Danger and escape along the Tumen River: North Korean refugees, the struggle to survive, and the effort to tell their story

Laura Ling and Euna Lee must have quite a story. What they have recently published, in the form of an Op/ed in the LA Times, is a brief explanation of their reason for being in that part of the world, and a narrative description of how and what happened when they were detained by North Korean forces.

Assisted by a Korean Chinese guide, they were doing research and conducting interviews near the Chinese-Korean border, along the Tumen River. They state in their explanation that they are neither prepared to discuss in detail their experiences as prisoners nor looking to take any attention away from the dire situation they were there to cover in the first place.

As both of the articles I have linked to will suggest, the "underground" crossing North Korean citizens are making to escape the totalitarian state is dangerous and heart-breaking-- and means either death or a life sentence in a labor camp if they are caught and deported. Ling and Lee were near the border where this journey begins when they were arrested, interviewing refugees and the people helping them escape in an effort to highlight their stories. It is a frightening reality to imagine that for just a 90-second stint on North Korean soil, these two American citizens were apprehended and subsequently sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp. This is a government that clearly has some issues, and seriously takes action against anyone trying to escape or trying to illuminate the situation.

Screen shot 2009-10-16 at 10.21.23 PMIt is important that these refugees' stories be told. In early 2009, I read an article about the dangerous crossing in National Geographic; the article also added the story of the trouble North Korean citizens have even after a safe settlement in, most often, South Korea. After thousands of miles traveling under-the-radar through China (the Chinese-North Korean border is still a much safer bet than the most heavily-guarded border in the world: between North and South Korea) down to Laos, they trek across mountains and finally reach Thailand-- where they can apply for asylum. Months and much paperwork later they can be granted a refugee's visa and are able to move to South Korea. (I am of course giving the ideal course of a refugee's story; many times, it is neither this smooth, quick, or simple.)

A refugee who has landed safely in South Korea, or maybe even one waiting on placement back in Thailand or China, still has cultural and linguistic barriers to overcome. These people have been living in a hermit society, speaking a somewhat archaic and nowhere near modern version of the Korean spoken by South Koreans. Down to the phrases and greetings used in everyday life, it can be a struggle for North Koreans to communicate with their Southern counterparts. Oftentimes looked down upon for their accents, it can be difficult for them to find good jobs in the South Korean job markets; sometimes they are not qualified educationally. Every day is a struggle.

Screen shot 2009-10-16 at 10.03.25 PMSince April, I have been donating $9 per month to the 9 Lives Campaign, through the organization LiNK (Liberty in North Korea). LiNK uses donations to assist refugees in language training, cultural adaptation, education, and job placement while they are settling into new lives in other countries around the world. The 9 Lives campaign in particular aims to end the 9 different violent and tragic lives that befall some of these North Koreans--including sex trafficking and child labor-- when they cannot find  any other work or are tricked by people who claim they can help them. There is additional tragedy in the fact that many of these people leave their families behind, with very little chance of seeing them again.

Journalists Ling and Lee have been making headlines since March 17 when they were arrested. But the more important story has been going on much, much longer.

I urge you to listen to PRI's The World in Words podcast from February 19, 2009: "Two Koreas divided by language," which takes the listener on a journey into North Korea, from the point of view of a Korean-American young woman who is granted permission to visit with her uncle and mother. Some of their family members were suddenly enemies when the line was drawn through the peninsula in the 1950s. She is quite aware, during her stay, that their lives could just as easily have been hers; her story is stunning, and highlights the Korean split in a starkly personal way.