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MagazineApr 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.
A hat belonging to Jeong Min-woo is seen in Seoul, South Korea, August 9, 2017. Min-woo is from Hyesan, on the border with China. He was a commissioned officer in the Korean People's Army, and left in his uniform. South Korean intelligence confiscated it, but he persuaded his North Korean military contacts to send him a new one. "I arrived in South Korea on Nov. 22, 2013. I did not desert my unit. It was never a desertion, I left to earn money. I told the guards at the border I was leaving. It worked out, since we were all military men. When I got as far as Thailand I borrowed clothes from friends, and put my uniform in my bag just in case. If I was going to go back to North Korea I needed to be dressed in it. A military uniform and ID card are valuable assets in North Korea. The military can do anything. I handed over my original uniform to South Korean intelligence. This one is authentic too, but it's one I secretly smuggled into South Korea. This is the summer uniform, made of cotton. These particular uniforms aren't sold in North Korean markets. I'm still in touch with some military officials in North Korea, and in 2014 I asked them to send me one. I paid for everything. There's a fee for getting things over the river with China. Then I had to pay the courier fee from China to South Korea. The whole thing cost a few hundred bucks. Technically, people are not supposed to sell these uniforms. Military supplies are sold secretly. In North Korea I wore my uniform every day, even when I was off-duty. I couldn't wear ordinary clothes. If I did, I wouldn't be able to ride in cars. Someone might steal a cigarette off me or try to pick a fight. If I had gone back, I would have needed that uniform to ride in cars and steal from others." KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS