What It’s Like To Defect From North Korea

In a photo taken on August 2, 2017 South Korean soldiers stand guard before North Korea's Panmon Hall and the military demarcation line separating North and South Korea, at Panmunjom, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

In a photo taken on August 2, 2017 South Korean soldiers stand guard before North Korea's Panmon Hall and the military demarcation line separating North and South Korea, at Panmunjom, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

August 1, 2019

This week, under cover of night, an active-duty North Korean soldier defected by crossing the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into South Korea, according to the country’s Yonhap News Agency.

The soldier used the Imjin River to cross the heavily defended DMZ.

“A South Korean soldier on guard duty first found an unidentified object floating in the river via thermal observation devices, which was later confirmed as a person,” Yonhap News quoted an unnamed South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer as saying.

Direct defections across the DMZ to South Korea are comparatively rare, with the most recent one taking place late last year. But defecting itself is nothing new. More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled the tightly-controlled country since the late 1990s, and it’s been estimated that as many as one in a hundred North Koreans is a political prisoner, many of whom were caught trying to defect.

In the 2014 documentary, Secret State of North Korea, FRONTLINE shined a spotlight on some defectors’ stories — finding that North Koreans are not just risking their lives to get out of the country, but also to crack the regime’s information barrier by smuggling information about the outside world back in.

In the below excerpt from Secret State of North Korea, meet Jeong Kwang-Il, a former prison camp inmate who escaped to the South and went on to smuggle foreign films and TV shows into the North on thumb drives and DVDs.

He told FRONTLINE his biggest hit so far was the James Bond movie Skyfall, adding, “Even officials have one or two USBs.”

You’ll also meet “Lee,” who fled when he was 18. At the time FRONTLINE spoke with him, he was still hiding his identity for fear that North Korean agents would discover him.

“I was very scared,” he told FRONTLINE about making his escape, “but I thought it’s better to die than live like an insect.”

Watch Secret State of North Korea online, on demand or on the PBS Video App for more stories of defectors who are working to chisel away at Kim Jong-un’s authority — including one young woman, Chanyang, who went on to appear on a weekly South Korean TV show featuring North Korean defectors that became a hot commodity across the border.

“My friends back home watch it, and all the children of the party officials in North Korea watch it and say they will defect,” she told FRONTLINE.

This story has been updated.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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