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BBC News America North Korea: The prisoner who escaped with her guard

It was an unlikely friendship – the prison guard and the prisoner. They had met just two months earlier – in May 2019. Jeon was one of several guards at Onsong Detention Centre in the far north of North Korea. He and his colleagues kept Kim and a few dozen other inmates under surveillance 24 hours…

BBC News America It was an unlikely friendship – the prison guard and the prisoner. They had met just two months earlier – in May 2019. Jeon was one of several guards at Onsong Detention Centre in the far north of North Korea. He and his colleagues kept Kim and a few dozen other inmates under surveillance 24 hours a day whilst they awaited trial.Kim caught his eye with her refined clothing and demeanor.He knew she was there because of her role in helping their fellow countrymen who had already fled a life of desperation. Kim was what was known as a broker. She helped keep channels open between those who had fled and families left behind. This could mean facilitating money transfers or phone calls from the defectors.And it was lucrative work for the average North Korean. Kim was paid about 30% of the cash as commission, and an average money transfer is about 2.8m won [£1,798], research suggests.On the face of it, Kim and Jeon couldn’t have been more different. While she made her money illicitly, learning as she did about the world outside North Korea’s strict communist regime, Jeon had spent the past 10 years in the military as a conscripted soldier. He was steeped in the communist ideology of the country’s dictatorship.What they didn’t realise was how much they had in common. Both were deeply frustrated by their lives and felt they had now run out of road.For Kim, the turning point was her jail sentence. This wasn’t her first prison term, and she knew that as a second-time offender she would be more harshly treated this time around. If she did make it out of prison alive, then returning to a life of brokering – and potential arrest again – would have been an extremely risky thing to do.Kim’s first arrest was for a particularly dangerous type of brokering – helping North Koreans escape over the border into China – the very route that she and Jeon would go on to take themselves.“You can never do this line of work without connections in the military,” she says. She would bribe them to look the other way, and was successful for six years, earning good money in the process – US$1,433-2,149 for each person she helped leave. That meant getting just one person across was the equivalent of a year’s income for the average North K
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