These incredibly brave North Koreans risked everything for freedom and a chance to live life anew.
1. Park Yeonmi
Park Yeonmi escaped from North Korea on foot as a young teenager and has since spoken out about the horrors she faced in her home country.
In 2002, her father was arrested for illegal trading and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
During his time in prison, he was beaten and tortured, deprived of water and food. After three years, Park Yeonmi’s father managed to bribe his way out of jail but, by then, had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Park Yeonmi and her mother attempted to escape the country in 2007 after her 16-year-old sister Park Eunmi fled across the border with a friend without telling them. The two decided to retrieve Park Eunmi then attempt a second escape as a trio. Park Yeonmi’s father stayed behind to minimize risks.
When they reached the Chinese province of Jilin, they tried to find Park Eunmi but instead of helping them, one of the local people smugglers threatened to turn them in to the Chinese authorities unless he could have sex with Park Yeonmi. Park Yeonmi’s mother sacrificed herself, allowing the man to rape her, in order to save her daughter.
Park Yeonmi recalled the horrific incident during a speech. This speech went viral and launched her story into the public eye.
Park Yeonmi’s father eventually joined them on their search in China, but died soon after. Park Yeonmi and her sister would not be reunited until long after she and her mother finally reached South Korea.
This is the final photograph taken of her gravely ill father before his death.
On their journey, the two women faced horrible circumstances and neverending trials.
When they finally found an opportunity to reach South Korea via Mongolia, they took it. This crossing was the final deciding factor between life and death.
They were caught in the Gobi desert by Mongolian border guards who told them they would be sent back to China. To escape this fate, Park Yeonmi and her mother threatened to commit suicide unless the guards let them stay in Mongolia. Their actions proved effective and, several weeks later, they were handed over to South Korean officials.
Park Yeonmi has now become a globetrotting activist intent on raising awareness about the horrors North Koreans still face.
2. Kim Hyuk
Kim Hyuk became a street child at age 7. Surviving into adulthood as a beggar and illicit cross-border trader, he escaped North Korea for good after spending 20 months in a “re-education camp”.
To escape, Kim Hyuk crossing the Tumen River and began a perilous 353-day journey through China to Mongolia. He took very few supplies with him.
This included a safety pin, which could be used to escape from handcuffs or could be swallowed to commit suicide. If he had been repatriated to North Korea, he said he would have tried to kill himself.
When he arrived safely in South Korea, Kim Hyuk was interrogated by intelligence officials and spent time at Hanawon, a government resettlement facility. Afterward, he started a new life in his new country, but he doesn’t know what became of his brother and father who were left behind.
3. Song Byeok
Song Byeok‘s entire family perished during the 1990s North Korean famine. To avoid starvation, Song Byeok and his father attempted to flee the country to find food.
His father is believed to have drowned when they tried to swim across a river to China. Song Byeok was arrested for the escape attempt and was sent to a prison camp.
Song Byeok once worked as a state propaganda artist but now he uses his artistic talent to subvert North Korea’s power through satirical images of North Korean patriots and its leaders.
He wishes to undermine North Korea’s totalitarian authority and bring awareness to the struggles North Korean citizens face.
4. Jo Jin Hye
Although Jo Jin Hye managed to escape into China with her mother and sister, all three were caught on many occasions.
They were deported to face a torturous repatriation process before escaping again for good. Her five-year-old son, whom she had left in the care of neighbours, starved as a result of the neighbors’ neglect.
Instead of fleeing from China to South Korea, she went to the United States. Now she is one of the US’s leading activists for human rights in North Korea.
North Koreans call her around the clock, begging for contacts, advice, and funds. Some even call her in the midst of their escapes.
5. Hyeonseo Lee
Although Hyeonseo Lee was not born into a poor family, she, like many others, suffered immensely during the great famine. She fled alone to China in 1997, but not before witnessing horrendous sights.
Her book, The Girl with Seven Names, details the incredible strife she overcame on her road to freedom.
She spent ten years in China living under various aliases before finally escaping to South Korea.
6. Shin Dong-hyuk
Shin Dong-hyuk is the only North Korean prisoner to have escaped from a “total control” grade internment camp, where he experienced unimaginable torture. He knew nothing of life outside of the camp and was even taught to turn on his own family.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean labour camp and spent 23 years in captivity before his escape. He managed to flee after climbing through an electric fence.
Blaine Harden‘s book Escape from Camp 14, relates Shin Dong-hyuk’s story.
7. Park Sang Hak
As the son of a top spy, Park Sang Hak grew up in the privileged governmental circle. He fled from North Korea with his family after his father became disillusioned with the regime began to fear for his family’s lives.
During the journey, Park Sang Hak bribed a border guard to defect across the Yalu river to China with his mother, brother, and sister.
Years after he arrived in South Korea, Park Sang Hak learned what had happened to his loved ones who had remained in North Korea. His fiancée had been beaten beyond recognition, his uncles were beaten to death, and his wealthy cousins had been reduced to begging on the streets.
Park Sang Hak became a human rights activist through the group Fighters for a Free North Korea. The group launches balloons carrying human rights and pro-democracy literature, DVDs, transistor radios, and USB flash drives into North Korea.
In this photo, Park Sang-hak prepares to float a package of propaganda leaflets across the border between South and North Korea.