For decades, little was known about what happened within the borders of the Hermit Kingdom. Now, in the twenty-first century, we have the accounts of numerous former DPRK citizens who escaped and more insight into the inner workings of North Korea than ever before.
These escape narratives explore a wide range of North Korean experiences–from life among the elite to life as a gulag inmate, by people who lived in border towns and those who had little awareness of the world outside the DPRK.
1. In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers
Yeonmi Park fled North Korea on foot in the dead of night after a botched appendectomy when she was just thirteen years old. Her trials did not end there. In China, she fell into the hands of human traffickers and was sold into slavery. Her long and arduous journey to freedom in South Korea is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
2. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
Shin Dong-hyuk is the only known person to be born and raised in a North Korean concentration camp and escape. Dong-hyuk’s perspective is unique. Since he was expected to live and die within the camp walls, the government never bothered to educate or indoctrinate him. He didn’t know the world outside North Korea even existed–until a fellow prisoner told him and sparked a desire for freedom. This is by far the most incredible North Korean escape story I have ever read.
3. The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee with David John
When the Great Famine of the 1990s hit, Lee realized she needed to get out of North Korea. She lived in a border town and had some exposure to the outside world, so when she was seventeen years old, she made her move. After living in China for twelve years she planned a second escape–this time for the family she left behind.
4. Dear Leader by Jang Jin-sung
This story comes from one of North Korea’s former elite. Jin-sung lived a privileged existence as North Korea’s State Poet Laureate until a forbidden magazine he lent to a friend went missing. Forced to flee for his life, Jin-sung escaped and went from writing poetry for the DPRK regime to singing the praises of freedom.
5. The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Chol-hwan Kang & Pierre Regoulot
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is the first published story of someone who escaped from North Korea after being incarcerated in one of its infamous gulags. Kang was imprisoned for ten years.10 Harrowing North Korean Escape NarrativesClick To Tweet
6. A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim with Sébastien Falletti
Kim fled North Korea at the age of eleven with her mother and sister. Their long journey to freedom took nine years and involved many terrible detours, including falling into the hands of Chinese traffickers, being homeless, and having to cross the deserts of Mongolia on foot.
7. Under the Same Sky by Joseph Kim with Stephan Talty
When the Great Famine took the life of his father, Joseph Kim’s mother and sister escaped to China. Left alone on the streets, Kim begged and stole to stay alive until he finally decided to follow his family and cross the river into China. With the help of an underground network, Kim made it to the American consulate and began a new life in the West.
8. Stars Between the Sun and Moon by Lucia Jang & Susan McClelland
Lucia Jang grew up in North Korea under Kim Il-sung. While working in a factory as a young woman, Jang was raped, became pregnant, and was forced to marry her rapist. After finally convincing her family to let her come home, they sold her son because they did not want another mouth to feed. At that time the Great Famine struck and Jang began illegally crossing over to China to trade goods. After being caught and imprisoned twice, Jang finally decided it was time to flee for good.
9. This is Paradise! by Hyok Kang
Growing up in the Hermit Kingdom, Hyok Kang was forced to watch his family, friends, and classmates grow weak and sometimes die from starvation. And yet still, the North Korean government insisted it was “paradise” compared to the rest of the world. At the age of eighteen, Kang escaped through China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, finally arriving in South Korea.
10. Escape from North Korea by Melanie Kirkpatrick
Escape from North Korea is not about any single defector but about what is known as “the new underground railroad,” a network of people that assists North Korean nationals in their quest for freedom.
What is the best North Korean escape narrative you’ve read?