North Korean family ‘smuggled lingerie’ back from the South in rogue scheme

A North Korean family defected from the authoritarian state after becoming embroiled in an illegal scheme to get their daughter underwear.

The father, known only as Han, was a lieutenant colonel who was working at the Kaesong Industrial Park in 2008, where South Korean businesses frequently employ workers from over the border.

Over time he broke the nation's strict "no fraternising with Southerners" policy and became close to other workers at the Park.

Some of the soldiers under Han's command had parents who worked in Kaesong's ginseng patches, and he asked for them to bring some of the root back for him when they returned from holiday.

He then traded the ginseng with the South Koreans in exchange for a precious commodity – lingerie, which was in short supply in the North.

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Han sent the underwear back home to his daughter Han Ock, who was in her early 20s and living in Pyongyang. However he soon spied a lucrative business opportunity and began posting entire boxes of lingerie to North Korea.

"My daughter was mesmerised by the well-designed, pretty lingerie from the South and she boasted of them to her friends," he told This Week in Asia.

"Later on, she began to sell them to her friends for a good profit."

But Han Ock soon suspected she was being spied on by authorities at her job in a military hospital, where she worked as a nurse.

She hatched a scheme to have her army chauffeur boyfriend drive her, her mother and her brother across the border into China.

The border guards believed they were an army commander's family and waved them through. The family eventually made it to Thailand where they entered the safety of the South Korean embassy.

Han knew nothing of his daughter's plan and had no idea what happened to his family when he arrived home to an empty house.

Months later he was working at a logging project in Russia when he received a phone call from his daughter letting him know they were alive and well in Seoul.

He decided to abandon his military career and defect, receiving help to travel to Thailand, where he too took refuge at the South Korean embassy in Bangkok.

The following year he and 29 other North Korean defectors were flown to South Korea where Han was briefly reunited with his family, before being taken into debriefing custody by intelligence authorities for seven months.

He was eventually released with a reward of 300 million won (£200,000) for handing over military secrets, including the existence of several tunnels across the border that had been built in case of war.

He used the money to buy farm land for his family to live on in Seosan, where he's sometimes struggled to fit in with South Korean culture. He once reared 30 dogs for the purposes of eating their meat, a delicacy in his home country.

"I didn't know it is not allowed here to butcher a dog for consumption," Han admits.

"I butchered one of them to share the meat with my friends and someone in the neighbourhood reported me to the authorities. I was consequently slapped with a 500,000 won (£340) fine for animal abuse."

Han's family is glad they moved, but other North Korean defectors have struggled with social isolation, poverty and illness from lifelong malnutrition.

The coronavirus pandemic has reduced border crossings significantly, which in 2020 have been at their lowest since 2003.

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