Edited by Rosa Park, Daniel Aum, and Bomi Im
(reposted from hrnkinsider.org, June 21, 2013)
I believe that anyone who comes from North Korea must be keenly aware of the plight of those who have suffered the same human rights violations that I have—and worse. I chose to work for human rights in North Korea so that I can offer insight into areas of improvement, and available alternatives that are most desired by victims. I now write a brief story about my life in North Korea, hoping it will provide some information useful in attempts to improve the situation in North Korea and spread knowledge about the inner-workings of life in that country.
My hometown was far from the Sino-North Korean border and closer to the central provinces, which was one reason why I was shielded from knowledge of the outside world. Except for destitute people wandering the border areas desperately trying to survive, most people, including myself, remained largely ignorant of what was happening within our own country.
I did not grow up in poverty. When Kim Il-sung died and the Great Famine of the 1990s almost immediately followed, I was attending high school, unaware of such critical events in my own country. Since I did not suffer from hunger, when I saw children wandering alone in the streets, I simply observed their unfortunate circumstances without much further thought. Questions of why they were living in poverty never crossed my mind once. Now, when I share my story with fellow North Korean colleagues who have suffered much worse, I cannot help but feel the guilty heat of shame and embarrassment. However, back then, this was my reality, and I do not think my ignorance was unique.
After I graduated high school, I joined a North Korean trading company. The company was located far from my home so I lived in a company residential hall during the week and went home on weekends. I used to shop at a nearby marketplace. One time, I bought some dduk (rice cakes) at the market and continued shopping, holding the food in my hand. I never imagined that someone would swipe my snack from my hand before my eyes. When I looked down, I saw what looked like a homeless child who had stolen my dduk. I was shocked and confused, as I could not understand why these children would wander around the streets stealing things from strangers. I simply thought that some kids wandered around looking for food because they were poor and their parents could not provide for them. Living in an isolated company residential area, I was further isolated from any outside information. I only concentrated on the necessary output, receiving enough salary from a comfortable job.
The failed public distribution system (PDS) was what caused many North Koreans to suffer food shortages. Many parents left for China in search of food. Their short-term trips became long-term trips, and when they did not return, their children began leaving their homes in search of food. This situation brought about the “divided defector families.” As soon as North Korean parents arrive in South Korea, some of them succeed in finding their children’s whereabouts through the services of a broker. However, they are not always successful. Too often, brokers are not able to locate the child to even confirm whether their child is dead or alive.
I later moved to the service sector at an international hotel. One might think an international hotel serves anyone who can pay to stay, but hotels, even international ones, in North Korea operate under a different business plan. International hotels are typically only open to National Central Party executives and overseas customers. In the hotel that I worked for, only National Central Party members and a UN Missions team passed through. Typically, for many months at a time, staff members were the only people roaming the hotel corridors because no one else could receive government approval to rent a hotel room.
Inside the hotel was a small mall that only accepted foreign currency, and was open to the general public only rarely and exceptionally. Despite the shops only accepting American dollars, the mall was almost always bustling with shoppers. I remember high school students would often come to the mall with great curiosity, carrying just a couple of dollars to window shop. As I was familiar with this type of lifestyle, I naturally assumed that the stories of those who starved to death were not real.
My time with the hotel was cut short when I was forced to join the “Highway Construction Youth Brigade.” The job required all workers to leave their home and families for several months at a time, and most of the workers were married women who had families to take care of at home. Several single men and women agreed it was the right thing to do to volunteer to take this traveling position. Thus, that winter, together with my troop, I embarked on a journey both arduous and eye opening.
I worked on road construction. Our task was to expand the road to allow airplanes to use it as a runway in case of emergencies. We had to reconstruct the foundation from the ground up so we were involved in blasting operations. One day, we were waiting for the blasting operations to conclude so we could collect and remove the ensuing debris. Then, we heard a boom. Small and large fragmented stones started raining down on our heads. I heard a scream emanate amidst the sound of falling rocks, “Evacuate!” We all staggered to get up and dodge the flying debris.
Then, I saw something I will never forget. A man in his mid-40s, who had been waiting with us, had fallen asleep and woke up to the shout of “Evacuate!” a second too late. Like lightning, a piece of flying debris struck the man on his head. In the blink of an eye, the man’s skull was cracked from top to bottom. I cannot forget the image and I can still see the man’s lifeless, crumbled body. As tragic as his death was, even more devastating was the fact that his family never received his body for proper burial. Those in charge claimed the train service was malfunctioning and that it would take weeks to transfer the corpse back to his family, leading to unseemly decay.
Even as the weather got colder, we had to sleep in subzero temperatures on a bed made of chopped straw and mud covered by a tent, one-meter tall. As we had to endure the snow, we could not even change our wet shoes made of rubber and thin cloth as we went to bed at night because it was so cold. Yet, I thought our young bodies could handle the stress. However, I woke up one morning to the sound of someone screaming. People were standing over my friend, who had been sleeping right next to me. As she drew her last breath, those who were beside her heard her last words. That last moment, she opened her eyes wide, grabbed the person nearest to her by the neck, gripping so hard she left scratch marks, and barely said “I . . . ” and then died. I imagine she felt so pitiful for her dying the way she did that even in her near coma-like state, she wanted to appeal one last time to whoever would listen that she wanted to live. Doctors rushed in and out of the tent doing their best to resuscitate her, but seeing there was no effect, they just carried her body out and that was the last I ever saw of her.
