National Geographic : 2009 Feb
Some 50,000 North Koreans, and possibly many more, are hiding in China, most in cities and villages along the remote 900-mile-long border between the two countries. Uncounted others have come for a few months and then slipped back to North Korea with food and money. Yet many stay on, unable or unwilling to return to their cruel homeland. They are le with two desperate choices: Keep hiding--- o en as prisoners of exploitative employers--- or embark on the Asian underground railroad, a perilous journey by foot, vehicle, and train across China and Southeast Asia. Confronted with an obstacle course of checkpoints, infor- mants, and treacherous terrain, numerous defec- tors have been caught. But aided by a small band of humanitarians and by smugglers charg- ing $3,000 and up, some 15,000 have reached safe haven, most o en in South Korea. ere, traumatized and barely skilled, they face the most formidable challenge of all: starting over. The exodus from North Korea began in the mid-1990s as a devastating famine broke out across the country. In the worst hit areas, people were reduced to eating roots, grasses, and tree bark. More than 2.5 million people would perish. At rst the Chinese openly aided the desperate border crossers. But following protests from the North Korean government, China cracked down. Police regularly raid neighborhoods and villages to ferret out North Korean runaways, who live in terror of being caught and deported. In North Korea, crossing the border without permission is punishable by three to ve years in a prison labor camp, BORDERLANDS I Barbed wire marks the high-security zone where the frontiers of Russia, China, and North Korea meet (left) at the Tumen River. Elsewhere the border is more porous. The defector called Black in the story stole across the frozen Tumen at night. In China he hid in a church shelter (above), fearing arrest and deportation.