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Escaping North Korea

A South Korean soldier looks out over the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea from a guard position near Goseong.

As many as 120,000 North Koreans are thought to be imprisoned across that country, according to a United Nations report. It compared conditions to camps run by the Nazis during World War II and gulags set up in Soviet Russia.

Tomas Van Houtryve/vii / VII

Art has been a constant thread through Song Byeok’s extraordinary life. What started as an innocent hobby took a sinister turn after a party official spotted the young man sketching. At the age of 24, he became a state propaganda artist, tasked with producing the inspirational images that are commonplace on North Korean streets.

Song believed the propaganda he painted. When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, he was shocked. “I felt like heaven and earth were crumbling down. How could North Korea survive without him?”

The famine that followed took a terrible toll on Song’s family. His mother and sister died of starvation, and his father drowned while attempting to cross the Tumen river into China. Out of desperation, Song asked border guards to help him rescue his father, but instead they put him in a prison camp.

Conditions in the camp were inhumane, Song says. “We were treated worse than house pets. The food was terrible.” But some of his fellow prisoners started telling him about the outside world, and despite the risk Song managed to escape in 2002.

In South Korea, he took up painting again, developing a playful style that satirizes the propaganda images he had once produced. In the paintings, Kim Jong Il poses like Marilyn Monroe and a North Korean soldier clutches a can of Campbell’s chicken soup. “Painting helps cure my heart,” he says.

“An artist should have his own point of view, but in North Korea he can’t,” Song says. “Everything is always portrayed beautifully, and they only propagate works about being rich and wealthy. They are brainwashed that they are happy because they are serving a ‘sun’ [the late Kim Il Sung]. But if we serve a sun, we shouldn’t feel hunger.”

Tomas Van Houtryve/vii / VII

Shin Dong-hyuk’s story is unique. He is the only North Korean known to have escaped alive after being born and brought up inside an internment camp.

Shin doesn’t know why his parents were imprisoned in the notorious Camp 14. He says they didn’t know each other until they were introduced as part of a camp system called "awarding marriage."

“Guards pick one female and one male who are good workers and those two are made to be a pair,” he explains. After Shin was born, he was separated from his parents, who were only permitted occasional visits with each other as a reward for hard work.

There was no concept of family time, he says, which perhaps helps to explain how camp guards managed to brainwash Shin and turn him against his parents. He denounced his mother for plotting to escape, and she was subsequently executed in front of a crowd that included Shin.

Shin was subjected to brutal physical torture in the camp, but it was eventually hunger that drove him to escape. Spurred on by the stories of those who, unlike him, had experienced life outside the camp, he began to fantasize about the other side of the barbed-wire fence.

“I wanted to taste the food that I’d never had in my life,” he recalls. “I decided to escape because the desire to eat was stronger than the fear of being caught and killed.”

“I thought camp life and the things I saw and experienced were the truth,” he adds. “The things I believed turned out to be a fake. They are all made out of lies.”

Shin was 23 years old when he escaped the camp in 2005. He now lives in South Korea’s liberal, democratic society, but says it makes him equally distrustful. “Everyone is fooling others and is being fooled by them all the time.”

Tomas Van Houtryve/vii / VII

Park Sang Hak grew up in North Korea’s privileged inner circle as the son of a senior spy. He seemed destined for the higher echelons of the party himself, until he received a letter that would change his life.

Park’s father had become disillusioned with the regime, and in the letter he told his family to join him in China. “I was shocked,” Park says. “I always thought he was very loyal to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I spent a month agonizing over whether to go or not. At first I thought it was a trap.”

Park’s father wrote again, imploring his son to leave. There was no future in North Korea, he said, and the whole family was at risk of arrest if they did not flee. Today Park lives in South Korea, where he organizes regular protests against the North Korean government. In 2011, he was the target of an assassination attempt when a North Korean agent posing as a fellow dissident plotted to kill him with a poison-tipped pen.

Park later visited his would-be assassin in a South Korean prison. “He apologized to me,” Park says. “He said that he had no choice but to follow Kim Jong Il’s order because he had family left in the North. I knew the system, I knew that he didn’t have any options. I knew it was not personal.”

Tomas Van Houtryve/vii / VII

Pearl Kim Hua left North Korea to work in a Chinese factory. Although she plans to overstay her visa, she is determined to return to North Korea once she earns enough money. “I will take back as much as I can carry on the train,” she says. “Clothes, rice, oil, whatever I take back will allow me to make money.”

Pearl, a factory worker, says the lifestyle in China cannot compare with that in her home city of Hamhung. “Everyone in China has rice to eat, good clothes to wear and jobs. One thing I couldn’t believe was that they have electricity all day and gas stoves in the kitchens here, whereas we only have a hole in the floor and must cook our rice with wood. In Hamhung, we have electricity for three hours a night, one or two days a week at most.”

Pearl, like many others, believes the official line that this hardship is part of an effort to prepare the country for an imminent foreign attack. "Our people have very difficult lives, and only the business people can flourish,” she says. “Most people want the war to start, so that those who will live can live, and those who will die will die. We want the war to start now so we can get on with our lives.”

-- Pearl’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Tomas Van Houtryve/vii / VII

A truck crosses the Yalu river on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge from Sinuiju, North Korea to Dandong, China. The bridge is one of the few places along the border where vehicles can cross.

The United Nations has warned China that it may be "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity" with its policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans who flee across its borders.

-- Tomas van Houtryve's project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Tomas Van Houtryve/vii / VII