One of LFNKR's local staff members went to
Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in the Jilin Province of
China recently to interview
a couple who, in hopes of reaching Japan, had decided in early
2007 to escape from North Korea.
The husband and wife (names are not disclosed for their protection)
were just children when their parents, ethnic Koreans born in
Japan, moved to North Korea, expecting to find the "Paradise
on the earth" that was being touted in a widespread campaign
to attract immigrants. The husband had been 6 years old and his
wife only 1 year old when their parents made the move.
After living in North Korea for nearly 40 years, they speak
no Japanese. While they were in North Korea, relatives in Japan
sent financial help from time to time, but they had not heard
from the relatives for the past few years, which left them facing
hardships. Their greatest challenges were the severe shortage
of food and the absence of freedom.
In North Korea, they were always under surveillance by the state
authorities, since they were from Japan. Each time they needed
to call their relatives in Japan, they had to first submit a
written application to the National Security Agency for permission
to make the call. After gaining permission, they had to submit
what they planned to say on the phone to a monitor from the Agency,
and an agent listened in on their call to make sure what they
actually said matched their application. If the monitor decided
that their conversation was veering into a topic that was not
on the written application, he would immediately warn them and
force them to hang up. Thus, they could never talk on the phone
about the hardships they were going through.
The couple decided that the situation was no longer bearable,
so had no choice but to go to China where they could call their
relatives in Japan and ask for help.
In early June, the couple left their home and went to a city
(undisclosed for their safety) near the China-North Korea border
to meet with a North Korean broker who helped them escape into
Once in China, the couple called their relatives in Japan. The
relatives, however, coldly refused the couple's request. The
broker, listening in on their phone conversation, realized that
he would not be paid for the escape, since the couple had already
used all their money during their first few days in China. The
broker faced having to return to North Korea without payment.
The couple happened to overhear part of the broker's phone conversation
with another broker on the evening on June 15. He was saying, "I'll
be a few days late, since I have to 'do away with these two'
in China." They knew immediately what the broker was planning.
If the broker let them remain in China, they were almost certain
to be caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea,
where they would be interrogated and very likely confess to the
North Korean authorities. If they gave up the name and address
of the broker and the route he used in the escape from North
Korea, this would endanger his own life. The broker was obviously
planning to kill the couple and leave no evidence.
That night, the couple waited until the broker fell asleep and
sneaked out of the house in China where they had been hiding.
They had no idea where to go, since they were complete strangers
there. They had nowhere to escape to, so they simply ran into
the closest dark forest at the foot of a nearby mountain. There,
they heard the calls of wild beasts. They ran until they were
exhausted, then finally decided to stop and sleep at the foot
of a high cliff to protect themselves from attacks by animals.
Starting up the mountain, the husband went first, so that he
could pull his wife up after him. The exhausted husband, climbing
in the dark, slipped and fell. He hurt his leg, but fortunately
it was not a serious injury and did not keep him from walking.
The temperature in that area in June goes down after dark, though
it is hot during the daytime. They shivered in the chilly air
of the dark forest. The wife could not stop crying from fear,
discomfort and overwhelming insecurity. Having no idea what lay
ahead of them, they felt desperate, but managed to get through
the night, encouraging each other.
When dawn finally came, they found themselves in an old-growth
forest with no sign of people around. They could not tell which
direction was north or south, but decided to remain hiding in
the forest for a while until they recouped. For two days, they
ate wild plants and grasses, then they decided to leave the forest
and descend the mountain on the third day. They feared animals
might eat them.
Since they had no idea which direction to go, they depended
on their instincts and continued walking the whole day until
they finally found a vegetable farm. They thought there must
be a village nearby and approached the vegetable field. An old
man was cutting weeds there. The couple called to him, hoping
to ask him for help, but he turned out to be a Han, who spoke
only Chinese. They could not make themselves understood, but
they used gestures to let him know they wanted to make a phone
call. They were asking permission to use his telephone. He seemed
to understand what they were asking but shook his head, staring
at them. It seemed that he had no telephone.
