China does not classify these defectors as refugees, but as illegal immigrants, so rather than finding safe haven across the border, most of them end up in hiding, living underground in fear of being arrested by Chinese authorities. Those who are caught and repatriated back to North Korea could be sent to one of the country's notorious gulags, where they face torture or worse.
Most of these defectors are North Korean women who are preyed on by traffickers and pimps. These women escape from their country to find food; some are promised jobs in the restaurant or manufacturing industries. But they soon find out that a different, dark fate awaits them. Many end up being sold into marriages or forced into China's booming sex industry. I wanted to open people's eyes to the stories of these despairing women who are living in a horrible, bleak limbo with no protection or rights.
On our first night in Yanji, our three-person team arranged to meet up with the man we'd hired to be our guide. He was referred to us by a Seoul-based missionary, Pastor Chun Ki-Won, who has become a kind of legend in the area for helping North Korean defectors find passage to South Korea through an underground network. Our guide had worked with Chun as well as other foreign journalists in the past. He was also a kind of smuggler himself, with deep connections in North Korea. He claimed to have a clandestine operation in North Korea that loaned out Chinese cell phones to North Koreans and, for a fee, let them call relatives or friends in China or South Korea. Telephone use is strictly controlled in North Korea, and making calls outside of the country without permission is almost impossible and dangerous.
We met our guide, a Korean-Chinese man who appeared to be in his late thirties, at our hotel to discuss our plans. His reserved demeanor and deadpan expression made him a hard read. We were hoping he could introduce us to some defectors and take us to the border area where North Koreans make their way to China. He said he could make the arrangements, but emphasized the risky nature of our investigation. We knew we would have to be cautious and discrete so we didn't put any defectors at risk of deportation.
Before leaving for China, our team had decided to forgo applying for journalist visas. Normally, foreign journalists working in China are required to have a special visa and must also work with a Chinese media entity. But because of the nature of our story and the sensitivity with which the Chinese government regards the issue of North Korean defectors, we decided to enter the country as tourists. We didn't want to draw attention to the people we were interviewing, so as not to endanger them or ourselves. We would be careful to conceal the identity of defectors when we filmed them, focusing on body parts or the backs of heads rather than faces or easily identifiable features.