[North Korean Underground Railroad activist] Nam has never before risked meeting a foreign reporter while on a mission. It had taken months of negotiation to arrange this moment. First came a vetting by two anonymous Christian activists of Korean origin. We met in a bustling terminal at Bangkok airport. Weeks of silence followed. Then the trip was on again, off again.
At last came the call to Yanji, a place out on the extremes of China in every sense. “The police are run by the ‘black societies’ and everything can be bought,” confided a former policeman in the city. North Korean agents operate with impunity, says the ex-policeman, funding their work by drug dealing. They have kidnapped and assassinated opponents.
Nam was also dodging a highly sophisticated surveillance operation by the Chinese security services. They want to break the Manchurian connection — that crucial link between the nightmare world of North Korea and the neon lights of Seoul, where people can eat their fill and a myriad church spires pierce the skyline.
If the refugees can make it out of Manchuria, there is a well-trodden path by rail, bus and even on foot across China to reach its distant borders.
If they fail, a terrible fate awaits them. Once caught by the Chinese, they are deported straight into the hands of the North Korean secret police. Beatings and abuse are the minimum punishments; over the next few days I was to hear accounts of far worse — the murder of newborn babies, summary executions and prolonged deaths by torture.
[Excerpt of an article by Michael Sheridan, Sunday Times]