After the couple figured out that he could not help them with
a phone, they tried begging for food. Again, he shook his head.
They were ready to give up, since they could not communicate.
The old man, however, said something to them, gesturing like
cutting weeds, while staring at the couple's torn-up clothing.
They guessed that he was offering to help if they would help
him cut the weeds, and immediately started cutting weeds with
the old man.
In the evening, a woman in her 30's came out to the old man.
She appeared to be his daughter. Hoping that the woman would
understand their language, they asked her if they could stay
at their house that night. Seeming to understand part of what
they had said, she spoke with the old man, probably asking him
who they were. After that, they brought the couple to their house,
where the couple was told to wait outside. Soon, the old man
came out of his house and handed them one 10-RMB bill and two
1-RMB bills. They accepted the money, assuming that it was their
pay for the weed cutting.
The daughter also came out of the house, and the couple handed
her their old cellular phone to show their appreciation. She
immediately checked it over carefully to see if it still worked.
Then she smiled and handed the couple a 100-RMB bill. It obviously
meant she was willing to buy the phone.
With the unexpected 112-RMB in cash, the couple felt a little
more secure as they bid good-bye to the father and daughter.
They still had nowhere to stay, so they returned to the mountain.
Using wild plants and grass to fill their stomachs, they passed
their fourth night in the forest.
On the morning of the fifth day, the couple descended the mountain
and set out walking, with no idea where to go. Finding a road,
they waited until an old bus appeared. The bus even bore Korean
writing on its front, so they flagged the bus down, expecting
it would take them to a village where ethnic Koreans might live.
After an hour's bus ride, a village with Korean-style houses
came into view. The couple got off the bus and looked around.
It was about lunch time, and they were starved from their five
in the mountains with no chance to eat. The wife went up to one
of Korean-style houses and knocked on the door. A middle-aged
woman cracked the door slightly and asked "Who are you?" in
Chinese. The wife answered, "We came from North Korea. We
have not eaten for five days. Please help us." The woman
blurted in Korean, "We are also poor, and not able to help
you." She shut the door in their faces.
The couple decided to leave, because they knew that if they
persisted, many Chinese people would report them to the police.
They went to the house next door and the wife knocked. A middle-aged
man stepped out. She asked again, "We are from North Korea.
We have not eaten for five days. Please help."
The man warned her, "Run away from our village immediately.
We in this village do not help North Koreans anymore. Just hearing "North
Koreans" upsets me. Get out of the village right now!"
Later, the couple found out that the ethnic Korean people in
the village had been seriously abused by people from North Korea.
Three or four years earlier, groups of people escaping from North
Korea began visiting the ethnic Korean village. They would have
their women or children pretend to beg during the daytime. For
a while, the villagers felt sorry for them and brought them into
their houses to feed or clothe them.
It was true that the children and women who begged were suffering.
Sadly, however, some of them carefully checked out the houses
where they were admitted during the daytime. Then at night, they
led men to the houses where they broke in and stole valuables.
All families in this village had suffered burglaries. The people
in the village believed that all North Koreans would stoop to
doing anything to get what they wanted.
The couple, who had just escaped into China, knew nothing of
the situation in the China-North Korea border area, but they
were told that ethnic Koreans in the area would no longer try
to help escapees from North Korea. Quite a few ethnic Koreans
had begun immediately informing the police if North Korean escapees
showed up at their doors. The Chinese police pay informers 500RMB
per head as a cash reward. This discouraged the couple from further
door knocking at ethnic Korean houses to ask for help in their
Knocking on two doors asking for food was enough for them to
conclude that there would be no help here. Even walking around
the village would be risky, especially after seeing the hostile
looks from the man they had spoken to.
They headed out of the village and reached a road that led to
the mountain. Before long, they spied a young man on a motorbike.
