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Hello, I'm Katja Adler. From the BBC World Service, this is The Global Story. Monday to Friday, we focus on one story in detail with the help of the BBC's best journalists. Today, a dramatic escape from North Korea. We put the.


Children to sleep with sleeping pills and hid them in grain sacks. I was almost paralyzed by fear. I knew my entire family could be executed if I made one mistake. Boats and.


Bombshell revelations about life inside the reclusive hermit kingdom.


When there were cases of COVID, everyone would be locked up and the entire area sealed off.


We reveal the story of the first family to have fled North Korea this year and made it safely to the South. With me today, June McKenzie. She is the BBC soul correspondent and a long-time colleague of mine. Hi, Jean.


Hi, Katia.


And congratulations, because you did get this very first interview with the defector to have escaped the country this year.


Yeah. I mean, it's just become so hard for North Koreans to leave the country since the pandemic. Because at the start of the pandemic, North Korea sealed the borders. So just so few people have been able to leave. So this family that we've spoken to are the first to have made it out this year and made it to safety here in Seoul.


Just give us an idea, Jean, of the numbers.


Before the pandemic, around about 1,000 defectors were making it here to Seoul every year from North Korea. We think that meant really every year, 1,000 people were managing to get out of the country. But what we have seen since the pandemic is basically dry up to an absolute trickle. We don't have any way of knowing how many people have actually managed to get out. That's because most of them go over the border into China, and it can take them many years to even get here in Seoul. So we just don't have a handle on the numbers. But speaking to people who help North Koreans escape, particularly across this North Korea-China border, they're telling us that they know of maybe 20 people in the last four years who've made it across. Then we know of a couple of people who've managed to come by boat. This one family that we've been talking to and one other. We're really looking at a couple of dozen, maybe more, in four years. That's down from a thousand a year. So the drop is huge.


So knowing that North Korea had shut down, what did you set out to do and why exactly? What were you looking for?


So since these borders closed and all the eyes and the ears and the ground disappeared, it's just become virtually impossible to know what's happening in the country. But we have been getting reports of extreme hardship. So reports of food shortages, of people struggling to make a living, of the government becoming increasingly repressive. Then we heard about this family who had left North Korea in May and had managed to get here to Seoul, a man called Mr. Kim, and he'd come with his younger brother and their mother and their wives and some of their kids and in-laws. We just thought suddenly there was this family here in Seoul who could actually tell us what had been happening and what life was like in North Korea. That's why we just knew we absolutely had to try and interview them.


So, June, tell me a bit about Mr. Kim. Who is he? Why did he do what he did? And just a note for our listeners, you will hear clips of Jean's interview with Mr. Kim. It's not his voice, though. He's asked for it to be disguised. So what you'll be hearing is the voice of one of our producers. So Mr.


Kim was a laborer back in North Korea, and he escaped in May on a boat, which is, as I said, very unusual because most people come across the border with China, but they were living right in the southwest of the country, so actually very close to South Korea, which gave them this alternative escape route. So they all came together in this big group. He had actually been disillusioned with the North Korean system for very many years. He had been wanting to leave. He had been playing this escape over and over in his head. But it wasn't until the pandemic and these border closures that he said life became really difficult for people.


When there were cases of COVID, everyone would be locked up and the entire area sealed off. The people inside had little or nothing to eat. After they had starved for a while, the government would bring in truckloads of supplies to sell, so people would praise them. It's like starving your baby, then giving it a small amount so it would thank you. People started asking whether this was the state's plan to profit from the pandemic.


Particularly members of his family were finding it really tough. He thought that now was the time that he could try and convince them to go through with this almost, on the face of it, crazy escape.


What do we know through talking to him, Jean, about what it was like, though, after the extra restrictions were imposed with COVID, how the wider population experienced or suffered that?


He did talk about over the four years that the borders had been closed, a point at which things really started to deteriorate further. He says that in April 2022, so the spring of last year, was when he noticed things get a lot worse, particularly the food situation. He said that before then, they didn't really used to hear of people starving to death. But after then, they began to get these reports. He says he would wake up one morning and hear that maybe somebody in the village next over had died and then they'd wake up the next morning and hear another report. And then actually, in the spring of this year, he knew two people, two farmers, he said, who starved to death.


