Sold as ‘sex chat’ slaves and hunted like dogs through the jungle… the treacherous reality of escaping from North Korea 

Sold as ‘sex chat’ slaves and hunted like dogs through the jungle… the treacherous reality of escaping from North Korea 

AS military dogs howl behind them, a family-of-five stumble wearily in the pitch black through thick jungle undergrowth.

They know that failure risks imprisonment, torture, being sold into sex slavery or, at worst, even death.

BBCThe Roh family trek through the jungle in a daring escape from North Korea[/caption]

A viewing platform looking into North Korea from China, divided by the Yalu River

On a desperate quest towards safety in Thailand, the Roh family are the latest in a long line of fugitives risking their very lives to escape North Korea.

Their gripping tale of survival is among those featured in the documentary Beyond Utopia: Escape from North Korea, which airs on BBC Four tonight.

Through secret footage, viewers get a rare inside view of Kim Jong-Un‘s despotic regime and the extraordinary lengths its desperate citizens will go to gain freedom.

To escape the oppressive hermit state, citizens must chart a path across the Yalu river, a snaking 800 mile-long waterway that draws a border with China to the north.

North Korea’s other neighbours are Russia and South Korea. Defectors usually seek refuge in the latter, but its boundary is reportedly lined with two million landmines, making it impossible to cross directly.

If they do make it across the Yalu river undetected – evading military posts, spies and dodgy brokers – a perilous journey traversing through South East Asia awaits.

But from an office about 50 miles south of the South Korean capital, Seoul, Seungeun Kim, from from the Caleb Mission Church, keeps in close contact with the escapees.

Since establishing his ‘underground railroad’ ministry in 2000, the pastor has helped more than 1,000 people defect from North Korea, regularly braving the deadly path himself.

Pastor Kim tells the film: “I feel emotionally exhausted just worrying about it.

“The most taxing part of the journey is us having to illegally cross through the jungle.”

ReutersA female North Korean soldier guards the banks of the Yalu River[/caption]

South Korean pastor Seunguen Kim helps North Korean defectorsInstagram

In 2011, Kim Jong-un became the supreme leader of North Korea after his dictator father Kim Jong-il died unexpectedly from a heart attack.

At just 27 years old, he would take over and rule with absolute power, making the country one of the most oppressive places on Earth.

Cut off from the rest of the world, it has since suffered famines, a spiralling economic crisis and crippling international sanctions – leaving its 25million residents in despair.

Pastor Kim claimed these factors have led to Kim Jong-un becoming totally ruthless.

He said: “When Kim Jong-un came into power, he made defecting a traitorous act.

“After that, his soldiers began receiving awards and vacation time for killing people trying to escape.”

Daring escape

Defectors usually make the crossing into China during the dark of night to keep out of sight of the military guards that patrol the border.

Once there, they are accompanied by “brokers” who guide them to freedom – some of whom were equipped with cameras supplied by pastor Kim for the film.

However, Kim claims that in recent years some brokers have also proved untrustworthy, with their motivations easily skewed by higher rewards from the regime.

He said: “If the Chinese government is alerted of defectors by the North Korean Security Police, rewards that equal about six months’ wages are offered for their capture.

“So if brokers see this as a one-off, it’s much more lucrative to report on us.

In North Korea, they will go so far as to kill him. Eventually, my son will beg them to end his life

Defector Soyeon Lee on her captured son

“Brokers don’t care about the defectors, they see them as money.

“But everyone in our network knows if they report on us even once.”

The decision to leave their homeland is fraught with danger – severe punishment or even execution awaits if they are caught, while family members who remain behind may also face retribution.

Even escape comes at a price, with young females often sold into video sex-chatting in China or prostitution.

And in recent years, the number of defectors entering South Korea has dropped sharply.

Around a decade ago, nearly 3,000 arrived each year. During the pandemic, when North Korea closed its borders, that figure dropped to less than 100.

‘Hebegged the soldiers to end his life’

IMBDDefectors must make treacherous treks through the jungle[/caption]

ReutersThe chances of fleeing North Korea are slim[/caption]

Most of the film’s stories began in the months just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world, making them some of the last known attempts to escape North Korea.

One of the most harrowing involves defector Soyeon Lee, who is desperate to reunite with the son she was forced to leave behind.

A decade earlier she has told her boy, who was at that point a young child, that she was crossing the border to sell black market goods in China, but had in fact taken the opportunity to defect, with the hope of later bringing him across.

She tells the documentary: “It has been ten years since I’ve seen my son.

“I was in the army in North Korea and when I left, I was sent to a coal mine.”

