The North Korean software engineer was desperate.
He had been sent to northeastern China in 2019 to earn money for the North Korean regime. After working long hours under the constant watch of his minders, he found an email address on a website and sent a harrowing message in 2021: “I am writing at the risk of losing my life,” pleaded the engineer.
A young woman who had been smuggled by human traffickers from North Korea into China in 2018 contacted the owner of the same website early this year. She had planned to defect to South Korea, but instead was being held captive in a Chinese border town and forced to make money through cybersex. “Please help us escape this house,” she wrote.
The website belonged to the Rev. Chun Ki-won, a Christian pastor in Seoul who is widely known for aiding 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 aiding North Korean defectors in China has become “all but impossible,” Mr. Chun said.
China imposed strict limits on border crossings and even internal travel during the pandemic. When those restrictions began to ease in recent months, Mr. Chun and other aid workers received a surge of appeals from the thousands of North Koreans stranded in the country.
Yet the price of hiring a human trafficker has skyrocketed because of the increased risk of being caught by the Chinese police. Beijing’s ever-expanding surveillance state has made avoiding the authorities more challenging. The number of North Koreans who reached South Korea in 2019 was 1,047. Last year, that number plummeted to 63.
“The decline in defections does not stem from a diminished desire among North Koreans to escape their oppressive regime,” Hanna Song, a human rights worker who monitors refugees, said last month during a congressional hearing in Washington. “Rather, it reflects the mounting difficulties imposed by China’s pervasive surveillance measures.”
Mr. Chun shared hundreds of text messages, audio files, bank records and other documents with The New York Times to help reconstruct his effort to assist the software engineer and the cybersex worker, Ms. Lee. He asked The Times to withhold the engineer’s name, and the given name of the woman, 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 repressive regime.
“They are watching 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 make money for Mr. Kim’s government, either through I.T. 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 dormitory apartments, where they are instructed to spy on each other. Their North Korean minders look for signs of disloyalty — like watching K-dramas.
Talking to Mr. Chun through the messaging app Telegram, the software engineer compared his life to “a bird in a cage.” From morning until night, he roamed online platforms like Upwork looking for coding work to make money for the Pyongyang regime.
Video footage he sent to Mr. Chun showed him and his North Korean peers 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 earning quotas — $4,000 to $5,000 — set by their manager. They often had to buy false identities because international businesses are banned from hiring North Koreans under the sanctions.
When he first arrived in China, the software engineer had no plan to flee to South Korea. But last year, he sent Mr. Chun video footage of his bruised face and said he was beaten for disobedience. “I want to live a free man, even for a single 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 have largely gone 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 on the run or foreigners staying in the country without authorization.
Ms. Lee arrived in China five years ago, and her plan all along was 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 held Ms. Lee in an apartment and forced her to perform sex acts before a webcam for male clients.
In January, Ms. Lee reached out to Mr. Chun, saying that she and two other North Korean women were about to be sold to another human trafficker and needed urgent help.
Getting to the Safe House
Aiding North Korean refugees requires hiring human traffickers, or “brokers,” who can be trusted, said Lee Hark-joon, a filmmaker who has directed two documentaries on 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 in order to extort more cash in exchange for not alerting the authorities.
The problem has become only more rampant since the pandemic. The cost of moving a North Korean defector through China rose to tens of thousands of dollars from thousands of dollars before the pandemic, according to rights activists.
In January, Mr. Chun managed to pull resources together 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.
Once they all met at the safe house, the next step was for everyone to be smuggled across China to Laos and then onto Thailand, where North Koreans can apply for asylum in South Korea, a common route for many refugees. They would travel through China by car, as ID checks, which became more ubiquitous during the pandemic, made public transportation unworkable.
Mr. Chun divided the route to Qingdao into several stages for both the software engineer and the three women. At each stage, the brokers would change cars to thwart any attempt to trace 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 would wear when they slipped out of the apartments in which they were being held captive.
He asked the brokers to send photographs and license plate numbers of the cars they would use to pick up the North Koreans. He exchanged the details with everyone and set the plan in motion.
“It’s all clear. I am leaving now. I am putting on my clothes now,” the software engineer texted Mr. Chun, shortly before he fled.
Tracked and Captured
Mr. Chun’s operation started to unravel when the traffickers did not take the software engineer directly to Qingdao, but to a house in the city of Jilin in northeast China, making another unscheduled stop on the way.
After leading the software engineer into the house, the brokers contacted Mr. Chun to ask for additional money to buy him food, new clothes and shoes.
The next morning, the brokers were leaving the house to pick up the three women in Baishan when they were stopped by the police in Jilin. The police arrested the software engineer, too.
The software engineer had been reported missing by his North Korean minder, and the car the brokers used to pick him up had been identified on a surveillance camera during the unscheduled stop, according to what Mr. Chun was told by relatives of the brokers, who are now in jail, he said.
Mr. Chun hurried to find different brokers to retrieve the three women before it was too late.
“The brokers will be waiting for you at midnight at the designated 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 captor’s husband, the Chinese police officer in Baishan, broke down the door and stormed into the house with thugs, Mr. Chun said, saying that the women called him amid the mayhem.
One of the brokers must have cut a deal with the husband to trade 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 jail waiting to be repatriated to North Korea, Mr. Chun said. In the North, those who have tried to flee to the South face prison camps or worse.
The whereabouts of Ms. Lee remain unknown.
“I have been aiding North Koreans for 23 years,” Mr. Chun said. “I have never felt this sad and helpless.”