There's been a lot of suffering, a lot of damage. Lots of people are going hungry. I knew two farmers who died from starvation. The farmers had the hardest time if the harvest was bad. The state pressured them to make up for it, so they would always be running out of food.


But to put this into context, the big event we always think about when we talk about food shortages in North Korea is the famine of the 1990s when so many people died. The numbers we're talking about at the moment are very, very small comparatively. The experts that I am talking to who work in NGOs here are saying that what this is showing is that actually, after three years, four years of border closures, it appears that most North Koreans have found ways to survive.


Mr. Kim wants to leave, but the borders are locked down. Before we go step by step through this incredible journey that he makes, Jean, that you've uncovered there, what were the practical challenges that he was facing there when he was thinking, I've got to get my family out now?


Well, because he wanted to escape for so many years, he had thought about doing himself. But what that would have required was for him to go all the way up to the north of the country and try to cross the border into China. And that is just so difficult for people living as far south in North Korea as they were. And he just knew there was no chance of him being able to get his family up there. Then when the pandemic restrictions came in, they really limited people's movements, so they really couldn't leave their areas without permission. So that's why they then started to think, well, maybe we will escape by sea. So his brother was actually a fisherman, but hadn't been able to go out to sea to fish recently because the government had to impose these extra restrictions on people. But working with his brother, he decided, well, they knew about this military base in their area where civilians could go out and fish to earn money for the military. So their plan was that they would get the brother a job in this military base, and then that would get them access to the sea, and then hopefully with that access, they would be able to escape.




Nothing if not resourceful. So describe the night of the escape, because, as I say, when I got into the details of your report, Jean, it sounds almost like a movie.


See, the night itself sounds so dramatic when Mr. Kimra counts it. They had to get this shipping boat that they had and they moored it along the Coast, along a really remote area that was dotted with mines because they thought that this area would have fewer guards and so therefore they'd have less chance of getting caught. But what that meant was that they all had to cross this minefield to get onto the boat. They had these two young children at home, so they had to drug the children with sleeping tablets to knock them out. Then they had to carry them through this minefield, which they were just inching through, trying to avoid the security guard's flashlight. When they got to the boat, they then had to put the children into old grain sacks. So these sleeping children, they put in these sacks of grain, they wrapped them up. They were trying to disguise them to look like bags of tools, and they hid them under the deck of the boat. And then with that, they set sail for South Korea.


The boat was very loud, but all I could hear was my heartbeat. I knew my entire family could be executed if I made one mistake.


But what's incredible about this story is actually the level of preparation that they put into this before the night itself. So they had been planning this meticulously, the two brothers, for seven months. And as part of the preparations, one thing they did was Mr. Kim was always outof the moment that he wanted to take his whole family with him. That's why he didn't leave years earlier. So once he'd convinced all his family to come with him, he still had one member of his family that he had to bring, and that was his father, who had died about 10 years earlier. And him and his brother actually went to his father's grave and dug up the body and took him into the wilderness and burnt him so that they could then pack the ashes and take the ashes with them on the boat. As they made their way floating amongst these boulders, so they were they were armed. They were really prepared. So they were armed with swords. The women were carrying poison in case something happened to the men. And they were all carrying one egg, which had been hollowed out, and they'd filled it with chili powder.


And so the idea was that if they got caught by guards, they would be able to throw these eggs into the faces of the guards to blind them with the chili powder, and then they'd be able to attack them with the swords.


It's just... It is mind boggling. And to add to the tension and the worry on Mr. Kim's shoulder, his wife was pregnant, I believe. And of course, he held his elderly mother with him as well.


Yeah, his wife was pregnant, and they'd only found out a couple of weeks before. Actually, he managed to use that to his advantage because his mom and his wife didn't want to come. As I said, this was his grand plan that he dreamed of for years, but convincing his family was almost his hardest task. Him and his brother essentially bullied his mom into submission to get her to come with them because she's old and I think she was fairly happy in North Korea and didn't want to make this journey. But his wife also was opposed to it. And so it wasn't until she found out that she was pregnant that he then was able to say to her, Look, it's not just about you anymore, it's about our unborn child. And do you really want to raise them here in North Korea? Or would you rather give them a life in South Korea? So a.


