By Sung-chul Kim
Edited by Rosa Park, Bomi Im and Megan Lee
Reprinted from hrnkinsider.org on June 20, 2013
In North Korea
Musan district in North Hamgyong province of North Korea, the coldest part of the Korean peninsula, is my birthplace. It was also my home for seventeen years and now, where all my childhood memories continue to reside. Notwithstanding its chilly temperature, I want to visit my hometown and native land at least once before I die. Every spring, apricot blossoms and azalea flowers still managed to bloom on the hill in front of my house. As a student, I would idyllically smoke with friends. Of course, if we were caught, our teacher forced us to chew those same cigarettes while still lit. On holidays, I could hear the sounds of rice-cake making—the wooden mallet pounding the rice paste—seemingly coming from around every house, and the smoke from chimneys wafted through the village. I would also go door to door, bowing to the village elders—it is customary in Korea to receive money from elders by presenting them with formal bows, especially on given holidays. Naturally, my mother was also diligent in taking all the money I received.
When confronted with the “Great Famine” of the 1990s, our family could no longer maintain our usual standard of living, but we weren’t the only ones. Many people died from starvation or disease. Some North Koreans managed to subsist by farming their small plots of land. In 1998, my father passed away and my mother, dismissed from her job, went to China to earn money. In the past, my mother had tirelessly tried to obtain a highly coveted “Workers’ Party membership card,” but my father’s political background ultimately barred her. According to my mother, my grandfather and uncle on my father’s side of the family disappeared—presumably sent to the gulag—after insulting the regime. As a result, my parents had maintained a tenuous relationship, and my mother always harbored some bitterness towards my father. After my mother left for China, my brother and I had no choice but to live in an orphanage where we did labor-intensive and difficult work. Using a saw, axe, and rope, we logged on a mountain for at least 5-6 hours, even on cold winter days.
In 2001, three years after my mother left for China, she was arrested by the Chinese and forcibly repatriated to North Korea. After her return, she again fled to China, but this time I followed her. When my stomach started to fill with food, I began missing my home and friends, and I finally made up my mind to go back, despite my mother’s protests. From the Chinese side, I waited patiently while a line of North Korean soldiers walked along the Tumen River and disappeared. After a few moments, I quickly crossed the river and hid behind some reeds. Wanting to scout out my path, I slowly looked over the reeds. To my surprise, I was staring straight at three North Korean soldiers, who also looked shocked to see me. The North Korean authorities arrested me for the first time, but it would not be the last. I would go to China again and be forcibly repatriated to North Korea two months later with my mother because my neighbors in China reported us. I was repatriated twice more after that.
The State Security Department (SSD) Bo-wi-bu “보위부”
As soon as my mother and I walked into the detention center (“State Political Security Department”), we were suddenly robbed of our identity as human beings. The sounds of tortured people came from many places. I heard an agonizing “I profusely apologize” exclaimed in formal Korean, an officer shouted, “[Curse], how many times have you gone?” “Kneel!,” “You like the Chinese [curse] that much? “You’re lying!” and “Tell me again, why did you go?” Needless to say, hearing all the shouting and sounds of pain stunned me; not surprisingly, I began to grow very afraid. I broke out in a cold sweat, dripping down my back, and the strength drained from my legs so I could barely stand. I did not dare look any officer in the eye. None of the prisoners wore shoes and all were forced to sit or kneel. To move, everyone, including the elderly, had to crawl on the floor. We were still standing at that point, but right at that moment, I heard a prison officer shout at us to “Kneel on the ground [curse]!” and we submissively kneeled. They then divided us into two groups, one group of adults and one group of children. The adults were taken to cells, and the children were taken to an office. My mother was among the adults to crawl towards the cell, and we were separated once more.
The officer interrogated me, demanding to know why I had gone to China, how and who had led me to China, and where my hometown was located. I was forced to answer these questions while kneeling on the ground. I told him that my father passed away, I was searching for my missing mother, I went to China in search of food, and probably mumbled something about my hometown. In fact, when my mother and I were in the Chinese prison, my mother had instructed me to say that I went looking for her because I was hungry, and she told me I would likely be released based on my young age. Police officers then tortured and beat me violently. Perhaps one officer grew tired of hitting me because he then ordered me to bang my own head against the wall. As I hit my head against the wall, he ordered me to slam it harder because the sound of the impact did not satisfy him. Obediently, I hit my head against the wall with a louder thump. He then asked me, “Do you know why I told you to hit your head against the wall?” and I answered, “I do not know.” “It is to absolve you of your betrayal of the Democratic People’s Republic [of Korea] by leaving and learning about capitalism in China.” After two hours of questioning, the officer finally dismissed me to the “guhoso” or medical relief station, reducing my penalty based on my young age.
