Daniel had been planning his escape for weeks. The 10-minute walk from his family’s home to the frozen river that formed the border with China would be simple. Then he would sneak across the ice, which he thought would be solid enough to support his weight — though he couldn’t be sure. If he pulled it off, he would make it out of North Korea.
That day, the 19 year old woke up early and slipped silently out the door without saying so much as goodbye to anyone, knowing his family would try to stop him if he told them what he was about to do. It was two days before his little brother’s 11th birthday.
Daniel, slender and about 5 feet 5 inches tall, was not a strong swimmer. Plunging into the frigid water might be a deadlier proposition than being caught by the soldiers who patrolled the area in their olive green uniforms and Russian-style ushanka hats, searching for defectors and smugglers. Those they caught were forced to pay bribes — or sent to prison camps.
The April ice held firm, however, and he hurried across, scrambling up the opposite bank and into China. His plan was to find a job that beat scrounging scrap metal or toiling in the fields, the sum of his work experience in North Korea.
“People were starving to death,” Daniel says now of his youth in North Korea. “Even when I went to school, I was working so hard in the fields I’d just sleep in class. I’d go to the fields at six, work for two hours, wash my face and go to school. I just felt like I had no future there.”
It’s impossible to verify the details of Daniel’s 2010 escape. What is certain, however, is that after making his way many of thousands of miles, illegally crossing at least one more border, applying for asylum, and battling government red tape, he successfully found a new job — as a sushi chef in the San Francisco Bay Area.
* * *
Daniel, a pseudonym he chose to protect the family he left in North Korea, tells VICE News his story while seated at the dining room table in his one-bedroom Bay Area apartment. His place is modest; a black couch is the only piece of furniture other than the table, which is neatly arranged with clean wine glasses, a white tea set with a strawberry vine pattern, a vase of faux flowers, and woven placemats that say “Bless Our Home.”
Daniel is one of 186 refugees who have settled in cities across the US since the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which established a path for people fleeing the country to gain asylum in America. The group comprises a tiny percentage of defectors worldwide. The vast majority — more than 28,000 to date — have gone to South Korea, which has a special government program to help citizens from the northern half of the divided Korean peninsula adjust to new lives.
All defectors take tremendous risks. In addition to the North Korean border patrols, defectors are often arrested and repatriated by authorities in China, which supports North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un’s regime. People who get sent back face years of hard labor, abuse, and often death in brutal camps. But beyond the shared threat of bodily harm, the handful of North Koreans who opt for America over South Korea face an additional layer of cultural, psychological, and emotional challenges.
North Koreans are scattered throughout the US in more than three dozen cities, from Los Angeles and Chicago to smaller towns in Idaho, Virginia, and Kentucky. Going from the isolated Hermit Kingdom to the land of fast food, consumer culture, and individual freedom is about as close to falling into an alternate universe as reality allows. And while those brave and lucky enough to reach America enjoy safety and freedom, life in the land of opportunity is daunting. Many defectors are essentially left to fend for themselves.
With styled hair and neatly trimmed sideburns, Daniel could easily be mistaken for a Korean-American man who has lived in the country all his life. He seems healthy and lives comfortably. He owns a car, which would be an extravagant luxury back home. Yet he can’t help but wax nostalgic about his old life. He lives alone, and it’s been more than five years since he spoke to his family.
“I miss everything,” he says in Korean. “The smell of the ground. The dirt. Everything. I didn’t really see how precious it was to be able to live with my family. I don’t have that now.”
After scrambling across the Yalu river during his escape, Daniel says he began trekking deeper into the mountains toward a Chinese town about an hour away. He had been to China once before as a teenager, when he crossed over with a family friend he called Uncle.
Though leaving the country without permission is strictly forbidden, some North Koreans in the border region cross over to cities in northeast China, where there is a large ethnic Korean population, to earn money or bring back goods to sell. Uncle showed up one day in bad shape after being released from prison, where he had spent time after he was caught attempting to cross the border.
“We fed him and shared our food with him,” Daniel recalls. “Getting a meal from somebody else, it wasn’t an easy thing back then, but because my father knew him, we treated him well.”
After about two months, Uncle was healthy enough to head back to China. Daniel talked it over with his family and decided to go along. They had been relatively prosperous for a number of years, tending fields of barley, corn, and potatoes, but his father developed rheumatism and lost the use of his left leg, limiting his ability to work. The family needed the extra cash their son could potentially earn over the border.
Things did not go according to plan. Daniel was just 15 — too young to find work — and he ended up, as he puts it, “going from place to place” for nearly three years before returning home, sneaking past the border guards again to reunite with his family.
