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North Korea Escapees Break Silence

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A South Korean soldier looks out over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea from a guard position near Goseong. As many as 120,000 North Koreans are thought to be imprisoned across that country, according to a United Nations report that compares conditions in the DMZ to camps run by the Nazis during World War II and gulags set up in Soviet Russia. Image by Tomas van Houtryve. DMZ, 2013.

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At the age of 24, Song Byeok became a state propaganda artist. However, Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 and the famine that ensued led to Byeok's imprisonment after he asked border guards to help him rescue his father. Song managed to escape to South Korea in 2002 and has since developed a painting style that satirizes the propaganda images he once produced. Image by Tomas van Houtryve. South Korea, 2013.

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Shin Dong-hyuk is the only North Korean ever known to escape alive after being born and brought up in an internment camp. Shin was born as a result of an “awarding marriage,” granted by the guards to his parents. After Shin was born, he was separated from his parents, who were granted occasional visits with each other. Shin was subject to brutal torture in the camp, but it was hunger that drove his escape. He was 23 years old when he escaped the camp in 2005. Image by Tomas van Houtryve. South Korea, 2013.

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As the son of a senior spy Park Sang Hak became a part of North Korea’s privileged inner circle. However, his life changed when he received a letter from his father asking their family to leave the country and join him in China. Park’s father insisted that there was no future in North Korea and that the family was at risk of arrest if they did not flee. Today, Park lives in South Korea where he organizes regular protests against the North Korean government. In 2011, he was the target of an assassination attempt. Image by Tomas van Houtryve. South Korea, 2013.

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Pearl Kim Hua left North Korea to work in a Chinese factory. She is determined to return to North Korea once she earns enough money. Pearl says that the lifestyle in China cannot compare to the lifestyle in North Korea, where everything is very limited. She, like many others, believes the official line that this hardship is part of an effort to prepare the country for an imminent foreign attack. “Most people want the war to start, so that those who will live can live, and those who will die will die. We want the war to start now so we can get on with our lives.”

 (Pearl’s name has been changed to protect her identity.) Image by Tomas van Houtryve. China, 2013.

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A truck crosses the Yalu river on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge from Sinuiju, North Korea to Dandong, China. The bridge is one of the few places along the border where vehicles can cross. The United Nations has warned China that it may be "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity" with its policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans who flee across its borders. Image by Tomas van Houtryve. China, 2013.

Each with a distinct story, these North Korean individuals risked everything to escape their home country's brutal totalitarian regime. In the years since, their responses to such horrific conditions have varied from activism in South Korea to a focus on healing.

To read the full text of this photo essay, go to NBC News.