The North Korean software engineer was desperate.
He was sent to northeast China in 2019 to earn money for the North Korean regime. After working long hours under the constant watch of his caretakers, he found an email address on a website and sent a terrible message in 2021: “I write at the risk of losing my life”, pleaded the engineer.
A young woman who was smuggled by human traffickers from North Korea into China in 2018 contacted the owner of the same website earlier this year. She planned to defect to South Korea, but instead was held captive in a Chinese border town and forced to earn money through cybersex. “Please help us escape this house,” she wrote.
The website belonged to Reverend Chun Ki-won, a Christian pastor in Seoul who is widely known for helping North Korean refugees fleeing through China, the route almost all defectors take. He has often been condemned by Pyongyang and was once imprisoned in China for helping hundreds of North Koreans reach South Korea or the United States.
But now, the job of helping North Korean defectors in China has become “totally impossible,” Mr. Chun said.
China has imposed strict limits on border crossings and even internal travel during the pandemic. As those restrictions began to ease in recent months, Mr. Chun and other aid workers received a surge in appeals from the thousands of North Koreans stuck in the country.
However, the price of hiring a human trafficker has risen due to the increased risk of being caught by the Chinese police. Beijing’s ever-expanding surveillance state has made evading the authorities more difficult. The number of North Koreans who reached South Korea in 2019 was 1,047. Last year, that number dropped to 63.
“The decline in defections is not due to a diminished desire among North Koreans to escape their oppressive regime,” Hanna Song, a human rights worker who monitors refugees, said last month during congressional hearing in Washington. “Rather, it reflects the increasing difficulties imposed by China’s widespread surveillance measures.”
Mr. Chun shared hundreds of text messages, audio files, bank records and other documents with The New York Times to help rebuild his effort to help the software engineer and the cybersex worker, Ms. Lee. He asked The Times to withhold the engineer’s name, and the woman’s first name, as well as other details, to protect their identities.
Stuck in China
Ms. Lee and the software engineer did not know each other, but they both found their way to Mr. Chun for the same reason: to get out of China without being sent back to Kim Jong-un’s oppressive regime.
“They watch everything I do,” the software engineer said in his first email to Mr. Chun in 2021.
He arrived in China with thousands of young North Korean computer specialists who, before the coronavirus pandemic, were regularly sent abroad to earn money for Mr. Kim’s government, either through IT work or cybercrime.
North Korea keeps itself cut off from the internet and sends these highly trained specialists to do work in China, Southeast Asia and elsewhere to avoid international sanctions imposed on the country for its nuclear weapons program. The specialists usually live together in bedrooms, where they are instructed to spy on each other. Their North Korean guards look for signs of disloyalty – like watching K-dramas.
Speaking to Mr Chun via the Telegram messaging app, the software engineer compared his life to “a bird in a cage”. From morning to night, he roamed online platforms like Upwork looking for coding work to earn money for the Pyongyang regime.
Video footage he sent to Mr Chun showed him and his North Korean associates working under a surveillance camera on the wall and a slogan that read: “Let’s show our loyalty to Respected Leader Kim Jong-un with high business results!”
But the workers struggled to meet monthly earnings quotas — $4,000 to $5,000 — set by their manager. They often had to buy fake identities because international businesses are prohibited from hiring North Koreans under the sanctions.
When he first arrived in China, the software engineer had no plans to flee to South Korea. But last year, he sent Mr Chun a video of his bruised face and said he had been beaten for insubordination. “I want to live a free man, even for one day, even if I die trying,” he wrote.
Human rights groups have criticized China for the slavery-like conditions of many North Koreans in the country, but their calls for a crackdown are largely unheeded. When Beijing catches North Koreans trying to flee to the South, it often treats them as illegal migrants, not refugees, and sends them back to the North to face punishment.
China uses its surveillance technology to catch people fleeing or foreigners staying in the country without authorization.
Ms. Lee arrived in China five years ago, and her plan was always to defect to South Korea.
