The defector’s trip usually starts with bribes to officials and payments to brokers who help them leave North Korea. They take their chances crossing rivers and mountains by foot. There’s even an underground railway — a network of safe houses through China — designed to dodge authorities. The lucky ones make it to Laos, Myanmar or Thailand and on to Seoul with the help of NGOs, Christian groups and South Korean diplomats abroad.
The government in the South offers help once they arrive. There is a modest allowance of about $1,000 a month as well as grants of up to $20,000 for things like a down payment on a house.
Defectors go through several months of socialization at government centers, and often they need classes to reach South Korean levels of education. NGOs like the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights offer tutoring in English, math and other skills needed in a competitive market economy.
But no matter how much they feel at home in the South, most still worry about the people they left behind, especially when there are threats of “total destruction” flying between Pyongyang and Washington every day and news of missile tests and underground nuclear explosions.