The Challenge of Escaping North Korea’s Closed Borders

North Korea, officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is one of the most isolated and secretive countries in the world. For three generations, the Kim family has ruled, demanding absolute loyalty from its citizens. Many people feel trapped and try to escape, but there are reasons why they can’t. Here’s why:

North Korea Dictator Kim Jong Un.
North Korea Dictator Kim Jong Un. Getty images

Also Read: How Many of These Weird North Korean Rules Did You Know About?

Total Government Control

The North Korean government maintains complete control over its citizens. It oversees every aspect of life, including the economy, and keeps a close watch on people through an extensive surveillance and informer network. Despite widespread shortages of food, fuel, and other essential supplies, the government prioritizes funding its nuclear and missile programs.

Media Control

North Korea’s media is probably the most tightly controlled in the world. North Koreans receive all their news, entertainment, and information from state-run sources that constantly praise the leadership. According to Reporters Without Borders, citizens risk imprisonment for accessing content from international media outlets.

Restricted Freedom of Movement

One of the most striking aspects of life in North Korea is the severe restriction on freedom of movement. The government tightly controls who can leave the country, driven by a fear that citizens might flee to neighboring countries and seek asylum. Those caught trying to escape face severe punishment, even death.

Leaving North Korea is incredibly difficult; those who attempt it often pay brokers to smuggle them into China. Once in China, their situation is still precarious, as being caught by Chinese authorities means being sent back to North Korea. Some choose to stay in China despite the risks, while others cross the border back and forth to smuggle goods into North Korea to sell.

Successful Escapes from North Korea

Despite these severe restrictions, some North Koreans still risk their lives in search of a better life. According to available data, more than 26,000 people have successfully escaped North Korea since the Korean War (1950–1953). Most of these defectors fled through China rather than directly crossing the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea.

Here is the list of a few who managed to escape to South Korea.

Punishments for Attempted Escapes

North Koreans who dare to speak out against their leader or challenge the established rules face severe consequences, often enduring brutal punishment, including death. Reports indicate that hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned or sent to labor camps for opposing the government.

Those forcibly returned by China also face grave risks, including the possibility of facing a death sentence. According to accounts from former North Korean security officials and individuals returned after 2011, those repatriated endure interrogation, torture, sexual violence, degrading treatment, and forced labor.


The reasons behind North Koreans being prohibited from leaving their country are intricate and varied, stemming from the political structure, economic circumstances, and the government’s aim to retain authority over its populace. Nevertheless, despite these stringent constraints, there are North Koreans who bravely undertake perilous journeys in pursuit of a brighter future elsewhere. Their accounts offer insights into the harsh truths of life within North Korea and the pervasive human rights violations occurring within its boundaries.

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