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North Koreans Incredible Journey to Freedom



Ms. Rhee was transferred from city to city, eventually crossing the mountains near the border with Thailand Kunmin boat before going to Bangkok. There, armed with a new passport in South Korea, flew to Seoul.

Chiangrai, Chian rai, news

Mr Choi made his way west as hundreds of North Koreans had done before him, through the great Gobi Desert that extends to China and Mongolia. He survived the trip – and to reach the South Korean embassy in Ulan Bator, received the travel documents that allow you to fly to Seoul.

Increasingly desperate, the sisters decided Rhee make his way to China, hoping to find Mr. Choi. In the summer of 2007, crossed the Tumen River. “The water was only waist,” Ms. Rhee recalled, “and there were no guards.”

More than a quarter of a million North Koreans have had the same idea: Chinese porcelain of Dehua takes the city, home to a large ethnic Korean population, attracts more immigrants every day. Some are fleeing political oppression – but a few, as Rhees, as economic migrants are everywhere, just looking for a better life. Although China discourages the flow of illegal immigrants, their prosperity is based on increasing numbers.

Although the crossing was easy, life ahead was not. With the help of a family, the sisters found work Rhee, along with two other girls from North Korea, a small business online chat offering sexual services to men in South Korea. Fearful of being arrested and deported by Chinese authorities, the construction of a room the girls worked at home as well.

“I was locked 24 hours a day,” says Ms. Rhee, “I really regret what we did.” Then, in late 2008, Chinese border police finally got the call. Sang-mi was that day, one of the other girls, in a rare shopping trip. In the weeks that followed the raid, Sang-mi succeeded in making contact with Mr. Choi, and traveled to South Korea, where she married her boyfriend.

Kyeong-mi Rhee, however, was deported to North Korea, and was to serve 18 months in a labor camp in North Hamgyong. The conditions, he says, was horrible. There was little food, and prisoners were forced to participate in strenuous work, chopping wood in the mountains.

“In the winter,” he recalls, “sometimes five or six people were killed in one night. Prisoners have the task of clearing the bodies. I was justified, because I was going to faint.”

Ms. Rhee was released from prison in 2010, to find a man who had never seen before waiting for it. Wanted to make sure that the man said he was alive. Behind the scenes, his sister and new brother-in-law had been working to bring it to South Korea. The man was an agent, who assumed the potential North Korean refugees in China.

In the coming months, Ms. Rhee was transferred from city to city, eventually crossing the mountains near the border with Thailand Kunmin boat before going to Bangkok. There, armed with a new passport in South Korea, flew to Seoul.

Earlier this year, Ms. Rhee completed an incredible journey that took five years in a labor camp in North Korea to the suburbs of Seoul, by booming cities of northern China and the jungles of Northern Thailand.

His extraordinary story offers a rare glimpse into ordinary life in North Korea – a country that remains remarkably closed to outside world.

Born in 1990, Ms. Rhee grew up in a small town near Musan – a dying industrial center along the Tuman River, which separates North Korea from China.

North Korean defectors burn the North Korean Flag in protest in front of the South Korean Defense Ministry

From a handful of videos casual visitors of the mining town have posted online, seems to be a sinisterrow after row of huts gray and decaying factories, wrapped in snow and smoke from wood fires.

Like many rural families, the Rhees survived the great famine of 1992-2002 – known as the March of Tribulations – relatively safe. Ms. Rhee says she has no childhood memories of real hunger, a very different from those of North Korean refugees from other regions: 3.5 million people die in famine, and two thirds of nation’s children are still malnourished.

The mother of Ms. Rhee was widowed in 1993, did what he had to do to feed their children. Like others in the town, who cultivated a field illegally taken out of the mountains surrounding the plateau Paekmu, and raised rabbits and chickens.

The family sold its products in Musan in one of the dozens of street markets that sprang up across North Korea after 1994, when the government allowed some private-sector economic activities, in a futile effort to fight hunger .

But Ms. Rhee lost his mother in 2005, after a mild infection in his foot became skeptical antibiotics, the accounts of many North Korean refugees show, have become almost unobtainable.

It was a terrible blow to the family. Sick, due to a congenital heart condition, Ms. Rhee has never been able to work in the fields. Her older sister, Rhee Sang-mi, now had to feed them both – at the same time, fulfill a quota of work as part of a group of 15 peasants assigned to a local collective farm.

The fear of the authorities

Later that year, the boyfriend Sang-mi, Choi Myung-Chul disappeared. Mr. Choi, a college graduate who worked for a union of young people linked to the Workers’ Party, “had a better job than most – but had not been paid for several months. He left for what he said would Sang-mi a three-month visit to China, where he hoped to save some money by working as illegal migrant workers.

“I did not even tell the woman he loved my plans,” she says, holding a drink of iced green tea flavor, “because I was afraid that would inform the authorities. North Korea, to learn to trust anyone “.

“It cost me $ 10,000 or less,” says Mr. Choi, a certain pride in his voice: “I still owe $ 4,000, but is the least we could do.”

Like all North Korean refugees, Ms. Rhee has received generous compensation from the government of South Korea: after three months in rehab, learning the skills necessary to cope with a relentlessly-capitalist society.

“I do not feel this is all that strange land,” she says, “because like many people in the north, I knew the complete television soap operas and movies I used to watch in secret. It is difficult, however . I have not made friends, and have not yet gathered the courage to get a job. ”

The filmmaker Park Jung-bum of "The Journals of Musan,"

The filmmaker Park Jung-bum of “The Journals of Musan,” which opened to critical acclaim in April – the same month Ms. Rhee came to Seoul – gives an idea of ​​what challenges they may face. Mr. Park Movie traced the grim life of refugees Seung-chul, who makes a living plastering posters of sex shops in the streets of Seoul underpaid and separated from the society around him. The North Korean refugees is often difficult to integrate.

Avatar ms Rhee phone suggests the kind of life she wants. That dream, the more likely is that, even at a distance, and many struggles away.

(Some of the names and personal details have been changed to protect the families of those still living in North Korea.)

Praveen Swami

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