Magazine

Apr 13, 2018

Most North Koreans who break out do so by crossing the river border. Reuters team photographed and interviewed some of those who made it to Seoul.

Escape from North Korea
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A family photograph of Song Byeok is seen in Seoul, South Korea, September 27, 2017. Byeok was a propaganda artist. His father drowned on their first attempt to cross the Tumen river, in 2000. When the artist finally left North Korea in 2001, he brought photos of his family with him. "We left that August to find food," Byeok recalled, describing the first attempt. "We were from a town further inland, and we weren't sure where the river was high and where it was low. I didn't know at the time but the river was swollen because of the rainy season. I thought we had to cross it anyway. All I could think about was getting to China to buy food. I took off my clothes and tied them into a rope to strap us together. I told my father not to let go. As we approached the middle of the river, the strap felt lighter. I looked back and saw my father drifting away. I was devastated. He was going under the water and couldn't get out. I rushed up to the (North Korean) border guards and asked them to save him but they just said why did I come out, why didn't I die too. They handcuffed me and took me away. It was Aug. 28. I was tortured by the "bowibu" (North Korean secret police) in Hoeryong, then jailed for four months in Chongjin prison camp. But after I was released from the camp I felt like I needed to survive and carry on living. Right before I tried to defect again, I went back home and grabbed my family photos. Even if I died trying, I thought, at least I would have this picture with me. I never found my father. After I came to South Korea, I went back to China in 2004 and held a memorial service for him by the river. My heart still aches." KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS

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