It was during the summer of 2018 that Lee Yumi finally saw her chance to escape her unwanted life as a cybersex slave.
In order to keep a close eye on them, Lee’s captor slept in the living room of the small apartment from where she worked along with another young North Korean woman, Kwang. “The front door was always locked from the outside and there was no handle on the inside. … Every six months, he would take us out to the park. During those outings, he would always stay right next to us, so we never got to talk to anyone,” said Lee. In 2015, Lee tried to escape by climbing out of a window and down a metal drain, but she fell and hurt her back and leg. She still limps slightly.
“One day one of my customers [from South Korea] realized I was North Korean and was being held captive,” said Lee. While most men probably knew the girls weren’t South Korean, because North Koreans have different accents and dialects to people in the south, they chose to look the other way. This man was different. “He bought a laptop and let me take control of the screen remotely, so I could send messages without my boss noticing,” Lee said.
The man also gave her the phone number of a South Korean pastor named Chun Ki-Won, one of a band of Korean pastors who specialize in helping North Korean women escape from China. Chun said his Christian aid organization, Durihana, has helped over 1,000 defectors reach Seoul since 1999. Korean media has nicknamed him the Asian Schindler, after the German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews.
In September 2018, Lee contacted Pastor Chun on a Korean messaging service. “Hi, I want to go to South Korea. Can you help me?” read the first message she sent.
Over the following weeks, a plan was hatched: Chun would send a team to Yanji to extract Lee and her fellow sex slave Kwang. On October 26, while Yumi’s boss was away for the day, Durihana‘s members arrived at the foot of the building. The two girls knotted their bedsheets together and dropped them out of their window. The extraction team then tied a rope to the sheets, which the girls pulled up and used to lower themselves safely to the ground.
After escaping Yanji, Lee and Kwang traveled across China on buses and trains using fake Korean passports. Their last stop was Kunming, in China’s deep southwest. Lee and Kwang met with a Chinese man who took them across the mountains into a neighboring country. “We walked for five hours through the jungle, before reaching a road where a car was waiting for us,” said Kwang.
Chun later met them in the middle of the night on the side of a road. “I burst into tears as soon as I saw him,” said Kwang, who is now 24 years old. “For the first time in a very long time, I felt safe.”
As they rode towards the South Korean embassy, Lee stared giddily at the urban landscape unfolding before her eyes. “I’m so happy!” she said, as the embassy approached. The embassy, which receives about 10 defectors a month, according to officials, kept the women for about 10 days for questioning. Defectors who satisfy the questioning process then fly to freedom in South Korea. Read more