A destroyed bridge between North Korea and China across the Yalu River. The river is frozen during most of the winter, providing a firm passage for defectors. Many river crossings are far narrower. Photo: Tim Franco

SEOUL – North Korean defectors may be the most invisible displaced persons on earth.

Why so? Firstly, their estimated numbers are low – likely a drop in the bucket compared with those in war-torn areas of the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia – and are largely unknown given that they are not massed in refugee camps but hide out in secrecy in China.

A tiny number make it all the way to South Korea. Just 33,752 have defected since the Korean War ended in 1953, according to official data from Seoul.

Their paths are virtually undocumented by global media. This opacity is inevitable given the secrecy that is essential for the “underground railway” – the secret routes and networks of people smugglers that convey defectors from North Korea to South Korea. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not terribly difficult to exit North Korea. While the country’s southern border with South Korea, the Demilitarized Zone, is almost airtight, its northern border with China has, until 2020, been permeable. 

The process of crossing is often as simple as bribing a border guard and wading through a few meters of river into China. The more challenging aspect of the odyssey – which takes weeks, months and for some defectors, even years – is to get from China to South Korea.  

It is this voyage, and the voyagers who take it, that a new book, Unperson (Magenta, March 2021) explores.

Its author is Tim Franco, 38, a Seoul-based French photographer and photojournalist who was notified on Saturday that his work on the book has won a prize at the Belfast Photography Festival.

After relocating from China to South Korea, Franco interviewed and photographed defectors, then traced and photographed their routes from North Korea, though China, into Mongolia or Southeast Asia and eventually to South Korea.

“I lived 60 kilomters from the border and realized, bar the nuclear and Kim news, I knew next to nothing about that country so I wanted to inform myself,” he told Asia Times. “I realized defectors are the best people to talk to to understand North Korea. They lived there and here, and have a comparative view.”

Over the three years the work took, Franco reached a paradoxical realization. “If you want to escape from Pyongyang to Seoul, the more you want to reach that point, the further you have to go,” he said.

Workers finishing their shift in a chemical factory of Hamhung. Photo: Tim Franco

Multiple motivations

Franco’s sources had defected over three decades, with the latest coming south in 2017. Not all were poor and not all were escaping famine or poverty. “Everyone has different reasons,” Franco said.

Take Kim Cheol Woong. An elite pianist, he had the rare opportunity for a North Korean to study abroad – in Moscow. “He was meant to play at the national orchestra, but he started liking foreign composers,” Franco recalled.

In love with an upper-class girl, Kim sought to impress her by playing a Richard Clayderman piece, but North Korean society is a spiders’ web of informers, who report to the State Security Bureau, or SSB. Kim’s choice of composer was snitched on, and he was forced to write a self criticism.

“He realized he would never play music the way he wanted to and that is why he left,” Franco said.

Han Song, another defector, had seen smuggled DVDs from the South. “Even very affluent people in Pyongyang, when they see the lifestyle in Seoul, they wonder if it is real,” Franco said. Han’s motivation was to reach Seoul and lead the kind of celebrity life she saw in the dramas.

French photographer Tim Franco has not only taken portraits of North Korean defectors, he has photographed their routes to South Korea. Photo: Tim Franco

Ahn Myeong Chol was a cog in the state’s vast machinery of repression, spending a decade in uniform as a guard in a labor camp. There, he “treated people like they were not human, and thought of them as traitors,” Franco said. 

But one day, his father, drunk, started bad-mouthing the party. The informants did their work, and agents started arresting Ahn’s family members – forcing a staggering volte-face.

“He started realizing that his family would be in a similar kind of prison,” Franco said – which sparked his escape.

Others had simpler reasons. Kim Pil Joo lived near the China border, where his mother smuggled products from China on a regular basis. He remembers one day his mother coming home with a big bag of candy, Franco said, “so he thought China was a big candy factory”, and escaped with his mother in the late 2000s.

Poverty also prompted Park Myong Ho’s escape. He was a soldier, but even the military did not have enough to feed him, forcing him to take a side job as a hard-hat, undersea fisherman. “If he was caught selling fish, he would be in trouble, and he realized the whole system was not sustainable for his family.” 

Going for broke

Park’s defection was the most unusual Franco heard of.

“He had heard most defectors were captured in China and sent back, and did not want that risk,” Franco said, adding he spent two years planning his escape. “He cut wood, built his own boat and took his whole family to South Korea by sea down the west coast.”

Lacking any navigation gear, they sailed out to sea to evade patrols before finally landing on an island. Park was unsure if the island was North or South Korean, so asked an old resident. The resident told him it was South Korea and using his own motorboat, towed Park’s boat to the nearest harbor, where they were greeted by police.

The most recent escape Franco documented was the most daring.

Noh Cheol Min, who arrived in South Korea in 2017, was a crack army sniper on the DMZ. “He was pretty young and motivated to make it up the ranks as one of the best shooters,” Franco said.

There was little food for the troops and only the units at the truce village of Panmunjom were well equipped, Noh told Franco. Regular troops suffered from holes in their boots. Often the mess hall was empty. Even so, it was not harsh conditions, but rather corruption that compelled him to escape. 

“One day was a kind of celebration so they had a special food delivery and his commander stole the food and Noh was blamed,” Franco said. Noh suffered beatings and humiliation, and that pushed him over the edge. “He had no food and shitty clothing but when, on top of that, they took his pride away, he thought, ‘I have nothing left here.’’

