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Project February 27, 2019

The North Korean Underground Railroad


Locals in Pyongyang. Image by LMspencer / North Korea, 2016.
Locals in Pyongyang. Image by LMspencer / North Korea, 2016.

Over the last two decades, the North Korean underground railroad has helped thousands of North Koreans reach South Korea through its network of safehouses, transportation routes, and activists. In doing so, it has not only bettered the lives of those refugees, but also transformed the world's view of North Korea, as the best intelligence about the secretive dictatorship comes from them, and many defectors have gone on to be effective activists against the regime. Even more, the same channels that bring people out also allow snippets of the outside world back in—from remittances to USB drives stuffed with information—and experts say that the rising consciousness about the outside world could spur the population to overthrow the regime.

It is for this reason that the current dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has been striving to tear the underground railroad up by its roots. In 2011, when Kim took power, almost 3,000 North Koreans made it to freedom annually. This year, it's likely that less than 1,000 will. And as Jong-un cracks down, activists are beginning to fear that their networks are on the verge of being wiped out—one activist reports that most new conductors now have an expected lifespan of about two years.

This project tells the incredible story of how the North Korean underground railroad evolved to become the unique humanitarian institution that it is today—as well as investigates the new existential threat it faces.