In our second Notable Narrative for August, North Korean defectors ride a train 2,000 miles across China in an effort to make their way to South Korea. National Geographic’s Tom O’Neill accompanies them and then explores what escape means for those who make it.

He uses lovely imagery, as when a woman descends by airplane into Seoul and watches “buildings and streets bloom beneath her.” But O’Neill builds real drama from a spare recounting of the improbable daisy chain of events that lead to escape: One of a sex worker’s Internet clients guesses she is held in China against her will and gets in touch with a pastor. The pastor, in South Korea, activates an underground network to help her and a co-worker flee the country. The pastor hires a sometime drug smuggler to shepherd the defectors from the Chinese border through Laos and into Thailand.

O’Neill deftly slips his presence into the story from the first paragraph, where he tells readers he used pseudonyms for his characters in notebooks “in case police stopped me.” We understand that his subjects are in jeopardy and that he bears witness to their danger. Such subtle reassurance gives the reader confidence in the midst of false names and secrecy. Yet it was not completely clear to us until we interviewed O’Neill which parts of the journey he was present for and how the reconstructed sections were verified.

The escape could stand on its own as a moving narrative. But O’Neill makes his story richer by going to Seoul months later. He finds the defectors challenged by their new lives, struggling with the loss of their families, and living in cultural isolation. Yet his conclusion grows in power as we see the detainees—despite their difficulties—look “beatific,” pile chocolate bars on him in celebration, and nod off in public without fear of what comes next.

[See the full gallery of Chien-Chi Chang’s pictures taken during and after the escape.]

Read “Escape from North Korea,” by Tom O’Neill

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