Escape From North Korea

Chien-Chi Chang documents the plight of North Korean defectors escaping to China

Chien-Chi Chang

Chien-Chi Chang In the border city of Yanji, a missionary cautiously looks for North Koreans needing help on their long journey to freedom. Yanji, China. 2007. © Chien-Chi Chang | Magnum Photos
Chien-Chi Chang Cross-shaped posts carrying telephone wires edge a bunker on the Tumen River. Soldiers here are ordered to shoot anyone trying to sneak in or out of North Korea. North Korea. 2007. © Chien-Chi Chang | Magnum Photos
Chien-Chi Chang This North Korea defector stole across the frozen Tumen at night. In China, he hid in a church shelter, fearing arrest and deportation. Yang, China. 2007. © Chien-Chi Chang | Magnum Photos
Chien-Chi Chang Under all-seeing eyes on a billboard in a Beijing rail station, Chinese police hunt for North Koreans attempting to escape cross-country by train. Police crackdowns can net hundreds of victims. Bei (...)
Chien-Chi Chang Lacking legal documents, This North Korean defector eluded official questioning during his harrowing 40-hour rail journey (Beijing-Kunming) by pretending to be asleep or intoxicated. China. 2007. © Chien-Chi Chang | Magnum Photos
Chien-Chi Chang North Korean Defectors braced themselves against carsickness as their guide drove them along back roads, dodging police checkpoints near the Laos border. Women currently account for 80 percent of N (...)
Chien-Chi Chang Too exhausted to celebrate their exit from China, escapees rested briefly after 16 hours of hiking over mountains and through jungle. Still vulnerable to arrest in Laos, the defectors changed into (...)
Chien-Chi Chang Darkness settles over the Mekong River, providing cover for North Koreans who slip over in boats from Laos to Thailand. Thailand. 2008. © Chien-Chi Chang | Magnum Photos
Chien-Chi Chang After an anxious crossing (of the Mekong River), two female defectors huddled in the back of a vehicle that met them on the Thai shore. A day later both women reached Bangkok, where they requested (...)
Chien-Chi Chang A busload of illegal workers from Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) enters an immigrant detention center. They'll join hundreds of North Koreans who have turned themselves in, hoping to be sent on to So (...)
Chien-Chi Chang Days after reaching South Korea, A North Koran defector (center) had surgery for thyroid cancer. Outside her hospital room, overcome with gratitude, she prays with refugee Hana Kim, and Chun Ki-won (...)
Chien-Chi Chang The North Korean defector who escaped from China, traveled through Laos and reached Thailand for political asylum, is finally accepted by South Korean government and ready to start a new life in hi (...)

The exodus of North Korean defectors into China began in late 1990s after a severe famine that destroyed at least one million of its 23 million people. Once they cross the border to China, they’ll be in hiding and waiting to embark on an extremely secretive, dangerous escape route, known as Asia’s Underground Railroad from northern China all the way to Laos, crossing Mekong River, to Thailand and finally to South Korea.

The unpredictable journey can take weeks, months or even years. Chinese police routinely hunt for North Koreans attempting to escape cross-country. Police crackdowns can net hundreds of victims. If they are caught while escaping in China and Laos, they will be repatriated to North Korea, facing severe labor camps or capital punishment. Magnum photographer Chien-Chi Chang traveled with the defectors to document the darkest journey from 2007 to 2009. To date, he has continued to document the plight of North Korean defectors.

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