But life in China had opened his eyes to the brainwashing he had undergone growing up in North Korea. In 2009, Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un, was still alive, and the country’s economy was in shambles. The famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the late ’90s was over, but food security was still a problem. North Koreans are taught to worship the Kim family, but Daniel had lost faith.
“When I was 12 or 13, I completely believed the Dear Leader didn’t go to the bathroom, that it was like a divine thing, that he was on a completely different level than us,” he says.
Shortly after he returned, Daniel’s parents decided to move to the city on the Chinese border — Daniel declines to name it to protect his family — to be near his maternal grandmother. His discontent with the North Korean regime grew as he continued to witness hunger and deprivation all around.
“I had tasted freedom, and my perspective got a lot bigger,” he says. “Combined together it was political stuff, the brainwashing and indoctrination in North Korea. The things about the leader saying that we have a good life, but there are people starving and homeless people. I thought, That’s not true.”
He began planning his second escape, keeping it a secret from his family.”That’s the only thing that breaks my heart,” he says, expressing regret over his decision not to say farewell. “If I would have told my parents I was going to leave, they’d say ‘Sometimes you have money, sometimes you don’t, that’s just how life is, you just have to survive. That’s what’s important — your life is important.'”
* * *
Daniel had spent time during his first trip to China at an underground Christian church, and so after his second escape, he planned to find another church that would take him in. It started to snow. He got lost and ended up wandering down a muddy road.
“It was, like, six o’clock in the morning — I was scared,” he recalls. “I stopped in front of a house. There was a dove holding a branch with its beak, and a cross too, I saw that in front of the house. I recognized it from before. It was a church. When I look back, it was kind of a divine intervention.”
He knocked, but nobody answered. After wandering for another half an hour, he circled back to the church and found a woman standing outside calling to him in Chinese. He approached hesitantly and she switched to Korean. She could tell he was a defector due to his clothes and appearance.
“I was kind of scared, so I was avoiding her, but there was nowhere for me to go,” he recalls. “It was very cold. My body was weak and I was exhausted. She told me to rest, so I just kind of let go of everything and I slept.”
Daniel had previously stayed with an elderly Chinese woman whom he came to call “Grandmother.” Her phone number still worked, and she was delighted to hear from him. She picked him up and they traveled by bus to another city in the region. She introduced Daniel to a Christian missionary, who he says was knowledgeable about helping refugees escape to South Korea and the United States.
“Some missionaries will just give you some money and tell you to go back to North Korea and spread the gospel, but that missionary didn’t do that,” Daniel says. “He asked me if I wanted to go to America or South Korea. I said, ‘America.’ I didn’t really know anything about it at the time.”
The US fought against the North during the Korean war, and North Koreans are still bombarded with propaganda that portrays Americans as almost cartoonishly evil. Daniel says the forbidden-fruit aspect was part of the appeal. He knew from his past visit to China that the US was prosperous — the opposite of what his own government had told him.
“Anything related to America has a very bad connotation, but I was very curious,” Daniel says. “I knew America was a rich country, I thought maybe I should go and experience it. North Koreans are taught not to like America, but that’s kind of why I wanted to go.”
The missionary connected Daniel with a representative of Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a Los Angeles-based NGO that works with North Korean refugees. Since it was founded in 2004, LINK has shepherded more than 400 North Koreans through China and Southeast Asia to South Korea and the United States, where defectors can claim political asylum.
Sokeel Park, LINK’s director of research and strategy, makes it clear in a phone interview from his office in Seoul that his organization does not do “extractions” — meaning they don’t arrange for people inside North Korea to make it out. Instead, LINK works with refugees like Daniel who have already fled, or gets “referrals” from defectors who have kept in contact with relatives via smuggled cellphones or other means and know an escape is coming.
With China and North Korea both seeking to arrest defectors — and potentially the people who aid in their escapes — Park says “operational security” is crucial, so the first step upon meeting refugees is vetting. After LINK feels comfortable the defector is not an agent of the North Korean regime, the organization makes arrangements to smuggle the person from China’s northeastern frontier to a third country, typically in Southeast Asia, where refugees are able to make contact with the US State Department.
“It can happen very quickly,” Park says. “They can go through the rescue route… in a matter of days.”
In years past, defectors could simply enter a US embassy or consulate in China and be guaranteed protection. Getting out of the diplomatic outpost and moving on to the next destination required approval from the Chinese government, however, and Beijing began forcing refugees to wait months or years before allowing them to continue on their way. China also cracked down by beefing up security outside the compounds to make it more difficult to get inside.