As I witnessed someone dying before my eyes twice, I began to grow afraid. Only then did I recall the time when I joyfully left home telling my mother I would work hard, qualify to join the Worker’s Party of Korea, and return soon. My mother stood at the door trying to hide her tears. When I left, she gave me enough of an allowance to survive. Thankfully, I did not have to depend solely on the unpeeled barley that was the common ration for troop members, but rather, I could purchase food from the women market vendors. Others were not so fortunate because the unpeeled barley was their principal source of food and their health began to deteriorate. Some could not endure the hard labor and conditions, and ran away.
When they ran away, the companies they worked for prior to joining the troop would often send them back. One of my friends who returned had a chance to talk with my parents back at home and shared their news with me. She informed me that my sister was preparing an engagement party and had sent me an invitation, but the troop leader had deliberately withheld the invitation from me. The troop leader feared that if I returned home to attend my sister’s engagement party, then I would surely not return. Thus, he never relayed the message. In addition to the sights of my friends dying, the incredulous stories that I heard from back home began to shift my perspective on my surroundings.
Despite all this, I still believed if I continued to overcome these hardships and worked harder than everyone else, I would become a member of the Worker’s Party. However, when February 16th came, the day of Kim Jong-il’s birthday and the announcement of new members, my hopes were shattered. The people who were called on induction day were not those who actually worked, but rather, the executives and directors who stood around ordering people what to do. I deluded myself, having received compliments about my strong work ethic; I was certain I would be inducted during the next session on April 15th, Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Although I broke my back working to gain membership, commoners like myself were not given the opportunity to join the elite.
As I reflected on these events, I had a moment of clarity. From then on, I determined that I would not die there in vain. I started to plan an escape. I pretended to be sick and complained that I was incapable of working that day. As I had a good reputation of working hard among my troop, when I said I came down with an illness, I was granted a leave of absence easily due to the generosity of the leader (a friend of my brother—my mother had asked him to look after me as a personal favor). But in the end, my plans to escape that day were foiled. I was so strictly monitored that I could not evade detection. The next day, when I said I was still sick and could not come to work, my close friends read my mind and asked to join in the escape. During break time, we snuck out and escaped.
Including myself, five of us escaped from the troop. My friends were still wearing their ragged work clothes while I had on cleaner clothes. When there was a delay on the train, I sold some of my clothes in exchange for food. We shared the food until we got home. Because of the repeated delays, a trip that normally would have taken several hours took one week. When I arrived at home, my father was outside the house. When I saw him, I thought to myself, “Why is he acting strange?” As he looked me up and down, I thought, “Why isn’t he inviting me in?” Any initial fears were calmed when he offered clean water and clothes, despite what must have been my alarmingly rugged appearance. I still remember with fondness how he helped me in my time of need.
Although I returned home, I could not return to my company. I feared being sent back to the construction brigade. However, I could not just stay at home, wary of any guards that may stop by to investigate my absence. Whenever they did stop by, I remember the difficult position my parents were in as they lied to the guards that I was missing. Finally I decided to leave with my friends to start a business. With time, I began to experience the real North Korea for the first time. Traveling to many cities, I met many different people, shared stories, and got my first glimpse of the outside world.
One day, tempted by the fact that I could earn three times more money in China than in North Korea, I decided to cross the border with several of my friends. At the time, I had absolutely no intention of permanently leaving my hometown and my family behind. I thought to myself that I would earn money just for three months and then return home. I expressed these same thoughts to the broker who would help me cross into China.
However, as soon as I stepped into China, I was in far greater danger. As I was an illegal alien, I was in danger of repatriation. Expecting a 5000-yuan reward, Chinese residents who were living in the remote mountain village could have reported my presence to the police. I could no longer stay around the border area. I moved to the southern area of China, following a Chinese broker with the fear of being caught. I kept moving away from the border area and my initial plans became obsolete. I could not return to North Korea and I could not sustain myself in China. To survive, I began learning Chinese. For eight years, while living under the constant threat of repatriation to North Korea, I worked for several employers, including a restaurant, a market, a SIM card vendor, and a travel agency.
While working, I began to realize that there are a lot of defectors like me who stay in China. Also, reading books about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, I wrestled with difficult issues regarding problems such as famine, false propaganda, and brainwashing. Through books, I got a glimpse of the problems with the North Korean regime. Amidst all these thoughts and revelations, I gradually decided to escape to South Korea, watching people escaping North Korea on television.
Due to my long stay in China, I was not afraid when I first arrived in South Korea. I successfully finished the three-month education program at Hanawon (education institute for defectors), receiving an award of excellence when I graduated. Finally, for the first time in my life, I began to seriously think about ‘for what’ and ‘how’ to live. As the society of South Korea and North Korea are very different, learning about South Korean society was the first thing that I needed. That was why I decided to go to college.
For two years, I prepared for college, while earning money with part-time jobs. After much hard work, I finally obtained an admission letter from college. Although I went to college later than others, it was not difficult as many seniors who came from North Korea helped me. I could absorb the lectures well, asking my professors questions and advice. Several months ago, while I was studying, I applied and was accepted for a language training and internship program in the U.S. Today, while living in South Korea and the U.S., I live each day working hard to learn and prepare a better future for North Korea and the rest of my life.