She said the broker who smuggled her out of North Korea and into China told her that if she worked for a boss for three months, she would be sent to the South. Instead, the broker sold her to a North Korean woman who was married to a Chinese police officer in Baishan, a city near the border.
Women like Ms Lee are often sold to men in rural China who are unable to find wives, or to pimps and human traffickers who force them to work in illegal cybersex rings. The woman in Baishan kept Ms. Lee in an apartment and forced her to perform sexual acts in front of a webcam for male customers.
In January, Ms Lee contacted Mr Chun, saying she and two other North Korean women were about to be sold to another trafficker and needed urgent help.
Arriving at the Safe House
Helping North Korean refugees requires hiring human traffickers, or “brokers,” who can be trusted, said Lee Hark-joon, a filmmaker who has directed two documentaries about North Korean refugees.
But “the broker’s priority is often money, not the refugee,” he said, citing cases where brokers abandoned North Korean refugees after collecting their fees or held them hostage to extort more money in exchange for not alerting the authorities.
The problem has only become more rampant since the pandemic. The cost of moving a North Korean defector through China has risen to tens of thousands of dollars from thousands of dollars before the pandemic, according to rights activists.
In January, Mr. Chun managed to pull together resources to finance the operation for the software engineer and Ms. Lee and her two roommates. He hired a broker in Thailand who teamed up with brokers in China. The plan was to transport the North Koreans to a safe house in Qingdao, a port city on China’s east coast.
After they all met at the safe house, the next step was for them all to be smuggled through China to Laos and then to Thailand, where North Koreans can apply for asylum in South Korea, a common route for many refugees. They would travel across China by car, as ID cards, which became more ubiquitous during the pandemic, made public transportation unfeasible.
Mr. Chun divided the road to Qingdao into several stages for both the software engineer and the three women. At each stage, the brokers would switch cars to prevent any attempt to track them using facial recognition or other surveillance technology.
Mr. Chun asked the software engineer and Ms. Lee to send headshots and descriptions of the clothes they will wear when they slip out of the apartments they were trapped in.
He asked the brokers to send photos and license plate numbers of the cars they would use to pick up the North Koreans. He exchanged the details with everyone and put the plan into action.
“Everything is clear. I’m leaving now. I’m putting my clothes on now,” the software engineer wrote to Mr. Chun, shortly before he fled.
Tracked and Captured
Mr. Chun’s operation began to unravel when the traffickers took the software engineer not directly to Qingdao, but to a house in the city of Jilin in northeastern China, making another unplanned stop along the way.
After leading the software engineer into the house, the brokers approached Mr. Chun to ask for more money to buy him food, new clothes and shoes.
The next morning, the brokers were leaving the house to take the three women to Baishan when they were stopped by the police in Jilin. The police also arrested the software engineer.
The software engineer was reported missing by his North Korean handler, and the car the brokers used to pick him up was identified on a surveillance camera during the unscheduled stop, according to what relatives of the brokers, who are now in prison, he said.
Mr. Chun rushed to find different brokers to pick up the three women before it was too late.
“The brokers will be waiting for you at midnight at the appointed place. It’s a purple car,” he texted Ms. Lee. He told her to hold an umbrella in her right hand so the brokers could identify her.
In early February, the new brokers took the three North Korean women to the Qingdao safe house. But a few days after arriving, her captive’s husband, the Chinese police officer in Baishan, broke down the door and stormed into the house with thugs, Mr. Chun said, saying the women called him amid the commotion.
One of the brokers must have made a deal with the husband to exchange the three women for a cash reward, Mr. Chun said. “There is no other explanation,” he said.
The software engineer is now in a Chinese prison awaiting repatriation to North Korea, Mr. Chun said. In the North, those who tried to flee to the South face prison camps or worse.
Mrs. Lee’s whereabouts remain unknown.
“I have been helping North Koreans for 23 years,” Mr. Chun said. “I have never felt so sad and helpless.”