Most defectors from North Korea steal into China across the porous border between the two nations. But their journey to freedom is far from over. In China, the women risk being sold into sex rings. Chinese secret police are always set to pounce, prepared to usher the unlucky back to North Korea. So many lie low and wait. They live in safe houses, often working illegally.
They scrape by, waiting for a chance to leave China, knowing the tap on the shoulder from Chinese authorities could come at any time.
"They're afraid of being stopped by some official, asked a question in Chinese they cannot answer," says Tim Peters, the American missionary who took part in helping North Korean refuges to safety in Hanoi this past September.
"The collar could come on trains, on the street, en route between safe houses. Many North Koreans are physically shorter than Chinese. And the police can smell fear," said Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea.
No one knows for sure how many people try to escape from North Korea each year, or how many are caught in the attempt. But they do know this: The number of escape attempts is tied to a roulette wheel of economic and political factors, including widespread famine and brutal government crackdowns.