The road surface was rough, and he slowed as he passed them.
A kind look on the young man's face encouraged the wife to try
speaking to him.
"We need to make a phone call. Please help us." The
young man stopped his motorbike and listened to her, but did
not seem to understand her language. She repeated, "We need
to make a phone call," then added, "We came from North
Korea. We need to call our relative in Japan. Please help."
He finally seemed to guess what she was asking and responded
in Chinese. Although they understood no Chinese, they figured
out from his gestures that he did not have a telephone. After
continuing to talk, they realized that the young man understood
most of what they said in Korean, but could not speak Korean.
They asked again for his help in getting access to a telephone.
The couple's desperate look must have moved the young man. He
gestured for them to follow. This gave them a bit of hope and
they followed him. He led them back into the village.
His home, which was an old Han-style house, lay on the opposite
side of the second house where they had knocked an hour earlier.
Entering the young man's house, they found a woman in her 50's,
apparently his mother. He said something in Chinese to the woman.
Then, she told them in Korean, "You cannot use our telephone
to make an international call. In this village, you can't make
any international calls. Go somewhere else."
The wife asked, "If we can't call Japan, then let us call
xxx in China (city name undisclosed for security)."
The woman answered, "No, you can't call xxx, either. Staying
here in this village is dangerous for you. Leave the village
The young man looked upset and argued with the woman in Chinese.
The couple guessed he was protesting that they should help and
at least allow them to make a phone call." The angry mother
repeated, "No, no, no, get out right now." Frightened,
the couple had to leave.
Their only option was the road again. Since they had eaten only
wild plants and grasses for 5 days, they could not walk far,
so they decided to spend the night in the mountain near the village.
The temperature again plummeted after dark. Stomachs empty and
surrounded once more by darkness, they felt even more desperate
Next morning, the two headed down the mountain toward another
village. After walking for a while, they noticed a motorbike
approaching. It was the same young man who had tried to help
them the day before. This seemed an odd coincidence. The two
bowed deeply to the young man. Stopping his motorbike, he appeared
very sleepy, possibly having just finished working a night shift.
The young man smiled and waved his arm, telling them to follow.
At that point, they were so desperate they felt like they were
drowning and clutching at straws. They arrived at the same house
they had visited the day before, but this time, no one else was
home. The young man led them to the telephone so they could make
their call. It was true that no international calls were possible
on that phone, so they tried making a domestic call to the Japanese
consulate in xxx city. The call went through.
When the wife said in Korean, "I am xxxxxx (name undisclosed)
from North Korea. Please help us," the call was transferred
to someone who spoke Korean.
She repeated: "I am xxxxxx. Please help us. I and my husband
were born in Japan. We cannot go back to North Korea. We do not
have any place to hide. Please help us."
The person at the consulate replied, "We need to first
contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo before we can
take action to rescue you. Please wait until we get a reply from
She said, "All right. But, we can't make a direct call
to Japan here, so please call a man in Japan for us. He is a
humanitarian aid worker expecting a call from us. His phone number
is xxxxxxx. Please be sure to call him."
The wife's few words expressed the couple's desperate, frantic
need for help from the Japanese consul. The consul told the wife
that they could not immediately come to get the couple, but he
promised to call the humanitarian aid worker in Japan. The wife
gave the phone number of the young man's house where the consul
could return their call.
Hanging up the phone, the wife turned to the young man and begged, "We
are expecting a phone call from Japan soon, so please let us
stay here until we receive the call. Please." The young
In about an hour, the phone rang. The young man picked up the
phone and immediately handed the phone to the wife.
"I'm calling from Japan. Are you Ms. xxx? Are you alright?
Where are you now?" The voice was familiar to the wife,
since they had talked by phone once before.
The wife replied, "We have escaped from the broker, but
we have no place to hide. Please come immediately to help us."
