“We are ready to die,” the nephew said at one point. They had brought poison with them and were willing to take it, he said.

“We are ready to die,” Ms. Choi’s nephew, 28, told her in one phone call.CreditAgnes Lee

Ms. Choi believed her sister carried opium tucked into her clothing. Opium was common in North Korea, where poppies grew all over the place, Ms. Choi said. It was often used in small doses to cure colds. In larger doses, it was lethal, and used in suicides.

In the phone call, her sister had mentioned being beaten during three months of detention in 2015. If her sister were returned to North Korea, the punishment would be unimaginable.

In Seoul, Ms. Choi and her niece were frantic. “We didn’t eat, we didn’t drink anything,” she said.

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Opium was common in North Korea, where poppies grew all over the place, Ms. Choi said.
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Finally, the North Koreans found their way out of the woods. The driver located them at 2 a.m. on the edge of Changbai.

Her nephew phoned. “We’re saved. We’re going to live,” he said.

Photographs sent by the driver showed the five wearily huddled in a van: the sister, her heart-shaped face creased by a slight frown under bobbed hair, and her nephew, 28, with a perplexed expression on his face, in a brown jacket. There was also her nephew’s girlfriend, about the same age as him, with long hair, slouching in the car seat as she stared into the camera, and two friends in their late 20s in dark attire.

They chatted excitedly on the phone in the van as it traveled toward Shenyang, but the driver asked the women in Seoul to stop calling. Their calls could be monitored by Chinese surveillance. The last word came from the group came at 10 a.m., when they were approaching their destination.

Then there was silence.

The Group Vanishes

At first, the broker in Seoul and his subcontractor, the North Korean woman, could not explain what had happened. “We are looking for them,” the woman told Ms. Choi in a curt voice.



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