Scott Kim first escaped North Korea at the age of 17 in 2001. At the time, he and his mother only wanted to get across the border to China so they could eat hot meals. Growing up during North Korea’s deadly famine in the late ’90s, Kim had spent much of his childhood starving.
Today, Kim owns a business trading automobile and railway parts in South Korea. He is currently working on an English-language memoir about his experiences with the help of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), a volunteer-run organization in Seoul helping defectors develop English skills.
But it was a long and dangerous six years in and out of China and North Korea before he got to Seoul.
Most North Koreans defect by crossing North Korea’s northern border to China via the Tumen or Yalu rivers. Then they must smuggle their way across China’s vast expanse to its southern border with Laos or Vietnam. From there, they cross into Thailand or Cambodia and go to the South Korean embassy to ask for help. It’s a journey that can cost up to $5,000, which must be paid to “brokers” in each country to arrange the escape.
Inscription stone marking the border of China and North Korea in Jilin
Paying $5,000 to make it to South Korea or the United States was far out of reach for Kim and his mother. Instead, he and his mother lived as undocumented immigrants and worked as farm laborers. But one year after escaping North Korea, Kim’s neighbor reported his status to the police, who brought him and his mother back to North Korea. Kim was taken to a detention center, where authorities determine where to send defectors next.
“When we reached the detention center in North Korea, we lost all our rights as human beings,” Kim told Business Insider. “We were treated like animals, literally. We had to crawl on the floor to move from place to place.”
Kim was put in a cell with 20 other defectors. There was one toilet in the corner and no space to lie down. Day and night, the defectors sat on the ground.
“It was our punishment because we were sinners. I don’t know why we were sinners,” he said.
When he or other defectors were told to down the corridor to the warden’s office, they were made to crawl on their hands and feet. Officers beat them with gloves and sticks as they went.
An estimated 100,000 North Koreans or more currently live in detention centers, political prisons, or labor camps where they endure hard labor, torture, and starvation.
Kim’s description of his experience comes amid President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has been accused of killing his own people. But when asked about the North Korean dictator’s human rights violations, Trump appeared to be an apologist for the dictator’s actions.
The first time Kim was caught, he got lucky.
Despite the fact that one of North Korea’s biggest reeducation camps is in Chongori, near his hometown in Musan, Kim was sent to a center further south. Because no one knew him — and internet and phone service was nonexistent at the time — he was able to lie about his age. He told the guards he was only 15 years old and had been in China looking for his mother.
Rather than send him to one of the country’s brutal labor camps or political camps, he was sent to a medical center for orphaned children. Shortly after arriving, he escaped and went back to China, where he got work as a farm laborer near Helong, a city in northeastern China.
“Everyday, I planted, farmed, logged on the mountain. Corn, beans, potatoes,” he said. “Life was better because I was not starving. I could eat and be full at meals. It was enough food for me … At the time I left North Korea, I was starving.”
Kim was caught a second time when he visited a friend in China looking for his mother. A neighbor again reported him to the police. The second time he was sent back to North Korea, he wasn’t so lucky. He was sent to the concentration camp near his hometown. From there he was sent to a labor camp, where he chopped down trees on a mountain for months.
He escaped one day when he realized that all his fellow laborers were at the top of the mountain chopping while he was at the bottom. He ran away as fast as he could until he found a train that he could take him north to cross the border with China again.
After some time in China, he was caught a third time and sent to a camp for political prisoners — the worst place to be sent, as imprisonment there is interminable. He escaped the camp by bribing the authorities through a broker, who helped him make it across the border with China a final time.
After six years, Kim reunited with his mother and made it to South Korea
In China, he went back to work to pay off his debt to the broker. One day, he got a call from a North Korean woman from Musan who told him that he had to come visit his mother. She was dying of cancer. For the first time in many years, the two saw each other.
“When I opened the door of my mother’s house, I froze, and couldn’t say anything, because my mother looked incredibly different,” he said. “There was no fat on her, and her whole body looked like a triangle, I just went outside and cried for a long time and came back again, and I embraced my mother and we cried together.”
Several days later, a friend of his mother offered his mother the opportunity to escape to South Korea via Laos and Cambodia. A broker was taking a group through; they had an extra space.
Unable to walk, Kim’s mother told Kim he had to go and become educated. Once he was settled, she said, he could bring her and help others in need. He decided to go.
The night before Kim and the group of defectors were to cross the border into Laos, he received a call telling him that his mother had died. The man on the phone said he had to come back for the funeral.
“After hanging up, I couldn’t say anything, I just cried all night. I really, really wanted to go back, but I thought that if I go back there, I couldn’t do anything for her,” he said. “I decided to go to South Korea, believing that my mother would agree with my decision.”
In 2007, six years after he first escaped, Kim finally made it to South Korea.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.