"Who are the people you're staying with right now? Can
you ask them to protect you? It takes two or three days from
Japan, to reach you in China . Please try asking the family there
to allow you to stay with them for at least 3 days."
"They do not trust what we tell them. Would you please
talk directly with the mother of the family yourself on the phone
to persuade them? Please."
"Is the mother there now?"
"No, only the son is here now. He said the mother should
be back in an hour. We definitely need her permission. Could
you call us again in an hour? Please promise me you will call
He seemed to fully understand her feelings of desperation.
"All right, I will order the flight ticket today and get
ready to leave for China as soon as possible. Make sure that
you'll be always reachable by phone. I'll call you again in an
hour to talk with the mother there."
The fact that the couple had finally reached the person in Japan
gave them hope that they would survive. However, they no longer
had the cell phone, so they would have to do their best to persuade
the mother to let them stay with the family for three days until
the humanitarian worker from Japan arrived.
The mother, when she returned home from farming work, was surprised
to find the couple again in her house. She yelled at the son
in Chinese. It was obvious that she was angry with the son for
bringing the couple back.
The couple kneeled down on the ground at the feet of the mother
"Please, please help us. We beg you to help us only once.
We promise to return your favor. We received a call from Japan
an hour ago. A man will come from Japan to help us here in two
or three days, so please let us hide in your place for three
days. Three days only, please. We would appreciate if you'd let
us sleep in the cattle pen outside. We beg you. There will be
a call from Japan again soon. You can answer the call to check
if we are telling you the truth. We are not lying. If you drive
us out, we have no place to go and will lose any chance of surviving."
The mother seemed to calm down a bit after hearing that someone
had actually called from Japan and that someone was coming from
Japan to rescue them. She said, "OK, let's decide after
I talk with the person, who is supposed to be calling from Japan," although
she still looked doubtful.
The phone rang again in exactly one hour, and the mother answered
the phone. It was Japan calling. She talked for about ten minutes,
then ended the conversion with: "Anyway, come quickly. We're
jeopardizing ourselves, too. We will let them hide here for three
days, but no more than three days. Be sure you take the quickest
way to get here."
The mother finally promised the couple she would let them stay
for three days.
The couple were overjoyed, feeling the despair
lift from their shoulders. They had secured a hiding place until
There was no extra room available for the couple, so they had
to sleep in the cattle pen. The young man brought futons for
them. It was far better than sleeping on rocks in the mountains,
although the manure smell was awful. They were in no position
to complain. Instead they were thankful for the shelter. They
were even given rice to eat. The family seemed extremely poor,
judging from their dinner table – white rice and vegetables
only. The couple considered the rice "luxury food" by
The parents had to leave the house and work in the field, and
refused to allow the couple to stay at their home. After all,
they are still strangers. What if they stole something while
the family were out working? The couple followed them into the
field and cut grass in the corn field. They worked hard to show
their appreciation to the family. The parents of the family appeared
to be impressed by all their hard work.
At noon on the 22nd, as they ate lunch at home, the phone rang.
It was the man in Japan. He said that he was in xxx and expected
to reach them the next day. Excited, the couple were sure they
would be saved.
The couple did not know what lay in their future, before they
finally made it to safety, but they say that was the happiest
day of their life.
That night, they started to worry. Can he really make it tomorrow?
What if something happens to him along the way? Worries haunted
them. In the cattle pen, the two lay staring up at the ceiling,
unable to sleep. They realized that stars were twinkling in the
gaps between the broken ceiling boards. Though they had slept
in the mountains several nights, the fear and uncertainty had
been so overwhelming that, until now, they hadn't even noticed
the stars overhead.
The two finally calmed down enough to enjoy the nighttime sky.
They felt that the stars on that particular night were the most
beautiful they had ever seen.
The couple arrived at a temporary shelter on June 26. Even though
they had only covered half the journey to Japan, they felt as
happy as if they were already there.