Shin knows that he needs to move quickly or risk being executed. He walks nine miles to the town of Maengsan, where he learns about a truck that can take him to Hamhung, the second largest city in the country. By coincidence, Shin’s “Travel time was excellent.” Intercity travel had been almost impossible a few years before, but now, there are so many travel permits for sale on the black market that almost anyone can travel around the country—for a fee. The government doesn’t like the culture of bribery, but it isn’t powerful enough to stop it—its own military and police forces depend on bribes to survive. By the early 2000s, North Korea is a “Soprano state,” with the police using the threat of arrest to “shake down” black market traders.
While Shin made his way into China partly because of his own abilities, he also succeeded in escaping North Korea because of pure luck. Had he escaped just a couple years earlier or later, he probably wouldn’t have been able to sneak past the border so easily, and he could have either been killed on the spot or sent back to the camp. At the time, however, North Korea was suffused with corruption to the point where almost anybody with the right money could leave the country (at least according to Harden).
Shin arrives at the train station in Hamhung, a coastal factory city. There, he climbs into a boxcar headed for the Chinese border. The train is extremely slow, however, and for the next three days he sits in the boxcar with a young man who claims to be headed back to his home in the city of Gilju. He offers to let Shin stay with him for a couple days, where there is food and warmth. Shin accepts. In Gilju, Shin spends the last of his money on noodles. However, the young man convinces Shin to lend him his coat, so that he cam impress his family. Shin, still naïve about the way the world worked, lends the man his coat, confident that he’ll come back to the noodle shop for him. Hours pass, and the young man doesn’t return. Shin is now trapped in a strange city without money or a coat.
Shin’s time in prison camp had trained him to take care of himself and not to trust other people. Yet when he joined forces with the man in the boxcar, he seems to have trusted him almost immediately—despite the rather obvious evidence that the man was just trying to con him into giving up his coat. According to Harden, Shin had spent his entire life in a prison camp, meaning that he didn’t really understand how the outside world worked—and so fell for a trick that seems obvious. However, Shin’s behavior is harder to explain in light of the fact that he had, in fact, been outside of the camp before.
Shin spends the next twenty days in Gilju with no coat, money, or sense of direction. The weather is brutally cold, but he is able to survive by latching onto the city’s huge homeless population. A gang of teenaged thieves lead him to the city outskirts, where they dig up daikon (a kind of radish that North Koreans often bury in mounds during cold months). It is during this time that Shin first sees pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
Perhaps the fact that Shin hadn’t been trained to worship the Kim family explains why Shin was so successful in escaping: he felt no patriotism or attachment to his country’s leaders. (In his 2015 account, Shin said that he had learned a little about the Kims and seen pictures of them in the camp—but he still hadn’t been exposed to their extreme cult of personality.)
At the time, “marauding for food” was nothing special in North Korea—for many, it was the only means of survival. The American soldier Charles Robert Jenkins, who decided to defect to North Korea during his time in the U.S. army, was imprisoned by the North Koreans and forced to participate in propaganda videos. He married a Japanese prisoner and was only allowed to leave North Korea when the Japanese prime minister organized a prisoner trade in 2002. Harden later interviewed Jenkins, who claimed that during his time in North Korea he always had to contend with thieves and soldiers who tried to steal his food supply.
The food situation in North Korea was so severe that it threatened ordinary North Korean citizens and soldiers alike. The result was that many Koreans were susceptible to bribery: naturally, they were more interested in feeding themselves than in obeying the letter of the law.
The food situation in Gilju in 2005 wasn’t remotely as bad as it had once been—2004 had been a good harvest year for the country, and few people were actually dying of starvation (even though many were hungry). As Shin spends more time with the gang of teenaged thieves, he realizes that they have no interest in leaving North Korea. One night, he breaks into a house and finds rice and warm winter clothes. He sells the rice and, armed with warm clothes and money, boards a train northward toward China.
Once again, Shin had some remarkable good luck: he was able to find lots of food and enough warm clothing to survive in the freezing weather. Because Shin’s quality of life had always been so low, he was able to survive in the outside world, keep his hopes up, and remain focused on escaping to China.