“It was obviously politically inconvenient and embarrassing for the Beijing government to have to deal with that,” Park said. “They just made a decision to shut it down and were successful with that.”
Others have gone west to Mongolia through China’s Gobi Desert, but the terrain is so treacherous that most refugees attempt to head south instead. Daniel says LINK arranged for him to take trains and buses through China — a journey of some 3,000 miles — to a country in Southeast Asia that he does not name in order to protect LINK’s staff and other defectors still using the same route.
‘I didn’t know why I was taken to a cell when I did nothing wrong. I was scared they would do something to me or send me away.’
In some instances, North Koreans have been detained and sent back home even after leaving China. In 2013, authorities in Laos repatriated nine young defectors, reportedlytelling them they were boarding a plane to South Korea that was actually headed back to China en route to Pyongyang. Earlier this year, Thai police arrested an American Christian missionary and charged the man with human trafficking after he helped seven North Koreans enter the country.
But according to Park, such cases are rare. “In general, once you make it out of China into Southeast Asia, you’re a lot more confident you’re going to make it to your final destination, whether that’s South Korea or the US,” he said.
Daniel knew that the Chinese authorities were on the lookout for defectors like him, but LINK had made arrangements. This meant Daniel was basically just along for the ride, hoping and praying that they would make it through undetected. LINK has a history of success when helping defectors escape — Park says their success rate is over 95 percent — but there are no guarantees.
“I knew there was a risk,” Daniel says with a shrug. “I got lucky.”
* * *
After successfully navigating China, refugees like Daniel begin an entirely new journey. In the best-case scenario, the months-long wait to enter the US is spent in relative comfort. For some, however, it means sitting in an immigration detention center, stuck in diplomatic and bureaucratic limbo for more than a year.
When President George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act into law in 2004, he cleared the way for North Koreans to claim political asylum in the US, but the measure didn’t add any special provisions to expedite their applications or create a system to address their highly unusual circumstances and needs. In the eyes of the US government, North Koreans simply became eligible to become refugees like people from Syria, Iraq, or Eritrea.
“There is no special program for North Koreans,” a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs told VICE News in a statement. “North Korean refugees access the USRAP (US Refugee Admissions Program) and are considered for US resettlement along with refugees of some 70 other nationalities worldwide.”
In practice, this means that North Koreans end up doing a lot of waiting around, sometimes behind bars in detention centers. Even in better circumstances, they usually aren’t allowed to leave the home, diplomatic compound, or refugee processing center where they are being housed.
Earlier this year, the George W. Bush Institute, the former president’s nonprofit policy center, released a report on the lives of North Korean refugees in the US. The survey, which coincided with a campaign to raise global awareness about human rights abuses in North Korea, included in-depth interviews with 16 defectors whose backgrounds “reflected a range of living standards in North Korea varying from relatively comfortable to the verge of starvation.”
While almost all the defectors were pleased with their decision to come to the US, they also spoke candidly about frustrating months spent in purgatory with no updates on the status of their applications.
“They took me to the cell, when I was first taken there I was so shocked,” said one 44-year-old man who fled North Korea in 2001 and arrived in the US in 2010. “I was surprised because I didn’t know why I had to stay in a place like that when I did nothing wrong. I was really scared and worried that they would do something to me or send me away.”
The report said many people encountered would-be US émigrés in China and Southeast Asia who “eventually found the waiting period too long and withdrew their applications for asylum in the United States and went, instead, to South Korea.” In one remarkable case, the report described a North Korean who was “warned in advance on his way to Thailand that the wait for admission to the United States could be months or more, [so] he took an unusual and much more arduous journey from Thailand on his own through South America and Mexico.”
Asked about the report and any efforts to improve the lot of North Koreans stuck waiting in Southeast Asia for passage to the US, the State Department issued a carefully worded statement that effectively said they could do nothing to improve matters.
“We urge all countries in the region to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories,” the statement said, citing international protocols that govern the handling of refugees. “On many occasions we have expressed our views to other government officials.”
Fortunately for Daniel, his case proceeded faster than usual. He spent five months waiting in a location his Korean translator from LINK declines to divulge, citing security reasons. He read, watched TV, and tried to study English while preparing himself for what would be a first for him.
“In North Korea, it’s impossible to get on a plane,” he says, still sounding awestruck at the thought of the experience.
After a brief layover in South Korea, Daniel’s flight touched down in Los Angeles. He was with a handful of other refugees, including two women who would become his roommates in the Bay Area. He called them his “sisters,” and they received small stipends from a civil society group contracted by the US Office of Refugee Settlement. LINK provided additional support, and they all quickly found jobs.
