SEOUL — First came Kim Yong-shil, in 2006. Then her husband, her two grown daughters, her teenaged son. Two years later, out came her mother, then one brother, then in 2012, the other.
One by one over the past decade, the members of this family have escaped from North Korea, the ones who made it out first earning money and meeting brokers so they could bring out the others.
This process — called “chain defection” — is almost the only way to escape from North Korea now, as security along the border has tightened dramatically since Kim Jong Un took control of the state four years ago.
In the past 20 years, some 29,000 North Koreans have fled hunger and repression at home by escaping across the river that forms the country’s border with China. The flow of refugees had been tracking steadily upward until plummeting during Kim’s first year in power. By last year, fewer than 1,300 people had escaped, less than half of the peak recorded in 2009.
The vast majority of the people making it out now are those with family members who escaped to South Korea before them and can rustle up the $12,000 it costs to extract one person from the North.
“If you don’t have family living outside North Korea, it’s impossible to come out because someone has to pay,” said Jung Kwang-il, a defector who works as a human rights activist in South Korea.
Families in the South cobble together their often meager wages to try to extract relatives. There is a well-established process involving defectors in the South who act as brokers, traders on the border between North Korea and China who move money back and forth, and soldiers in North Korea who can be bribed to show would-be defectors where and when to cross.
For the Kim family, Yong-shil, now 56, was the first link in the chain. After two failed attempts, she finally managed to escape in 2006, spending three years in China before making it to South Korea.
After her husband, daughters, and son got out, she arranged through a broker in South Korea to secret out her mother, who is now 77.
But three younger siblings were still in North Korea. Her youngest brother was working as a trader on the border and managed to call Yong-shil from a Chinese cellphone to tell her that the next older brother had resorted to begging and was starving.
So Yong-shil, who has worked in a bathhouse and is trying to start a restaurant with other defectors, contacted a broker about getting him out, too. “I worked with a broker for a year to get him out,” Yong-shil recalls.
Now 45 years old, he works here in the South as a night security guard.
But the younger brother remained in North Korea with his wife and two sons. He had twice been caught crossing the river for his trading activities and was worried he would be arrested if caught again, so Yong-shil encouraged him to escape, too. (The brothers did not want their names used for fear of jeopardizing family still in North Korea.)
“I found someone who said that if [the youngest brother] could get himself to China, he could take him from there,” Yong-shil said.
He was successful on his second attempt, but it cost the family $8,000. “It was cheaper back then,” Yong-shil said. Now, it costs about $12,000 to extract someone from North Korea.
In the South, the younger brother lives a grim existence. He drives a truck six days a week and lives with his sister. He spends little on himself — he had not eaten all day when he met reporters for dinner after work — so he can send money to his family.
“I work this hard, work these long hours, with my family in my mind,” he said, saying he sends them about $3,000 a year. “But $3,000 goes a long way in North Korea.”
He talks to his wife on the phone every three months. His sons are well-fed and well-dressed — but not too well-dressed, for fear of attracting attention — and they are doing well at school.
But the chain has been broken. It has become so difficult — and consequently, so expensive — to get people out of North Korea that the youngest brother has little hope of seeing his family again.
“Now, it could take as much as $40,000 to get them out and even then, there’s no guarantee that they will get to safety,” he said, pulling his Samsung Galaxy phone out of his pocket with his oil-ingrained hands, to show reporters photos of his family.
There is still one Kim sibling left in North Korea: a sister, who has a husband and two children. They want to come out, too. But this would also cost tens of thousands of dollars that the family does not have. “Plus, they’re scared,” Yong-shil said.
Brokers say that the price has skyrocketed because it has become much more difficult to get people out in the past four years.
“I heard that there was an order from Kim not to take the money, just arrest them,” said one defector, who now works as a broker and asked not to be named because so few people do this work.
That means as many as eight people must be involved in extracting North Koreans: the main broker in South Korea who plans everything, the broker in North Korea, the person who gets the would-be defector across the river, a person waiting on the Chinese side, another person to take the defector down through China. Then there are other brokers in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, through which the migrants generally travel on their way to South Korea.
“And all these people are working for money,” the broker in Seoul said.
Brokers in South Korea are often considered to be vultures preying on naive defectors, all of whom stand to get about $17,000 in government benefits when they arrive in the South, two-thirds of it earmarked for housing.
But this broker said he makes only about $1,000 for each North Korean he helps — and that their families often try to avoid paying. “I feel for these people. I feel for them, but if there was no money, then why would I do it?” he asked.
For now, the younger brother tries to avoid places where he might see happy families spending time together. Instead, he spends his Sundays sleeping or distracting himself with video games.
“When I left North Korea, I told my family that maybe it would be the last time we would see each other,” he said. “But when it actually happens, it’s so hard.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.