The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a brutal Communist regime invaded it’s neighbor South Korea in 1950. The united States and South Korea signed an armistice with North Korea in 1953 that stopped the fighting but leaves the countries technically in a state of war. The heavily armed demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas made news recently when a North Korean soldier fled across it to South Korea. This is one way to escape from the vile conditions North Koreans face, but it is probably the one with the least chance of success. Several thousand North Koreans escape their country every year so there are ways to be free of this hell hole at great risk to themselves and their families.
15. Spirited Away
The people of North Korea had a long tradition of Christianity that was nearly demolished when Communist thug Kim Il-Sung was installed as the president of the country by the Soviet Union. Sung, his son and his grandson, Kim Jong-Un have done their best to suppress religion generally. For North Koreans who can’t physically escape the miserable living conditions, faith in Christianity can create hope for a better afterlife and perhaps more importantly as agent of change that could eventually help overthrow the evil Communist regime.
14. Waiting to Escape
You might be surprised to learn that the North Korean regime operates about 100 restaurants around the world including in China, Dubai, Cambodia and the Netherlands. The employees are North Koreans who double as staff and performers. Most of the revenues the restaurants generate is sent back to the Communist government so the employees don’t make much money. However, living abroad gives them a chance to escape the regime and live abroad. This has happened periodically, but exact numbers are hard to come by.
13. Wild Blue Yonder
North has a national airline with aging planes with the distinction as the only airline to have earned a one star rating. Air Koryo flys outdated, rickety jets and is famous for its bad service. The airline also boasts a limited list of destinations, but it does have one thing to recommend it to North Koreans: a way to escape. You have to be a pretty distinguished North Korean to even board one of these planes such as part of the diplomatic service or a business man. But if you are lucky enough to get a seat it might be possible to make it a one way trip to a better place than North Korea (most places.) Also, members of the airliner crews have been known to occasionally “miss” their flights back to the Hermit Kingdom.
12. Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Refugees around the globe have escaped their home country by boat, but this method of flight carries added risks for North Koreans. Escapees can try their luck from the east or the west coast, however either route is a long and perilous journey because the craft have to give the coastline a wide berth to avoid North Korea’s coastal patrol boats. Even if they avoid the North Korean authorities refugees must brave turbulent seas. They are often forced to use small, barely seaworthy boats that are as likely to sink as to make landfall.
11. Choose Chongjin
There are no great places to live in North Korea, but if you can manage it Chongjin might be a good choice. Unlike most North Korean cities, it has a decent amount of commerce and industry with contacts with China. Chongjin also has a railroad hub, an airport, a tram and a river runs through it. This collection of attributes represents possible avenues of escape for North Koreans who are willing to take their chances and try to slip across the border with China. Unfortunately charming Chongjin is best known for its prison labor and reeducation camps so most people understandably try to avoid the city.
10. Exchanging Your Life
North Korea has positive cultural traditions? Yes, but much of this has been obscured by the government’s lame propaganda attempts to turn Kim Jong-un into a god like figure and the nation into a mega-utopia. Cultural exchange programs allow the regime to show off its sports, dancing and music to the world, but only in service to the propaganda message. When these performers are allowed to travel abroad they have an opportunity to make their escape. The government certainly has minders keeping an eye on them, but some North Koreans have been able to flee their country this way.
9. Laboring to Escape
One of the ways North Korea makes money is to send workers abroad to work in foreign labor camps. The workers are essentially slave labor with their earnings sent directly back to the Communist regime. Russian work camps in Siberia are one of the more common destinations, but their remote location in the vast wastes make it an unwelcome destination. However, the Koreans consider any assignment to be an improvement over their miserable life back home. Any opportunity to live abroad is opportunity, however small, is an opportunity to try to escape the horrors of North Korea by melting into the local population.
8. Smuggled to Freedom
The best route for North Koreans into South Korea is often a dangerous journey through China. For a price, smugglers, sometimes referred to as “snakehead” gangs will take refugees through China staying at various hideouts and safe houses until transportation by sea or air can be arranged to get them to South Korea. Relying on a shadowy smuggling operation has its own risks and refugees are sometimes robbed, turned over to the authorities or sold into slavery. But for the ones lucky enough to make it to freedom the perils of smuggling are well worth the risk.
7. Running to Asylum
For any North Koreans fortunate enough to be living or traveling abroad foreign embassies provide an opportunity for escape. However, this option has its own set of dangers that refugees must contend with if they are be successful. Many countries will grant North Koreans asylum if they can get inside the embassy gates, but there are notable exceptions such as China and Russia. Adding to the danger, North Korean agents sometimes stake out embassies ready to pounce on refugees if they try to defect. if they’re caught they will be hustled back to North Korea and imprisoned or worse.
6. A Sporting Chance
There is apparently no record of a North Korean Olympic athlete defecting during the games, and the team will be competing in South Korea in the 2018 winter games. One of the few privileges of being an athlete or a member of a team staff in the Hermit Kingdom is the opportunity to visit other countries. Whether as a member of the state soccer team, an Olympic wrestler or a team doctor traveling to other countries is the best chance many have to leave North Korea behind. They would have to be careful not to tip off the government minders that will be watching them for signs of trouble.
5. Leaving on a Jet Plane
Not everyone can be fighter pilot, but if you can be one in North Korea it could be your ticket out of the country. A brave pilot proved it could be done at the end of the Korean War when No Kum-Sok decided he’d had enough. He flew his Russian made MiG-15 down to South Korea at more than 600 miles per hour to Kimpo Air Base. Not only did he live out his life in freedom he also collected the $100,000 standing reward for defecting with his plane. The plane was repainted with U.S. Air Force insignia and color scheme.
4. Graduating to Freedom
It is unclear why such a repressive regime as North Korea’s would allow some of its young people to travel abroad as students, but it does. Not surprisingly some of them try to defect instead of returning home to a life of deprivation. The Communist government takes steps to prevent this such as treating family members back home as hostages and a pervasive security service that monitors its citizens when they are living abroad. Students who use this as an avenue of escape risk capture and condemning their family to prison or worse.
3. Riding the Rails
Like the underground railroad in America that helped hustle slaves from the South to freedom in the North there is an underground railroad in Asia that North Koreans use to escape. The routes are long and dangerous with refugees crossing the border into China before heading toward places like Thailand to try to build a new life. Unlike China, Thailand does not forcibly return North Koreans to their home country where they will be imprisoned or killed. Some refugees take another route toward Mongolia and are forced to make a treacherous trip through the Gobi desert. Regardless of the route taken they face a tough journey that can easily end badly.
2. It’s Good to be King
The North Korean Regime isn’t known for handing out perks to its citizens, but for a dear few elites life can be enjoyable in the Hermit Kingdom. High ranking military and diplomatic personnel as well as successful businessmen have access to better food and housing, but also something much more valuable: a chance to escape. The elites simply have more resources and more contacts with the outside world and these open up opportunities that the average North Korean doesn’t have. Most of them have them have been poisoned by a lifetime of propaganda and fear that keeps them in line, but every year a handful of elites try to climb over the fortress walls to freedom.
1. The Running Man
The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea runs for 160 miles and divides the peninsula in half. This is the most heavily guarded border in the world. Thousands of soldiers still technically at war with one another scowl at one another across the mine fields and fences. The young soldier in the above photograph was shot several times by his fellow guards as he fled across the border. South Korean doctors who examined him revealed that he was suffering from malnutrition and his digestive tract was infested with parasites. This direct approach doesn’t seem like the best way to make an escape, but a few North Koreans have tried and some have made it to freedom.