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The exodus of North Korean defectors into China began in late 90s, after a severe famine that destroyed at least one million of its 23 million people. Once they crossed the border to China, they would be hiding and waiting to embark on an extremely secretive, dangerous escape route known as “Asia’s Underground Railroad”, from Northern China to Laos, crossing the Mekong River to Thailand, and finally to South Korea.
The unpredictable journey can take weeks, months or even years. Chinese police routinely hunt for North Koreans attempting to escape cross-country. If they are caught while escaping in China and Laos, they will be repatriated to North Korea, facing severe labor camps up to five years. Conspiring with missionaries or others to reach South Korea is considered treason, with offenders starved, tortured, and sometimes publicly executed.
Magnum photographer Chien-Chi Chang who can not speak Korean managed to communicate with the defectors solely via eye contact and travelled with them to document the darkest journey from border town Tumen, China, over mountain ranges of Laos, into Thailand, and eventually their resettlement in Seoul between 2007 and 2009. To date, he has continued to document the plight of North Korean defectors.
This work won the photo-essay Canadian AnthropoGraphia Award for Human Rights in 2011.