“One thing I regret is not studying English first and getting a job right away,” he says. “But I had no choice other than to get a job.”
Daniel found work in the most American of places: a shopping mall, where he worked in a restaurant bakery from 6am until noon, then served as a busboy at another food court eatery from 12:30pm to 5pm. He managed to eke out a living, but he longed for more. He eventually got laid off from the bakery and quit his other job. He says he then spent a month depressed in bed.
“I wanted to make a lot of money,” he says. “I wanted to buy stuff other people had. I was very ambitious. I was greedy.”
* * *
Joseph Kim can sympathize with Daniel’s struggle to adjust. The 25-year-old was among the first group of North Korean refugees to arrive in the United States in 2006, and he was placed with a foster family in Richmond, Virginia, where he enrolled in a local high school.
“They had no idea about North Korea,” he recalls. “It was a really poor community and neighborhood. Teachers didn’t really care whether we did homework or not. The students made me say the F-word, of course I didn’t know what that means. I’m like ‘Okay,’ and I say it and they start laughing.”
Kim’s background is bleak even by North Korean standards. His father died during the famine, and his mother sent his younger sister to China, he suspects to be sold as a bride or servant. He ended up homeless, one of the young children known in North Korea as Kotjebi, or wandering swallows, who roam train stations and public marketplaces in rags begging for food. He became a pickpocket and thief and spent time in a detention center before nearly starving to death on the streets.
Hunger is no longer a concern — he recounts this story at a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan’s Koreatown neighborhood over a massive lunch of Korean barbecue, kimchi, and banchan side dishes. He looks older than his years; like Daniel, he is short and wiry with a carefully coiffed tangle of black hair.
Kim fled to China at 15 in search of his sister, and was eventually taken in by an elderly Chinese woman who, he says, treated him like her own grandson. Their underground Christian church connected him with LINK, who offered to take him to America. At first he didn’t want to go; his pastor had to convince him by explaining the concept of freedom.
“I knew what freedom meant, the word in the dictionary, but it didn’t catch my attention until he elaborated what that means,” Kim says, recalling a time when he was seldom allowed outside for fear of being snatched up by Chinese authorities. “It means you can go outside any time you want to go. That was really eye-opening. All I wanted to do was go outside and explore. That’s what really changed my mind.”
Kim wrote a memoir, Under the Same Sky, about his escape and ongoing efforts to reconnect with his sister, and in it he describes how his US foster family kept a lock on their pantry because they had a tight budget for food. After being on the brink of starvation in North Korea, he found himself going hungry in the United States. He was eventually relocated to a new household, and says he holds no ill will against the people who first took him in.
“I don’t want to criticize them,” he says. “I never shared my hunger, or I never asked for more food, mainly because I didn’t know I had the right to ask.”
While groups such as LINK offer additional support and resources for a limited number of North Korean refugees, the majority receive limited assistance. Defectors interviewed by the Bush Institute all reported “sincere gratitude” for the opportunity they had been granted, but they also “expressed frustration over the fact they were ill-prepared to handle this on their own.”
‘The US government doesn’t really recognize high school education from North Korea, and not many people defect with a high school diploma anyway. They have to start from the bottom.’
North Korean defectors have a high prevalence of anxiety disorders and PTSD, and asurvey of 140 female defectors in South Korea found that more than a quarter had been victims of sexual abuse or assault while in North Korea or during their escape; 45 said they had considered or attempted suicide. Some experience lingering health effects from malnutrition, and the Bush Institute report cited instances of North Korean immigrants having difficulty obtaining proper medical care in the US.
“In North Korea, we have free healthcare,” a 44-year-old woman who left in 2006 and arrived in the US in 2008 said. “There aren’t too many drugs or services available, but we are treated for free. I got lucky and received surgery for free in North Korea. These health-related costs in the US are always beyond my comprehension.”
Since 1999, South Korea has had a special support center where North Korean defectors undergo three months of reorientation, learning how to accomplish basic tasks like shopping for groceries in a supermarket or withdrawing money from an ATM, a device that doesn’t exist in the North. They also undergo job skills training and take classes to unlearn the warped history lessons taught by the North, then receive government financial support for up to five years.
The US resettlement manager for LINK and the translator during one interview with Daniel, described North Korean refugees as “resilient” and “very driven,” and said most find jobs in America soon after arriving. “They’re equipped to find ways to be self-sufficient,” the LINK translator said. “Finding a job is not really an issue; going to mainstream society is the bigger challenge.”
