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I ESCAPED NORTH KOREA

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    Song Byeok, a painter who works with irony and satire, was originally an official state propaganda artist in North Korea. He lost faith in the North Korean government during the 1990's when his family starved to death during a famine that killed millions. He escaped North Korea in 2002 after being tortured by the regime, and today he lives in South Korea.
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    "Pearl," an illegal North Korean migrant worker sits in a safe house in northern China, near the North Korean border on July 4, 2011. North Koreans are always told by officials that they their suffering and hunger are part of a "war effort" to prepare the country for an imminent foreign attack. "Pearl," like many others, believes this official explanation and hopes the situation will change. While interviewed, she said, "Our people have very difficult lives, and only the business people can flourish. Most people want the war to start, so that those who will live can live and those who will die, will die."
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    "Oscar," a North Korean trader staying illegally in China sits in a safe house in northern China, near the North Korean border on July 5, 2011. "Oscar," a former official, obtained a visa to travel to China to negotiate a business deal, but overstayed the expiration date. Though he is from a privileged family, he spoke of extreme hardship inside North Korea, stating that "the children are suffering the most, because when they miss a meal, it's like they can never recover it. You can't imagine it until you've seen it."
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    "Grace," an illegal North Korean migrant sits in a safe house in northern China, near the North Korean border on July 6, 2011. Last December "Grace" traveled from her home to the North Korean border town of Musan to earn money by selling little rice-cakes. She said that at the railroad station she saw the " body of an old man with a piece of cloth placed over his face." She asked surrounding people if the man was sick and if that was the reason why he had fallen down, but the people standing around shook their heads and said "no, he was just too hungry and he died for lack of something to eat."
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    Park Sang-hak is seen in Seoul, South Korea. Park was the son of a high-level North Korean spy. Eventually his father became disillusioned with the regime and had is family flee abroad. Park was the target of an assassination attempt in 2011 when a North Korean agent plotted to kill him with a poison-tipped pen. He regularly organizes high-profile activities to protests against the North Korean government.
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    Shin Dong-hyuk is the only known North Korean escapee who was born inside an internment camp and lived to tell about it. Camp staff managed to brainwash Shin and turn him against his own family. He denounced his own mother for plotting to escape, and she was subsequently executed in public as Shin watched. He was brutally tortured in the camp, and was eventually driven to escape by hunger. Today he lives in South Korea and in 2012 he released a book written with former Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden titled "Escape from Camp 14."
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    While studying in Germany for a PhD in economics during the 1980's, Oh Kil-nam was recruited to work as economist in North Korea. Despite the hesitations of his wife, he took the offer. Upon arrival, he and his family were poorly treated by the North Korean government and the promised job never materialized. Eventually he managed to escape North Korea, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. They were imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp. Oh received messages and tape recordings his family over a five year period. Today he lives in South Korea.
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    Previously an agricultural scientist in North Korea, today Lee Min-bok is the driving forced behind balloon launches across from South Korea which carry radios, medication, pamphlets and USB drives to North Koreans. Lee has perfected a helium balloon design which carries up to 8 kg and automatically punctures once carried across the border by wind. He estimates that he and partner associations launch over 1,500 balloons per year.
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    "Park," a North Korean woman who illegally crossed the border into China sits in a safe house in northern China, near the North Korean border on July 5, 2011. Asked why she made the dangerous crossing, she said, "I lived in continuous fear in the DPRK, I was always worried that we will not have enough to eat because life is so difficult there. I want to live more comfortably, but now the situation has changed in crossing the border and I don't know if I can get back. I came out and now I have relatives in North Korea that are depending on me."
I Escaped North Korea

North Korean escapees are witnesses to the most closed and totalitarian society on earth. Most have endured extreme hunger and brutal treatment by state security forces. This series of escapee portraits was taken in South Korea and in secret safe houses in China. (The names of some escapees have been changed for their protection.)

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