I was able to eat two meals a day in the medical relief center. There were children the same age as me. The next day, I was instructed to log on a mountainside with others. I wanted to run away, but could not really figure out how. Eventually, in order to escape, I traded in my nicer Chinese clothing for cheaper clothing and for money to bribe the guard overseeing our logging. I promptly took the train, or rather, furtively hung from the bottom of one headed towards Musan. After arriving I really wanted to see my brother, but I did not search for him because I did want to appear as a beggar before him. I slept in the waiting room of the train station that night.
The next morning, a man slightly my senior suggested that we go to China together. In desperation, I convinced myself that he was trustworthy and followed him. We went to the outskirts of China in Helong, but I found myself sold as a laborer to a farm. I worked every single day. Ostensibly, a cow became my only constant friend. With this cow, I plowed the fields and carried the wood I had logged on a mountain. I slept in a small thatched cottage hidden in the hills.
Prior to my third repatriation, I was visiting an acquaintance who worked nearby when a public security officer burst into his home and we were arrested. It was my third repatriation to North Korea. After encountering the Chinese “byunbangdae” (upper-level border patrol), I was sent to three different hierarchies of police: political, security, and detention). I ran away from the detention police, and returned to Helong, but I was arrested while in Yongjun, based on accusations made by an informant of the Chinese authorities. By the fourth repatriation, I strangely felt familiar with the process, despite the increasingly brutal punishment I was receiving.
A Dream of Hope: South Korea
In December 2006, I arrived in South Korea after my fourth repatriation. After a month-long investigation at the South Korean National Intelligence Service, I studied at Hanawon—the training center for former North Koreans—for three months, graduating in April. Since then, I began having many dreams. I wanted to study and work for those in greater need than myself. It was the type of life my mother hoped I would lead. To accomplish this dream, I realized that education would be important. From early in the morning to late at night, I studied English.
My dream is to establish an NGO to help North Koreans while focusing on the following areas of great need: refugee children’s education, human rights, and welfare. When the two Koreas are reunified, the NGO would continue to aid in these areas. Thinking about and planning my dream keeps my morale high and helps me overcome my troubled memories of North Korea and China. Whenever I encounter hardship, I stand strong, emboldened by the power of my dreams.
Up until March 2008, I worked in order to pay back my debt to my broker. I worked three consecutive jobs, including selling books in a bookstore, working as an attendant in a parking lot, and delivering chicken. I had trouble adjusting to the cultural differences I faced in South Korea. However, I had no choice but to adapt because it was the only way I could have a future in South Korea.
In 2007, I received my first prize in a memoir contest in Hanawon, which is created for the purpose of educating defectors before they are integrated back into society in South Korea. In 2009, I was studying at the alternative school called ‘Yeomyeong’ when I won the grand prize in the poetry contest in Gyeongi province in South Korea. I was really happy when I got it. The following is an excerpt from the poem I won the prize for:
살길 찾아 험한 길 오릅니다.
배고픔을 달래기 위해 허고에다 꿈을 품고
눈물 머금은 주먹 불끈 쥐고
가야할 그 곳 향해 내 발길 향합니다.
I climb up a steep rock-strewn path to survive
Daydreaming to forget about hunger
Tears fill my eyes
Step after step, I journey to my destination
In March 2008, I began to study what I wanted. For one and a half years, from the beginning of 2008 until the end of 2009, I took tests certifying my elementary, middle, and high school “completion.” I then entered Handong University, which is located in Pohang, South Korea’s “Steel City.” At Handong University, I served for one year as president of a student club, which studies North Korea and prays for its people. We have focused on teaching students about North Korean life and defectors’ lives in China or other countries by showing them videos and movies based on defectors’ lives. We have also held events to share North Korean food and campaigned for a seminar, which is now held by my club. Scholars or witnesses are invited, and then I sometimes share my life story as well. My club goes beyond the school to let the people living in the area around my university join our project and help us prepare programs. Driven by my personal credo to study not only for myself, but also for the people who are not as well off as me, I continue to persevere.
After I came to South Korea I contacted my brother living in North Korea and I would always send him money via a Chinese broker. I finally brought him to South Korea in 2012. I met him after 11 years of separation. I thought I would cry with happiness, but I actually had mixed emotions when I met him. He has gotten married since and has been working in a warehouse in South Korea.
