SEOUL, South Korea — Three years ago, out of work​ and hungry, Kim Geum-hyok climbed Mount White Horse near his North Korean hometown, Kaesong, brooding on the meaninglessness of life.

Not far​ to the south​, across a river, the 21-year-old could see high-rise buildings in South Korea, dazzlingly lit up. The sight beckoned him.

After two nights on the mountain, Mr. Kim crossed the world’s most heavily armed border to get to it. He climbed down, crawled under and over layers of barbed-wire fences and made his way through minefields. At the river’s edge, he hid among reeds, improvising a life jacket from washed-up plastic trash. When night fell, he began to swim.

“I kept swimming toward the light,” Mr. Kim said of his seven and a half hours in the water, in an interview that a fellow North Korean defector posted on YouTube. “When I finally landed on the South Korean side and walked through reeds and saw South Korean soldiers approaching, I was so exhausted I collapsed.”

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