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N Korea maths whizz’s long Hong Kong ride to freedom

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Jong Yol-ri arrived in Hong Kong with one last chance to defect and start a new life in the South
For Jong Yol-ri, the International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong last year was his last chance for freedom. If the then 18-year-old, two-time silver medallist in the ­competition waited another year, he would be too old to take part, losing his chance to travel and ­escape North Korea. But the stakes for anybody crossing the Pyongyang regime are extreme — as the assassination this month of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of leader Kim Jong-un, clearly shows. Defectors caught and sent back to North Korea face years of imprisonment, or even death in camps, according to a 2012 report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. But when the moment came, Jong took it. On July 17 last year, a day after the competition, Jong sneaked out of the dormitory at the Hong Kong University of ­Science and Technology, where the event had been held, and took a taxi to the airport. Revealing previously unpublished details of Jong’s flight, a diplomatic source familiar with the case said the student had planned his defection well before he left North Korea for Hong Kong. He told one other person about the plan – his father, a maths teacher at a middle school in the country’s south. Despite the likelihood of retribution, Jong’s father told his son to go and not to worry, giving him roughly US$200 in hard currency, the source said. Jong had glimpsed the outside world on his trips to the Olympiad in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2014 and Chiang Mai in Thailand a year later. His family’s television could also pick up weak signals from across the border showing life in South Korea.

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