A frigid November day pressed against the windows of a shabby apartment building in the Chinese city of Yanji, ten miles from the North Korean border. Three stories up, footsteps stopped outside a door. At the sound, two young women hurried to a back room and shrank against a wall. Then came a knock. The women, defectors from North Korea, bowed their heads, expecting the worst. If the Chinese police found them without identity cards, they would be deported in handcuffs and chains. Back in North Korea, they would be sentenced to years of hard labor in a prison camp.
Their former boss, the Korean-Chinese owner of an Internet sex operation, was hunting them as well. For the past year the two young women had been held in a room as virtual prisoners, forced to "talk dirty" and take off their clothes in front of a camera for online clients in South Korea. The night before, Christian missionaries had helped them escape and brought them to this safe house.
The knocking continued. A man called out, "Are you there? Open up." White recognized the voice: It came from one of their rescuers. She rushed to the door and fumbled it open. Standing there was a thin man with an awkward smile, holding up a cooker and a bag of rice. "You must be hungry." Bowing in greeting, the women led him into the kitchen. Soon the room filled with their chatter. The missionary also brought a message: "Be ready to leave soon. The call just came."
Thousands of such North Koreans are hiding in China, most in cities and villages along the remote 900-mile-long border between the two countries. Uncounted others have come for a few months and then slipped back to North Korea with food and money. Yet many stay on, unable or unwilling to return to their cruel homeland. They are left with two desperate choices: Keep hiding—often as prisoners of exploitative employers—or embark on the Asian underground railroad, a perilous journey by foot, vehicle, and train across China and Southeast Asia. Confronted with an obstacle course of checkpoints, informants, and treacherous terrain, numerous defectors have been caught. But aided by a small band of humanitarians and by smugglers charging $3,000 and up, some 15,000 have reached safe haven, most often in South Korea. There, traumatized and barely skilled, they face the most formidable challenge of all: starting over.