Kim gets his haircuts from a salon now, rather than from his mom like in North Korea, and is grateful he no longer has to worry about nicks in his ears from his mom’s scissors. She still wants to cut his hair, and wishes he would stop wearing torn jeans.
“It’s fashion,” he told her.
Kim, now 27, is not working right now so he can focus on getting into college. He has applied to six colleges to study international relations. He likes to work out and watch movies, especially ones that stay with him emotionally long after he leaves the theater.
With their lingering trauma, life in North Korea doesn’t feel too distant. Kim avoids going on trips to the mountains with his friends because the woods remind him of hiding in North Korea. Im hates the noise of South Korean politicians delivering campaign speeches on loudspeakers, because it reminds her of the regime propaganda that would blare outside her home in North Korea.
When Kim first arrived in South Korea, he was shocked at how little South Koreans seemed to know about their northern neighbor. Some would ask if he was trained to kill people.
“Like South Koreans, we’re people too,” he said. “North Koreans have human rights too, even though it’s not respected. But they all deserve to live and be loved.”
On the refrigerator in Im’s apartment hangs a letter from her son.
Dear mom, whom I love and respect always,
Thank you for raising me with love. Please be healthy for years to come, so we can live happily.
Julie Yoon contributed to this report.