Like other non-English speaking refugees, the language barrier is a significant hurdle for North Koreans, and some end up self-isolating within Korean-American communities. Younger refugees like Kim have the advantage of being able to enroll in school and receive English lessons and an American education, but that’s not typically the case for adults.
“The US government doesn’t really recognize high school education from North Korea, and not many people defect with a high school diploma in their hand anyway,” the LINK translator said. “They have to start from the bottom.”
Kim is one of the success stories. He eventually transferred to a better high school in Virginia, became a top student, and moved to Brooklyn, where he enrolled in a community college. “I heard from someone if you can survive in New York City you can survive anywhere,” he says. “I was like, ‘Well, I want to go there.'”
He enrolled this fall at Bard College in upstate New York, where he plans to study political science. He says the US should educate more North Korean defectors about their options, while also offering improved education once they arrive by offering support to NGOs like LINK, which specialize in making the transition smooth.
“The US doesn’t have to actually create a program, but they can be generous to support organizations that already do support them,” Kim says. “I am convinced that they can do more.”
* * *
After several hours of conversation with Daniel, the topic turned to American perception of North Korea. He had never heard of the movie The Interview, a comedy that stars James Franco and Seth Rogan as American journalists who plan to kill Kim Jong-un. He watched a trailer on his iPhone for about 90 seconds before turning it off and shaking his head.
“Not funny,” he said in English.
Through a translator, he said he could see why some people would find humor in “the Leader” as he called the third-generation Kim. But for him, it wasn’t a joke.
Outlandish tales emerge from North Korea so regularly — like the one about Kim executing an “incompetent” turtle farmer — that human rights violations and food shortages are sometimes trivialized. And the fact is, it’s getting harder to escape from North Korea. From 2007 to 2011, about 2,600 people fled each year to the South. The following two years, after Kim Jong-un assumed power following his father’s death, border security tightened and defections fell by 44 percent. A 2014 survey found that less than half of Americans have heard of North Korea’s prison camps.
Despite the grim situation, a handful of defectors have attempted to go back over the years. In one case in South Korea, the government has refused to allow a 45-year-old woman to return to her husband, daughter, and ailing parents in the North. Beyond family considerations, North Koreans sometimes face alienation in South Korea.
“It’s this whole legacy,” says Park, the LINK staffer based in Seoul. “There’s general uneasiness and curiosity, and at times over-curiousity. If you’re a North Korean refugee, that’s not just one of your labels, it defines you and defines all the interactions you have.”
The depression that kept Daniel in bed for a month eventually lifted, and he found work in the kitchen at the Korean-owned sushi restaurant where he now works as a chef. He clearly takes pride in his craft, describing how the rice has to be “perfect” and the fish must be cut to just the right thickness, but it’s also clear his life is missing something. When asked what he does for fun, he says, “Clean the house.” He’s also taken up golfing. “It’s like a hobby, I don’t really love it, but I’m trying to like it,” he says. “There’s nothing else to do on my off days.”
He has a few Korean friends — one has left behind a guitar with a broken string in his living room — but he hasn’t kept in touch with his former roommates, the two women he lived with upon arriving in the Bay Area. The conversation keeps coming back to food — the plants for which his family would forage when making soup, or a dish of seasoned tofu with marinated rice that he can’t seem to replicate here.
While Daniel has managed to keep in contact with his Chinese “Grandmother,” he has not been able to communicate with his family. Some defectors send money home via elaborate smuggling networks — an estimated $15 million goes back to North Koreans each year from family members in South Korea and the US — and he described feeling guilty for even his relatively humble lifestyle.
“Financial stability, I used to think that was the most important thing, but not any more,” he says. “Relationships, I think that’s the most important thing in your life.”
Asked if he would tell his parents and siblings to attempt an escape, he says he would ask his younger sister and brother to consider it, but that his parents are likely too old. He still gets homesick, but he plans to apply for US citizenship next year and hopes to eventually open his own restaurant.
“It’s not a grand dream or anything, but I’ve realized it doesn’t matter where you work, whether it’s a restaurant or whatever, it’s what kind of mindset you have,” he says. “That’s the most important.”
The only decoration on the walls of Daniel’s home is a framed picture of Tuscany he bought at a local market. It shows a solitary Italian villa atop a hill surrounded by verdant farmland. He says years down the road, if North Korea opens up and it’s safe to return, he would like to build a nice house and go back to farming, perhaps tending a flock of sheep. But for now, he’s committed to his new life in America.
“I had to become self-sufficient, and I did it,” he says. “Sometimes I do feel miserable, but when I look back, I survived. I made it.”