North Korea: Why Escape is No Longer Possible


North Korea remains one of the world’s most isolated nations. For decades, it has been cut off from most of the outside world, but perhaps never more so than today.

The conditions inside the country remain bleak. The UN estimates that almost half the population is suffering from malnutrition. Those who are considered enemies of the regime are thrown into labour camps – reports came out only last year of a 2-year-old child being thrown into prison for life when her parents were discovered to own a Bible.

North Korea currently engages in torture, wrongful imprisonment, and forced hard labor, with widespread and systematic abuses that could amount to crimes against humanity.

For years, desperate citizens have attempted to defect and escape North Korea for surrounding nations. Most attempt to reach South Korea. One of the many reasons for this is South Korea’s policy to welcome North Korean defectors as South Korean citizens. Although the culture and language differs in the north and the south. for North Korean defectors, their southern neighbours are still the most appealing option for their chance at freedom.

However, crossing the DMZ on the border between North and South Korea is near impossible, as it remains the most heavily militarised border in the world.

For most defectors, the most viable route is across the border into China, where they can then make their way to Mongolia, Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, who will then deport them to South Korea where they will find their freedom. The risk, however, is that Russia, China, Laos and Myanmar all have extradition agreements with the North Korean regime to send defectors back to North Korea, where they face life in labour camp or even death.

Despite these dangers, many have chosen to risk their lives for a small chance at freedom. So, why is it that in 2022, the number of successful defections plummeted when compared with ten years prior?

Image courtesy of RealLifeLore 

There are several possible explanations and none are good for the North Korean people.

At the end of 2011, the supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, died and Kim Jong Un succeeded him. When the young leader came to power, he worked tirelessly to crack down on border defections with more border fences, signal blockers along the border, and heavy militarisation.

Also, China’s surveillance began to dramatically increase in 2016. By 2020, there were more than 620 million cameras inside of China. This meant that North Korean defectors who made it into China were more easily identified and caught, and were deported instantly to North Korea.

Bceause of the increased risks, brokers began charging more money to get defectors across the border. In 2007, the price would have been around 2,000 USD. By 2012, the price had doubled to 4,000 USD. By 2017, the price was up to 16,000 USD per defector. The average North Korean earns 5000 North Korean won (around 5 USD) per month. Meeting the price demand of the brokers is impossible for most.

This means that in recent years, many defectors have been forced to do the entire treacherous journey alone. The success rates decreased quickly.

By 2019, only 1,027 defectors managed to escape to South Korea.

By 2020, things worsened. The world was hit by Covid-19 and North Korea became the first country in the world to seal its borders. Nothing in. Nothing out. “Shoot to kill” orders were given across the North Korea/China border, making it almost impossible to cross. By 2020, there were only 229 successful defections.

2022 saw only 67 successful defectors.

Each year that passes poses increased difficulties and dangers for North Koreans trying to make it across the border. The situation inside is still dire and the people are suffering. Now, the border is more tightly locked than ever and the people have little hope of tasting freedom on the outside. The people need our prayers and the church needs our prayers. Please remember the believers of North Korea who continues on as a Light in the darkest nation on earth.


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