SEOUL, South Korea — In the heart of Asia, there is a rabbit with a gash through its gut.
The rabbit is the peninsula of the two Koreas, North and South, which since the 1950s have been uncomfortable bedfellows on this blob of land that many say looks like a bunny. And the gash, of course, is the Korean Demilitarized Zone, 250 kilometers long and four kilometers wide, which despite its name is patrolled by more than 1 million soldiers and has the distinction of being the most militarized border in the world.
Here, along this fenced-in ribbon of untouched nature and simmering hostilities, two nations sharing little aside from rancor and a common language routinely rattle their sabers. The DMZ, one of the world’s last Cold War relics, has been a flashpoint since the peninsula was sliced in half in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, and while the border itself remains basically unchanged, the two nations on either sides of it have grown dramatically apart.
South Korea, below the 38th parallel, is economically flush and unabashedly modern. The homeland of Samsung electronics and Hyundai cars, it has all the markers of a thriving nation-state: low unemployment, rapid growth, and a healthy democratic system currently led by a female president.
Above the 38th parallel, the picture is entirely different. North Korea, one of the most reclusive, baffling and antagonistic nations in the modern world, is a totalitarian republic, a vacuum of a country devoid of human rights or basic freedoms and ruled by a deified leader and his cult of personality. With a massive military but serious food shortages, North Korea is a nation marked by starvation and paranoia, where every aspect of society, from schools to sporting events to basic speech and practice, is overseen by the autocratic supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un.
The total number of North Koreans who are believed to have escaped in the past two decades sits between 15,000 and 25,000, most of them getting only as far as China, with more trying each year. Last year, it is estimated that 2,000 North Koreans made it to South Korea for good, and several hundred made it on to other countries including the United States.
To get there, they were aided by a vast network of smugglers and handlers, many of them Christian missionaries. But because there is no getting across the DMZ, the road to freedom begins at the border with China, and continues on to Laos, Thailand and back to South Korea. It thus snakes, thanks to the most elaborate underground railroad this world has seen since the American Civil War, across a massive chunk of Southeast Asia.
“We feel we are barely scratching the surface,” says Tim Peters, the director of Helping Hands Korea, one of the best-known mission groups bringing refugees out of the Hermit Kingdom and, ultimately, into Seoul. Peters, a Michigan native in his 60s, is a retired evangelical pastor who now lives here. His organization has several focuses, he says, but its primary and most pressing goal is saving the generation of kids for whom life begins on the underground railroad and are all too often left without anyone or any nation to answer for them.
The vast majority of North Korean refugees — some 70 percent — are women. They escape by slipping across their country’s border with China via the massive Tumen River, either by wading through in the summer or gingerly tiptoeing across its frozen surface in winter. Most of these women are headed into marriages with Chinese men, a practice that has become common thanks to China’s tipped gender ratio. Through a shadow network of brokers and less than savory handlers working on both sides of the Chinese-North Korean border, they are bartered off to partners in the so-called “Bachelor Villages” of China’s borderlands, where the number of males has always skewed high and the population is getting desperate.
These women are easy fodder for everything from deceit to abuse to sex traffickers. “It’s supply and demand,” says Peters. “And for so many of these women, it spans the spectrum from mail-order brides who agree to live with a Chinese man and raise his children so they will have food and a roof over their heads, to women who are just utterly deceived and told they will work as a housemaid, and once they arrive money changes hands and they realize they have been duped.”
All of the escapees, be they male or female, are taking an enormous risk by trying to sneak across the Chinese border. China, which maintains friendly relations with North Korea, has an iron-fist policy against North Koreans found to be in the country illegally. To be caught means, at best, a one-way ticket straight back to a North Korean prison, and possible death. Their families and loved ones also face jail or worse. The stakes are sky-high. Women who are caught while they are pregnant are often also subjected to forced abortions on their return, thanks to North Korean’s radical xenophobia and policies on racial purity.
Peters works from Seoul with partners stationed along the railroad, helping to bring these women and their children out, as well as manage foster care programs along the border and food and aid distribution inside North Korea. It is all shadow work, done with the knowledge that both the North Korean and the Chinese governments consider it utterly illegal.
“Everything we do has to be done under the radar,” he says. “We wish [the Chinese government] would [help], it’s definitely a social problem they should take ownership of, but the social safety net in China has gaping holes.”
From China, North Koreans seeking freedom in Seoul are smuggled next into Laos, escorted by a guide or activist, on foot, over the mountains to where Laos and Burma merge with China.
Once across that border, they make their way to Thailand, where despite not being officially recognized as refugees, they can expect the government to turn a blind eye and not hand them back to Kim Jong-Un. Aid groups in Thailand can then fly them on to South Korea.
“We’re basically a mom-and-pop organization, but we have key partnerships with people on the ground in China,” Peters says of Helping Hands. “We’re all volunteers. We’re like an electrician or a plumber – we’re just there to connect the pipes and wires, and raise the funds.”
There are a number of Christian missionary groups working with North Korean refugees, buoyed by financial and emotional support of their church communities.
Others are motivated by more nondenominational sense of justice. For the workers at the US-based organization Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, North Korea represents one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. For their director of field operations, an American-born young woman who goes by the pseudonym Annie, it was a matter of seeing an issue and knowing she could help.
“I used to work with human trafficking survivors in the US, and I met someone who had worked along the China-North Korea border, with children and North Korean women,” she says. “The fact that someone could be stateless really angered me, and I just became really committed to working with North Koreans to bring them to freedom. Enough wasn’t being done.”
Annie now lives in Seoul, and works both from South Korea and in the field along the underground with various partners. Like Peters, she says that the vast majority of escapees – about 70 percent – are female. One in five is a child.
A great deal of LiNK’s work occurs once the refugees have safely made it to South Korea, where they face massive hurdles of social and political adjustment. Along the way, Peters says, there are so many international organizations – think United Nations High Commission for Refugees and their peer groups – that could offer help, but because of the landmine of politics that surrounds such a multi-national issue, they turn a blind eye.
“The big organizations don’t touch this population,” Peters says. “They have the resources and they have the staff and the training to deal with such a major crisis, but they’re not going to go there, and that’s a great tragedy.”
For South Koreans, there is also a noticeable lack of outrage at the situation unfolding just across the border. But Peters likens South Koreans to Israelis, who are perfectly aware that they live under an extraordinary threat, but simply cannot dwell on it on a daily basis.
“Living in Israel, you would certainly understand,” he says. “When this threat stretches on for decades, people, for their own emotional health, can’t keep it at the forefront of their minds … they look at it, like, ‘That’s our lunatic cousin Kim Jong-Un up there, he’s banging on the walls and making crazy statements, and hopefully he’ll calm down because his father always did.’”