Underground Railroad


The Activists

The Underground Railroad

A close-up of a person’s hands holding two identification cards.

Three Koreans wearing winter parkas and carrying duffel bags stand in the street near a small, red sedan. Others from the group, also in heavy coats, open the car’s passenger-side rear and front doors, about to climb inside.

The Underground Railroad featured in SEOUL TRAIN is made up of covert multinational cells of relief workers and volunteers who have led hundreds of refugees to freedom over vast stretches of unforgiving Chinese territory.

South Koreans make up the bulk of the volunteers, others are Japanese, Western or ethnic Koreans living in the U.S. or Europe. These networks provide refugees with a place to hide from authorities, as well as money, clothing, transportation and sometimes fake identification papers. Activists also prepare refugees for their journey by showing them videotaped footage of escape routes and teaching them how to get past suspicious citizens or border guards. The network uses drug traffickers and human smugglers who have connections with Chinese border guards, paying them up to $1,000 per person to sneak North Koreans across.

Every Underground Railroad worker, even those who help refugees across the smallest distances of two to three kilometers, operates in constant danger of discovery by North Korean agents and Chinese authorities. In desperate attempts to save themselves, refugees sometimes even inform upon the very workers who risk their lives to smuggle them out of China.

The chain of secret safe houses and hidden routes of the Underground Railroad evolved in the mid-1990s, when a deadly famine caused many North Koreans to leave their homes for neighboring China in search of food. In 1997, refugees poured into China when the effects of the famine hit their peak. Today, experts estimate that there are 250,000 North Korean refugees living underground in China.

The Safe House

Refugees who make contact with members of the Underground Railroad are brought to a safe house, where they are nursed back to health (many refugees arrive in China starved or injured), clothed and questioned about their reasons for leaving North Korea.

Railroad workers, as activists call themselves, then choose small groups of refugees to attempt a highly organized journey according to conditions and gut instinct. Before leaving, refugees are instructed how to pass as South Korean tourists in China. Most carry nothing with them.

Small map: A map of East and Southeast Asia, with China in the middle and arrows from North Korea west and south

The Route

The most popular path along the Underground Railroad runs from China’s Jilin province across the Gobi Desert to Mongolia. It is a rough, four-day trip by train, car and foot. Once refugees reach the border, they must crawl under a seven-foot barbed wire fence to reach Mongolia. Activists bribe guards along the border to ensure that the defectors will be allowed to reach the South Korean embassy in the Mongolian capitol of Ulan Bator.

A “Southeast Asian route” has existed since 1997 but, until recent security crackdowns near the Mongolian border, was seldom used due to its long distance. It takes three to ten days to travel from the Chinese-North Korean border to Southeast China, and trains are one of the few modes of travel available. Activists may also hire drivers to ferry refugees from point to point.

Each moment of the journey out of China is a risk for the refugees and those who help them along the Underground Railroad. Anyone—including a refugee—could be a government agent sent to gather information for authorities who want to break down activist cells. Tension among refugees can also cause trouble. Safe houses have been raided because neighbors have overheard refugees arguing.

Meet some of the activists featured in the film >>


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