In China, a few fortunate North Korean refugees discover Asia’s own Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and hidden routes set up to lead refugees to freedom in South Korea.
The Underground Railroad ... is made up of covert multinational cells of relief workers and volunteers who have led hundreds of refugees to freedom over vast stretches of unforgiving Chinese territory.
South Koreans make up the bulk of the volunteers, others are Japanese, Western or ethnic Koreans living in the U.S. or Europe. These networks provide refugees with a place to hide from authorities, as well as money, clothing, transportation and sometimes fake identification papers. Activists also prepare refugees for their journey by showing them videotaped footage of escape routes and teaching them how to get past suspicious citizens or border guards. The network uses drug traffickers and human smugglers who have connections with Chinese border guards, paying them up to $1,000 per person to sneak North Koreans across.
Every Underground Railroad worker, even those who help refugees across the smallest distances of two to three kilometers, operates in constant danger of discovery by North Korean agents and Chinese authorities. In desperate attempts to save themselves, refugees sometimes even inform upon the very workers who risk their lives to smuggle them out of China.
The chain of secret safe houses and hidden routes of the Underground Railroad evolved in the mid-1990s, when a deadly famine caused many North Koreans to leave their homes for neighboring China in search of food. In 1997, refugees poured into China when the effects of the famine hit their peak. Today, experts estimate that there are 250,000 North Korean refugees living underground in China.