The story of a recent North Korean refugee casts light on the harsh life of citizens in one of the most closed countries.

Kyeong-Mi Rhee's phone avatar identifies her, improbably, as “Honey Baby.” In the photograph, she is dressed in faux-schoolgirl chic: bright pink lipstick painted on implausibly perfect skin, her ponytails carefully flipped to one side. She clutches two outsized teddy bears in her arms.

Earlier this year, Ms Rhee completed an incredible five-year journey that led her from a North Korean labour camp to Seoul's suburbs, through China's booming northern cities and the jungles of northern Thailand.

Her extraordinary story offers rare insight into the lives of ordinary North Koreans — country that remains extraordinarily closed to the outside world.

Born in 1990, Ms Rhee grew up in a small village near Musan — a dying industrial centre along the Tuman river, which separates North Korea from China.

From the handful of videos occasional visitors to the mining town have posted online, it appears a grim place: row after row of grey shacks and decaying factories, cloaked in snow and the rising smoke from wood fires.

Like many rural families, the Rhees survived the great famine of 1992-2002 — known as the March of Tribulations — relatively unscathed. Ms Rhee says she has no childhood memories of real hunger, an account quite different from those of North Korean refugees from other regions: 3.5 million people were to die in the famine, and two-thirds of the country's children are still malnourished.

Ms Rhee's mother, widowed in 1993, did what she needed to do to feed her children. Like others in the village, she tilled an illegal field gouged out of the mountains that surround the Paekmu plateau, and raised rabbits and chickens.

The family sold its produce in Musan, at one of the dozens of street markets which sprang up across North Korea after 1994, when the government allowed some private-sector economic activity, in an ineffectual effort to battle the famine.

But Ms Rhee lost her mother in 2005, after a minor infection in her foot became sceptic: antibiotics, the accounts of many refugees from North Korea show, have become almost impossible to obtain.

It was a terrible blow to the family. Ill, because of a congenital heart condition, Ms Rhee had never been able to work the fields. Her older sister, Sang-mi Rhee, now had to feed both — all the while, fulfilling a labour quota as part of a group of 15 villagers assigned to a local collective farm.

Fear of authorities

Later that year, Sang-mi's boyfriend, Myung-chul Choi disappeared. Mr Choi, a university graduate who worked a youth trade union linked to the ruling Workers' Party, had a better job than most — but had not been paid for several months. He left for what he told Sang-mi would be a three-month visit to China, where he hoped to save some money working as an illegal migrant worker.

“I did not even tell the woman I loved of my plans,” he says, cradling a green-tea flavoured iced drink, “because I was scared she might inform the authorities. In North Korea, you learn to trust no-one.”

Mr Choi made his way west, as hundreds of North Koreans before him had done, through the great Gobi desert that straddles China and Mongolia. He survived the journey — and, arriving at the South Korean embassy in Ulan Baatar, received the travel documents that let him fly to Seoul.

Increasingly desperate, the Rhee sisters decided to make their own way to China, hoping to find Mr Choi. In the summer of 2007, they crossed the Tumen river. “The water was just waist-deep,” Ms Rhee recalls, “and there were no guards.”

More than a quarter of a million North Koreans have had the same idea: the Chinese porcelain making town of Dehua, home to a large ethnic-Korean population, draws more migrants every day. Some are fleeing political oppression — but more than a few, like the Rhees, are like economic migrants everywhere, simply in search of a better life. Although China discourages the flow of illegal immigrants, its prosperity draws them in ever-growing numbers.

Even though the crossing was easy, the life that lay ahead wasn't. Helped by a relative, the Rhee sisters found work along with two other North Korean girls, in a small businesses providing online sex-chat services to South Korean men. Fearful of being arrested and deported by Chinese authorities, the one-room building the girls worked in was also their home.

“I was locked in 24 hours a day,” Ms Rhee recalls, “I really regretted what we had done.” Then, late in 2008, Chinese border police finally came calling. Sang-mi was out that day, with one of the other girls, on a rare shopping trip. In the weeks that followed the raid, Sang-mi succeeded in making contact with Mr Choi, and travelled to South Korea where she married her boyfriend.

Kyeong-mi Rhee, though, was deported to North Korea, and was to serve 18 months at a labour camp in North Hamgyong. The conditions, she says, were horrific. There was little food, and prisoners were made to engage in back-breaking work, chopping firewood in the mountains.

“In the winter,” she recalls, “sometimes five or six people would die in a single night. The prisoners would have the job of clearing away the bodies. I was excused, because I would faint.”

Ms Rhee came out of prison in 2010, to find a man she had never met before waiting for her. He wanted to make sure, the man said, that she was alive. Behind the scenes, her sister and new brother-in-law had been working to bring her to South Korea. The man was a broker, who took potential North Korean refugees into China.

For the next several months, Ms Rhee was shifted from town to town, finally crossing the mountains near the Kunmin border with Thailand before heading by boat to Bangkok. There, armed with a new South Korean passport, she flew to Seoul.

“It cost me $10,000 or so,” says Mr. Choi, some pride in his voice, “I still owe $4,000, but it is the least I could do.”

Like all North Korean refugees, Ms Rhee has received generous compensation from the South Korean government: after three months at a rehabilitation centre, learning the life skills needed to cope with a relentlessly-capitalist society.

“I do not feel this is all that strange a land,” she says, “because like many people in the North, I knew it thorough television soap-opera and films we used to watch secretly. It is difficult, though. I have still not made friends, and have not yet picked up the courage to get a job.”

Film-maker Park Jung-bum's “The Journals of Musan,” which premiered to critical acclaim in April — the same month Ms. Rhee arrived in Seoul — provides some insight into what challenges he might face. Mr Park's film traced the grim life of refugee Seung-chul, who makes a living plastering posters of sex shops in Seoul's streets, underpaid and cut off from the society around him. North Korean refugees have often struggled to integrate.

Ms Rhee's phone avatar suggests the kind of life she aspires to. That dream, more likely than not, is still some distance, and many struggles, away.

(Some names and personal details have been altered to protect the families of individuals still living in North Korea.)


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