Horrified at the perilous conditions set out by the regime, she decided to leave her family to search for a better life.

However, she was later caught crossing the Yalu River by North Korean police and sent to a prison camp for two years.

Eventually she defected again, this time successfully, and was now encouraging her son to join.

We didn’t know another life existed besides the one we had. We were captured in a huge, virtual prison

Author Hyeonseo Lee

In conjunction with brokers and the pastor, Lee attempted to send her son across the river so he could enjoy a new life in South Korea.

But during his escape, things went terribly wrong when the brokers turned him in to authorities.

After weeks of searching for information, Lee learns her son has been tortured, interrogated and sent to a political prison camp, where he now remains.

She hears he was severely beaten to the point where he was unable to breathe properly or digest food.

Heartbroken Lee added: “In North Korea, they will go so far as to kill him.

“Eventually, my son will beg them to end his life.”

Family’s triumph

Footage showing the Roh family making their trek through the jungleBBC

North Korea’s borders can be extremely dangerous to cross – this fence divides the Korean Demilitarised Zone

Also aided by the pastor, the Rohs are the last family to be followed in the film.

They embark on a treacherous journey through Asia – first crossing into Shenyang, then to Qingdao, through the Vietnamese jungle, then on to Vientiane, Laos, and finally into Thailand.

However, their road to freedom is fraught with danger. In tense scenes, the family are so drained they can hardly walk as they push through dense jungle while military dogs bark in the background, trying to hunt them down.

Finally making it to safety, their mother recalled: “I thought a lot about our neighbours on that mountain, I wondered about the path to survival when the price is abandoning our hometowns.

“I miss our friends and our dog.

“We wouldn’t have lived if it wasn’t for the pastor.”

After arriving in Thailand and proving their identity as North Koreans, the Roh family was sent to a resettlement facility in South Korea where they were taught about the world outside North Korea.

This is a process all defectors go through before receiving housing and other benefits as they enter South Korean society.

Brainwashed citizens

APNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been in power since 2011[/caption]

North Korean citizens are ruled by fear and have no contact with the outside world

AlamyA propaganda poster depicting the Kim dynasty[/caption]

More than 20 years ago, Hyeonseo Lee defected from North Korea.

She has since gone on to author the New York Times Bestseller The Girl With Seven Names, a memoir of her time living in the hermit state and her subsequent escape.

In the documentary, she reveals she is still haunted by her years of being brainwashed by the oppressive regime.

The writer, who now lives in South Korea, said: “I had grown up thinking I was living in Utopia.

“I eventually found out that everyone around me was brainwashed and the heroes I worshipped were actually monstrous villains.”

According to the film, North Korea only has one newspaper, one TV channel and one radio station.

There is also no cell service that allows contact with the outside world, and attempting to do so is highly illegal.

Through such rules, the Kim dynasty has been able to brainwash its citizens and warp their views with hateful propaganda towards the West.

We didn’t know another life existed besides the one we had. We were captured in a huge, virtual prison

Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee added: “People live in a constant state of fear with public executions.

“Government officials come to houses with white gloves checking that pictures of the Supreme Leader past and present have no dust on them – and they are severely punished otherwise.”

Hyeonseo Lee, now an activist and a human rights campaigner, said she was baffled by the propaganda North Koreans are fed.

She added: “We are literally told that Kim’s dad is God, and Kim is son of God.

“We were taught at school that during the colonial period, Kim Il-Sung fought against Japanese enemies by crossing the rainbows from this mountain to another mountain.

“And during the Korean War, he made rice from sand.

“He also made bombs from pine cones and even crossed the Yalu River standing on tree leaves.

“We didn’t know another life existed besides the one we had.

“We were captured in a huge, virtual prison.”

‘I just kept walking’

Now enjoying freedom as she lives in South Korea, Hyeonseo Lee can vividly remember the day she decided to leave.

She added: “I left in the middle of night and crossed the river, it was covered in snow because of the freezing conditions.

“When I was crossing the border I was staring at the sky and my legs were trembling.

“I didn’t even know God existed.

“But somehow I just prayed, I don’t know to who, but I said ‘please, just help me’.

“And I just kept walking.”

Beyond Utopia: Escape from North Korea airs on BBC Four tonight at 10pm or can be streamed on BBC iPlayer.

AlamyThe state closely monitors its citizens[/caption]

North Korean soldiers patrol the fence on the Chinese border

Kim Il-sung, left, and Kim Jong-il, right

AFPIf defectors are caught escaping, they face severe punishment or even execution[/caption]

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