"Life in South Korea was a new life for me. It was abundant. It had freedom and equality of life had advanced so much better. But there were other aspects. There are differences. North Korea and South Korea are different. So I was stressed."
Kang Cheol-hwan and his family spent a decade toiling in a North Korean prison camp before they were released. He entered the camp when he was just 10 years old. After listening to foreign radio broadcasts, which is considered a crime in North Korea, Kang decided he would leave the country rather than be thrown back into the same labor camp.
He reached China, being chased by North Korean and Chinese border police. But he found people in China who helped him. "I cannot say it is a network. I met people when I came to China. I met South Koreans, I met Korean Chinese. And because China is so large, when I hide in farm areas, they cannot find me," he said.
Kim Kwang-jin was a banker who was able to take a more direct path from North Korea when he defected in 2003. He is a visiting fellow with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea based in Washington. Kim says for most defectors like Kang, life outside North Korea will also be tough initially and it will take years to find real safety. "It is really difficult. They should stay in China. They should hide there for several years. And then even after that, they should travel to Southeast Asia countries or to Mongolia before they arrive to Seoul. It usually takes them several years to settle down in a safe place," he said.
Over 18,000 defectors now live in South Korea, and despite the best efforts of the North Korean and Chinese police, they keep coming at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a year. Katy Oh, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says some find it easier to slip out of North Korea unnoticed and find employment in China while they plot the next move of their escape. "The most amazing thing is that most of the defectors are now women. About 65 to 70 percent are North Korean women," she said.
She says several factors are leading to more female defectors. "Basically male is the household leader. So if a male member disappears, such as defecting to China or never returning from China, it can be registered as a troublesome household. But if a woman disappears, it simply can be called a missing woman or missing family member, and often the punishment is lighter. That is the most important factor," she sai
Kang Cheol-hwan eventually made his way from China to South Korea. "Life in South Korea was a new life for me. It was abundant. It had freedom and equality of life had advanced so much better. But there were other aspects. There are differences. North Korea and South Korea are different. So I was stressed. First, I could not understand how South Koreans get stress because South Koreans eat well and they have such good life. But now I know the idea of competition, and I am also a part of a company. So I know how competitive it is. But still freedom and democracy is so much better," he said.
Both Kang Cheol-hwan and Kim Kwang-jin feel North and South Korea will be reunified, perhaps in as little as a few years. Part three of this four-part report will share their thoughts of bringing the Koreas back together.