Some 30,000 North Korean defectors have made it all the way to South Korea, and their ranks are growing more slowly than they once did. In 2017, the South gained 1,127 defectors, a number that tended to be closer to 3,500 before Kim Jong Un took over. At the New York Times
, Jane Perlez and Su-Hyun Lee look at five North Koreans who tried to flee and made it across the border to China. But what happened next didn't go according to plan. Much of the story is told through 63-year-old "Ms. Choi," who defected to the South a decade ago and had been eager to get her sister, 50, and nephew, 28, out as well. Her sister had recently recounted being beaten while detained by North Korean authorities, and she was ready—and would have poison on her to end it all if anything went awry.
The story explains that the cost of paying a broker (basically, a smuggler) to get North Koreans safely through China has skyrocketed; Choi forked over $13,000, and that was just a partial payment. And for that, she got this: a broker who subcontracted the work to a woman whose husband then hired a Chinese relative to pick the defectors up in a van and take them to Shenyang. Except "them" was larger than expected: The nephew's girlfriend and two of his friends came, too. The group made it across the Yalu River, then spent two days lost in the woods before rendezvousing with the van. "We're saved. We’re going to live," Choi's nephew told her in a phone call. But as they neared Shenyang, they vanished. The van driver said only that they were dead. Read the full story for more on what might have happened, and why. (Read more Longform stories.)