Working to Help Others in Cambodia and China
While studying at Handong University, I was committed to working for others in Cambodia and China. I volunteered to help the elderly in a hospital and went to China to work for an orphanage hosting dozens of Chinese children. We produced a video for publicity. I personally taught two orphans basic English grammar.
I then visited Cambodia to become acquainted with several organizations working towards the improvement of the human rights situation in that country. One such organization was the New International Builder`s Community (NIBC), set up for Christian faith and study. There was a preschool and a middle school for Cambodian children receiving an education at a small cost. We helped to clean the grounds and also learned about how the organization was run.
At the University of Battambang, which was founded by H.E. Sar Kheng, Deputy Prime Minister in 2007, the vision of providing opportunities to students living in rural areas, especially in northwestern Cambodia, was realized. These opportunities include access to higher education and services that contribute towards the development of their individual careers, as well as to their local communities. At the same time, these opportunities are reducing the knowledge gap between the rural and urban populations. We then met many students and learned about what they are studying and how the school is run.
Cambodian Children’s Dream Organization (CCDO) has a vision to create healthy, educated, thriving, and sustainable villages in the rural areas of Siem Reap. We learned about how the organization is run. It was very interesting because they are building over five hundreds wells in poor villages in Cambodia at a very low cost.
We then visited some orphanages to help clean up, to teach the orphans, and to pray for them as well. After my experience in Cambodia, I decided to financially support a young girl in Cambodia. Her name is Toma, and she lives with her parents in Cambodia, but they are originally from Bangladesh. Her father is working as a daily worker and her mother does housework. Toma helps her parents do housework. She attends Bible study, which is one of the program missions of Compassion, the Christian organization through which I donate to her. She likes the subject of language and her education level is average. She also likes reading, painting and listening to music. We are frequent pen pals and I hope that she will grow up to be a beneficial contributor to her community
Part of the Work English Study Travel (WEST) program, I am now working at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) as an intern in Washington D.C. I am learning about human rights under international law. I am also learning about the North Korean political system, which I was not aware of living in North Korea, by reading HRNK’s publications.
Working at HRNK, I have had the pleasure of attending various conferences on North Korean human rights as well as on transitional justice for a reunified Korea. Learning more about human rights for North Korea and planning for a reunified Korea is very important. In Washington D.C., I have been able to network with other North Korean defectors and Korea experts. The people I have met and the things I have learned will play an important role in my future.
A Dream of the Future
Parting is often sad. To leave without having a chance to say goodbye is even worse. Nobody hates their hometown or their friends. When defectors depart from their hometowns, they believe they will return soon, but in reality, it is nearly impossible. In China, defectors who leave home will continue to miss home, while also fearing repatriation to North Korea. My hometown in North Korea is not geographically far from South Korea but it seems very, very far away, worlds apart. I want to go there to help my friends, but I cannot do that right now. Longing for my hometown comes in waves. Longing for my hometown in North Korea, this nostalgia often makes me melancholy. North Korea is shrouded in darkness. I can only hope for the advent of freedom in North Korea. While ceaselessly hoping and praying for freedom in North Korea, I often find myself moved to tears. I saw many terrible things when I was repatriated from China to North Korea. The absence of human rights means that human beings are not treated as they should be. I cannot understand why innocent defectors seeking freedom are tortured and killed.
Many defectors cross the Tumen River between China and North Korea to fill our empty stomachs and live. Many of them also look for freedom and the most fortunate ones—such as myself—continue to seek it at the end of a perilous road, in South Korea or other countries. If we go to China, not only the Chinese, but also the North Koreans point their guns at us for betraying our country. Where can refugees call home? All North Koreans long to be buried in their hometown with their families, but where are refugees who flee the country to be buried? How is it possible for parents and children separated by the China-North Korea border to be reunited? Most defectors go to South Korea to live freely by overcoming extraordinary obstacles. However, there are many cultural differences, and they suffer from a constant feeling of inferiority in a completely new world. How can we help the defectors to adjust to their new world?
I am trying to find solutions to these many questions. I searched for hope, but I found much misery embedded even within the hope I found. I never dreamed about discovering new goals, especially for future generations of North Koreans. Despite not having concrete plans, I now have a desire to overcome my circumstances and past memories. Some time in the future, I would like to write a book about my life and include my poetry. I want to create dreams for those who are living without a dream, especially North Korean youth, and be a part of their healing process. A small seed can bear much fruit. Perhaps even the help of one as insignificant as myself could be valuable. To be able to dream is a wonderful thing.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LinK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul this past May, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.