Newly pregnant woman, the need for low tides, but bad weather, but not too bad, crossing minefields, children in sacks. I hate to stop the story there, Jean, but I'm going to do it. But I promise we will be right back. And what I'm going to want to know from you is how did that journey go for Mr. Kim and his family, and where and how they are now? This is the global story. Our mission is to tell one big international story in detail, five days a week. Follow or subscribe wherever you listen. And do listen carefully now, Jean. We've got Mr. Kim in the boat with his pregnant wife, his drugged children, his elderly mother, his brother, worried about security boats and weather conditions and all sorts. What happens next?


So, as I said, they're going really slowly to try and avoid being detected. But there was a point at which they felt that they were safe enough and they could essentially just go as fast as they possibly could. So at that point, they start speeding towards the maritime border. They had a GPS system on the boat, so they were really closely following it. So the minute they cross that maritime border, they know, they know they've made it. Mr. Kim talks about that moment, about the relief that rushed over his body, of feeling like he was about to collapse, that they had finally made it after these years of planning in his head. But then they went to this South Korean island that's very close to the border. So it's actually much closer to North Korea than it is to mainland South Korea. But from there, they flashed their light and were able to be rescued by the South Korean Navy.


Before we find out how he's doing now, because obviously you've met him in South Korea. I just wonder if we could have a look at Mr. Kim's ability to not only survive, but somehow thrive, I believe, in North Korea, despite... I mean, conditions are always difficult in the country, but they became so much more difficult, as you said, during the COVID-19 pandemic. So what was his trick, if you like?


Yeah, I think this is a really important point to make, Katja, is that Mr. Kim is not your typical North Korean. He had saved and hustled and found ways to thrive for years before this. So he actually had a lot of money. I mean, like most North Koreans, he was making his money on the black market, but selling motorbikes and television, so really high end, expensive items that were being smuggled across the border from China. But he was very resourceful. So when the borders closed and this trade stopped, he then switched to selling food because although food was in short supply and the price had risen, it was still at least available and people needed it. And so he became what he called this grasshopper seller. So he would set up stalls in alleyways or his house and people would come, he said, begging him to sell them food.


Covid was actually a good thing for me and my wife. We made more money than ever before. People would come to me, begging me to sell food to them. I could ask for whatever price I wanted.


So as I said, this is not your typical North Korean. The fact that he was able to thrive in these really tough circumstances and he was able to mastermind his entire family's escape at a time when defecting from North Korea had become all but impossible just gives you an idea of what a remarkable character he is. And, of course, we have to make the point that he is just one person and this is one experience. And so it's very hard to draw from him what is happening across the country because his experience is so unique.


But you did have that opportunity over the summer through a very painstaking process to get into contact with a number of individuals living in different parts of North Korea. Just to give us a little window into how you got that information out.


We spent about a year trying to talk to people living in North Korea. And as I said earlier, it's just a very dangerous and difficult thing to do because if the authorities found out that people in the country were talking to us, they could be executed. We worked with an organization based here in Seoul called DailyNK, and they've got sources in North Korea. So we were able to then work with these sources on the ground who could reach out to people that they knew, who they trusted, who trusted them, and who were prepared to be interviewed by the BBC. And so what we were able to do is, through these sources, get our questions to them and to get the answers back. But we had to use covert communication channels, and it took us many, many months.


That crackdown of letting information out of North Korea, which you've described, I mean, the people you spoke to still live there, as you say, were risking their lives to do that. But there's also that crackdown on consuming outside information in the country, isn't there, Jean? Can you talk to us a little bit about the role that had in making Mr. Kim so disillusioned early on with the country that he lived in?


Yeah, South Korean TV shows and songs have long been smuggled into North Korea, really, primarily to begin with, as just entertainment. North Koreans like you and I, they want to watch good TV in the evening, they want to listen to good music, and so that's why they consume this stuff. But over the years, the North Korean government has become more and more wary of it because it essentially shows North Koreans what it's like in South Korea, and they don't want people to have this extra incentive to escape or to become disillusioned with the regime. So they've really cracked down on it. But most of this stuff is actually smuggled across the border from China on USB sticks. Where Mr. Kim's experience was different was because he was living so close to the South Korean border, they could actually tune their television into South Korean TV channels. And so his dad used to sit him down from as young as he can remember and make him sit and watch this stuff. So as a kid, he became disillusioned with North Korea that young. And what that meant was that that's why he was planning his escape for so long, because he'd realized what North Korea was like compared to South Korea.


