Last Night’s TV – Dispatches: China/North Korea, The Great Escape

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In this sixth edition of Unreported World, reporter Oliver Steeds and director Sam Farmar quite literally took their lives – and at least their liberty – in their hands as they began their journey to report on the thousands of North Korean’s who risk everything to escape the harsh regime of their home country to get to – ideally – South Korea but most often, China where they’re forced to live in a shadowy underworld in constant fear of being sent back to North Korea.

We heard that if escapees are caught crossing the border, the North Korean guards have a shoot to kill policy which they readily instigate. And even for those who make it across, if repatriated, they face detention and prison camps which few come out of. The inmates are tortured and often starved to death, but for those who do escape, the scars, mental and physical remain and run deep…


Oliver and Sam began the journey on the frozen Tumen River which marks the border between China and North Korea and is the primary crossing point for North Korean escapees. There, he and Sam met two young North Korean men who’d recently escaped. Like all the other North Koreans Oliver and Sam met, the men asked for their identity not to be revealed, fearing arrest and repatriation, and it’s a very real fear for in China, anyone reporting a North Korean who’s in the country illegally gets a “bounty” of £20 per head.

For some, the prospect of being sent back to their hellish former lives is too much and they would rather – and do – commit suicide. Also, escaped North Korean women are easy targets for sex traffickers and are forced to work in the KTV’s of China which are basically brothels thinly veiled as karaoke bars. Filming undercover and posing as tourists, Oliver met the manager of one such bar in Shenyang who explained that North Korean prostitutes are sold at a premium; they’re highly sought after by rich Chinese men and South Korean tourists and to stop them fleeing, the pimps pay them in “small installments” to force them to keep working.

Others are sold into marriage by “brokers” to Chinese husbands. Oliver interviewed one couple where the man, seemingly without embarrassment, explained of his North Korean wife, “That’s all I could afford… this is the only woman I could get.” He’d paid £200 for her and clearly viewed her as a commodity.

She however accepted his words with totally equanimity and responded only to say that she was “one of the lucky ones” because her husband doesn’t beat and abuse her, as she’s seen happen to many other women in her situation.

But despite these seemingly horrendous alternatives to living in their birthplace, all consider it worth putting up with such shadowy, seedy and underworld lives rather than live in one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. They know the consequences of being caught escaping North Korea and several of those interviewed last night had made several previous attempts to escape only to have been caught and returned where they were imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed or left in a camp to die of starvation.

The escapees ideally want to reach South Korea where they are welcomed and can claim housing benefit and other financial support, but it’s a 3,000 mile trip and only 5% ever make it to the South. The team met with a very nervous ‘broker’ who helps people along this journey. He explained that many carry crushed chilli peppers to “throw in the eyes of guards” as well as a knife, not for protection, but to kill themselves if they are arrested.

Moving on, the team met secretly with a North Korean woman near Yanji who’s experienced the horror of the detention centres where more than 8,000 others were processed in the first six months of 2008. She told Oliver that male guards strip-searched her before shackling her and transporting her back to North Korea with her husband and 18-month-old baby. Once back in North Korea, her husband was brutally tortured and subsequently died. Her child died of malnutrition soon after so with little left to live for, she fled back to China, risking her life once more.

Oliver and Sam also visited a small village near the border, where they met a young boy whose North Korean mother had been repatriated six years before. However, that little boy was lucky enough to live with a Chinese guardian who’d spent his life savings on buying his ‘adopted’ son registration papers. It came at a terrible price though because the man’s own daughter developed cancer and because she didn’t have registration papers, she couldn’t get medical care and she died.

The Chinese Government sends all North Korean “economic migrants” back across the border, even though they know these people face torture and hard labour camps which is in breach of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which China is a signatory.

Before leaving the country, the team spoke to a 71-year-old woman who’s fled North Korea and been sent back to harsh labour camps no less than three times. Her son and daughter had also been caught and sent back and she feared they were both dead but she had no idea what had become of them.

As always with Unreported World, this was true journalism where the bravery of those who strive to reveal the truth of the desperate plight of some of the world’s most oppressed people doesn’t sanitise what we see and hear. Oliver Steeds and Sam Farmar could well have been shot at the border or imprisoned if they’d been caught filming and/or associating with those who’d escaped. Here’s what Oliver Steeds had to say about the film and the risks he and Farmar took…

“As a ‘new boy’ on Unreported World, this was the first time I’ve been asked to make a report with people who were all risking their lives. They knew, and we knew, what would happen if we were caught filming or if our presence alerted the Chinese authorities or bounty hunters to their safe houses.

Is it worth taking those risks? I suppose that is the question that many journalists ask at some point. Can a report like this ever make the difference to people’s lives? I don’t know. I hope so.

Few know the true horror of what is going on inside North Korea. But nobody we met, however terrible their situation in China, wanted to go back there. When the day arrives that the country opens up, there will surely be an outpouring of countless stories of abject misery and unbridled cruelty.”

The film – albeit short – was shocking, fascinating and depressing but informative and if, like me, you feel behooved to try to do something – however small that something may be – about it, you can visit this site on Channel 4’s website to find out more about organisations such as Amnesty International and BASPIA who “work for the realisation of human rights-based social development in Northeast Asia.”

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Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.