A few days later, on a freezing night in winter 2017, Noh exited his post. It was so cold the windows were fogged so his comrades could not see out. He followed the tracks of an animal in the snow to avoid landmines, but after crossing a stream was near frozen. A South Korean patrol found him and asked him if he wanted to defect. He just had the strength to raise his arm in affirmation.

But Park and Noh’s actions were unusual. Most defectors face far longer journeys.

Unperson. Photo: Tim Franco

The ‘underground railway’

Having lived in China for 11 years and speaking Mandarin, Franco traveled back to the country in 2018 to photograph the China-North Korea border. There, he hired a sympathetic local taxi driver who knew how to evade security.

“I explained to the driver what I was doing, and when we came to roadblocks, he’d do a u-turn and drive up a dirt track,” he said. “Every time I took a photo, he was saying, ‘Time’s up – next location!’ He knew not to stay in one place – he was always on the lookout for me.”

In many areas, notably the narrow Tumen River in the northeast, the barrier to defection is “just a few meters and some barbed wire.”

The greater challenge is getting out of China to South Korea. There are two key routes: via Southeast Asia or Mongolia. Franco photographed many key points on these routes, and his book notes their distances from Seoul.

From Kaesong to Seoul is 50 kilometers; from Pyongyang, it is 190 kilometers; from the Yalu River, it is 360 kilometers; and from Bangkok, it is 3,700 kilometers.

An overview of Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Tim Franco

Defectors with cash are guided by “brokers” – professional people smugglers, often defectors themselves – who assist their journeys along the “underground railway.” (The term originates in the path escaped slaves took out of the American South, and likely reflects the language of Christian missionaries who assist defectors.) Others rely on their own initiative.

For all, it is a daunting journey. If caught by Chinese police they can be repatriated to North Korea and harsh punishment.

“They know North Korea and the landscapes of a very small country, they suddenly cross a river and arrive in one of the most heavily populated, urbanized countries on earth, and have to cross it with trains and buses and policing,” Franco said.

Few have any sense of the geographies they pass through. Arriving in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, they cross into Laos via illegal border crossings that are essentially jungle trails, and enter Thailand.

A key gateway is Chiangkhong, a Thai city on the Mekong. There, they are told to go to the police station, Franco, who photographed the alley that leads from the dock to the police post, said. “After trying to avoid the police [in China and Laos] this is the first place where they are told to go to a police station.”

From there, defectors are sent to downtown Bankgok’s immigration prison, where they are processed by the South Korean consulate.

Another route is via Mongolia. It is shorter, meaning less time spent in China, but requires defectors to flee across the Gobi. Crossing that arid desert is a risky business.  After arriving at the border city of Erenhot, brokers drive defectors to a point in the featureless landscape where they can cross without being seen by Chinese police. They are told to run into the distance and “find someone.”

A border crossing in the Gobi between China and Mongolia. Photo: Tim Franco

In 2019, Franco joined a tour of North Korea with German filmmakers and was able to shoot inside the country he had heard so much about, traveling to Pyongyang, Kaesong and the eastern city of Hamhung.

“I was very respectful, I knew you are not going to get into trouble if you respect the processes,” he said. Despite some frustrations, “I saw more than I expected.” In a park, he was able mingle for around 20 minutes with a wedding party; at other times, he could walk for modest distances without minders.

He was surprised by the lack of abject poverty. “In the countryside you see people with holes in their shoes resting by the side of road, but it is no worse than many Southeast Asian countries,” he said.

But defector numbers have recently dried up. The 1990s were the boom time for defections, as famine forced countless North Koreans to flee into China. Under current leader Kim Jong Un, defections have fallen off since 2012 – possibly due to improved economic circumstances, possibly due to increased border security.

Last year saw the most dramatic drop, as Pyongyang firmly closed its borders amid Covid-19, deploying elite troops to its northern frontier. According to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, defector numbers saw their sharpest decline since records began. Since 2010, over 1,000 had arrived in the South every year. In 2020, just 229 made it.

Little information is leaking out. “What was already very dark is now a black hole,” Franco said.

Coping in the ‘other Korea’

So what of those who make it south?

Kim, the pianist, is a piano teacher. Han appears on a TV program where panelists talk about North Korea, so she achieved her dream of (modest) celebrity status. Ahn, the former camp guard, is a well-known activist in Seoul, speaking against the regime. Kim, the candy lover, is a student. Noh, the former sniper, lives in a religious center and works as a waiter.

Park, the seaborne escapee, lives on the coast and runs a restaurant. He is one of the country’s last remaining hard-hat divers. When Franco first met him, he had suffered an accident and was stuck in a decompression chamber.

“His restaurant is really popular as he gets really good octopi and shellfish, and he is North Korean, so he has two attractions,” Franco said.

But there was an irony in Park’s defection, Franco related. In the North, Park’s wife was unsure that she would lead a better life down South and needed considerable convincing. “Now, she enjoys good things and good products, and he is the one who somehow misses the life in the North.”

Indeed, many defectors find it difficult to adapt in such a radically different society. Reflecting this, the first photo spread in Franco’s book is of a chemical factory in North Korea’s Hamheung, the last is of Seoul’s neon-lit playground, Gangnam.

“You would expect them to say everything in South Korea is better than in North Korea, but they all say there are good parts and bad parts,” Franco said. “They miss the collective life, where neighbors help each other, where there is no competition and no financial pressure, they are all in the same basket. A problem for one is a problem for all.”

The realization provided the author with his own learning from the project. “There are limits to our system,” Franco said. “It was interesting to speak to people who could report a completely different kind of life.”

To purchase the book, please click here.

Author and photographer Tim Franco. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times