And particularly, he became really disillusioned with the lack of freedom in North Korea because he could see on his TV how much freedom people had in South Korea.


The lack of freedom became... I mean, if you think there was little freedom before, as you've been saying since COVID-19, that those freedoms became even more restricted. What did Mr. Kim tell you, or what have you found out from your investigations as to why you think that happened?


Certainly, they sold it at the beginning as a health crackdown. North Korea has a very precarious health system, and I think the regime was very paranoid that if COVID did get into the country and was able to spread, it could kill a lot of people. But at the same time, I think it gave the authorities an excuse to do what they had wanted to do for a very long time, which was to more strictly control this flow of information, because what it meant was they could stop letting people into the country and they could make it even harder for people to leave. And part of this crackdown on top of all the the health restrictions that they brought in, which are quite similar, I guess, to some of the health restrictions we saw all across the world, was they simultaneously started cracking down on this information. So they passed a law back in the end of 2020, which said that if you watched South Korean TV shows or songs and you distributed them, you shared them with your friends, then you could be executed. This is actually something that we then hear Mr. Kim go on and talk about because he mentioned how ruthless this crackdown on South Korean content had become.


People started calling the crackdown officials mosquitoes, like vampires, sucking out our blood. They're ruthless. They'll shoot you, kill you, or send you to a labor camp. Last year, they publicly executed a 22-year-old man for listening to South Korean songs and sharing them with his friends. They said they were punishing him harshly to set the right precedent.


It takes your breath away, really, to hear that, Jean, because I'm thinking about young people here in Europe listening to their songs, the idea that you could be executed for that. It sounds almost like a horror story that you're describing there, Jean. How then does that tally with what you were telling us about Mr. Kim's mom, for example? You said she was reluctant to leave with him initially and his brother because she was quite happy to stay in North Korea. The word happy seems to jar with the picture that we're hearing there about what life is like there.


I think what I've learned from talking to North Koreans is like most refugees, North Koreans don't want to have to leave their home country. They don't want to have to leave their friends and their family and everything they know. That especially applies to the elderly, people in older generations. They've lived most of their lives here. It can feel very alienating to suddenly think, Well, I'm going to leave all this behind.


How has she, but also Mr. Kim and his wife, I don't know if she's had her new baby since then, and children. How have they adapted to life in Seoul?


So she has had her baby. Their baby is just over a month old. When they first arrived in South Korea, like all North Koreans who arrive here, they have to go through this process. First of all, they have to be debriefed by the intelligence service, and that's to check that they're not North Korean spies. Then they then go into this resettlement facility where they live for three to six months. Here they get taught all about life in South Korea because it is so different to their life back home. The family were only released from this resettlement facility back in October, so that's when we were able to go and meet them. They've been given an apartment now and they're beginning to settle in. That's just when the baby was born as well.


Boy or girl?


It's a girl. But Mr. Kim was saying that it is his mother who's found it the hardest. One of the examples that they often gave with North Koreans coming to the South is that they don't know how to use, for example, a cash machine, and that's something they have to be taught how to use. But the example that Mr. Kim gave was the subway. So he said, Well, none of us have ever ridden a subway before. And he's like, But we're all making mistakes, but his mom is struggling the most with it, and she keeps making mistakes and she's finding it very difficult to learn the system. And every time she messes up her journey, it knocks her confidence further and upsets her. And he actually said that she was regretting coming here. But it is very, very early days and it does take North Koreans often some time to settle.


It's been really eye-opening to talk to you today. Thanks for sharing your investigation with us.


Oh, thank you very much, Katia, for having me on and for being able to talk about it.


And thanks to you as well, those wearing your headphones in New York, Delhi, Nairobi, or wherever you are, thanks for listening to our podcast. This is week two of The Global Story. Some of you are beginning to get in touch with us. We love hearing from you. Actually, if you send us a voice note, it gives us the chance to play it on the program. Our number is plus 4.4, 330-123-9480. Our email address is theglobalstory@bc. Com. That's it from us for now. From me and the rest of the Global Story team, goodbye.