|Out of the Jaws of Death Four Times|
Out of the Jaws of Death Four Times
I was born into a worker's family in ○○ Dong, Wonsan City, Kangwon Province. When I was born, my father was a clerk at the finance department of Wonsan Agricultural College, while my mother was a seamstress at a local clothing factory. Before too long we moved to ○○ Dong, Wonsan, where I grew up. I attended People's School and High School there. Since my father was a worker, instead of continuing my education through any higher learning institution or technical school, I had to work.
I had moved around several factories until I left for Russia in 1990: in 1982 ○○ factory, Wonsan, in 1986 ○○○ machine factory, finally ○○ construction office. I started a family in 1989 by marrying a female worker. It was no easy job in North Korea to support a family as a worker. Everything was scarce, particularly food and fuel. Everyone had to worry about what to eat and how to heat the house. Every worker's family in North Korea had to struggle in cold winter. No worker in North Korea could afford a day of rest.
Let us take a look at how a typical worker spends his week. Monday: Monday Lecture; Tuesday: General Study; Wednesday: Study of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il's ideology; Thursday: Worker's Meeting and Study; Friday: Summary and Reflection for Workers' Meeting; Saturday: Technical Training. All these "Studies" start after a day's 480 minutes work and last well into late night. Every Monday he does "social labor" and "farm support". Except holidays he doesn't have a single day of rest.
Party's "emphasis on labor" is beyond anyone's comprehension. North Korean workers do not have any sense of pride, while working incessantly. Since their pay was extremely low, their morale was understandably in the cellar. They didn't intend to work, instead they simply want to kill the time. "Why should I work hard? For what purpose? Everyone gets same amount of ration and pay whether he worked really hard or just killed the time. Why should I work harder than others?" This is how every one felt. And this is the reality of North Korean workers who were ostensibly united by the ideal of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, energized by the banner of Juche(self-reliance) ideology.
It was around 1983 when I began to have some knowledge about South Korea. I was working Pyunggang county, Kangwon province, as a member of "The Young Support Group for Farm Villages". The purpose of the Youth Group was to implement the triple revolutionary principles in farm villages. The principles included communist ideology, agricultural skill, and culture. And the Group kept eye on "ideological purity" of team foremen and farmers, reporting to higher-ups everyday so that no one would have second thought on one mans' leadership system. I was able to listen to South Korean radio and television without too much difficulty during three years of my service at the Group. It was possible because Pyunggang was so close to DMZ.
I gave much serious thoughts after concluding my tour of the Group. "North Korea was the richest country in the world due to Kim Il Sung's benevolence, while South Koreans were all hungry and clothed in rags. Children were looking around piles of garbage for food, not able to attend school even if they reached school age." However, as I listened to South Korean broadcasting I realized the situation was just the opposite. When I personally witnessed the wealthy living style of those workers who had returned from Russia, I persuaded myself to go abroad to observe foreign country's situation and hopefully to do something about my own poverty. However, it was extremely hard to go abroad as a worker. The chance was close to nil. By bribing my superior at the work, I was able to go to Russia in 1991. It was as lucky as catching a star.
I found myself at Mesdrechensk Mining office in Kuzbas, scarcely enjoying a moment of joy in entering a foreign country for the first time in my life. I crossed the border along Tuman Railway Bridge. Work started the next day. Manufacturing materials for assembly building was the job, requiring intensive labor.
In spite of hard labor food was very poor - Annam rice and salty soup. In the evening it was a confined living with iron gate in front tightly closed. Everyone received only 38 percent of wage even though working condition was coarse. One had to get permission if he wanted to go to a store nearby. It was like living in a prison. It was only an extension of my life under surveillance even in a foreign country. Certainly I didn't want to recall 30 years of my life under surveillance in North Korea. One day I met a Russian woman in a store. She thanked me and fellow North Korean workers. The reason was that a refrigerator was allotted to her husband who worked at the same mine. And the refrigerator happened to be one made in South Korea. She couldn't tell the difference between North and South Korea. She thanked us for being Koreans. From that moment on my mind was turning toward South Korea. On February 16, 1992 I deserted with a fellow worker, Yoon ? Chul, from the mine. We went to Tuba Republic, a remote area from the work. Tuba was located on the border of Mongolia. Its inhabitants were very much like us. It was a suitable area for us to hide and do business for a while. We stayed at a house in Guzl whose hostess was an old Russian woman. She treated us like her own children. Under her care we started small business including brewing wine with alcohol. Before too long I was aware of presence of North Korean security agents searching for me. One day I was stopped by Russian police in town. They took me to a precinct station and interrogated my day and night. They kept asking me where I belonged to. I insisted that I was a Chinese businessman for fear of handed over to North Korean agents once my true identity was uncovered. For the fifteen days of my imprisonment I poured drinking water for every meal to a lock. Somehow I managed to unlock the cell door and fled.
Then I lived among ethnic Korean and engaged in a small business. Some Chinese merchants informed North Korean agents of our intention to go to South Korea. They went wild looking for us. Aided by a group of Russian gangsters North Korean agents burst into our place around four in the morning, breaking front door with an iron bar. As we fired air guns at them, they ran away.
A few days later a man called Mr. Kim brought us a letter issued by the North Korean Security Agency. It read as follows: we were ready to forgive you if you came back and apologized. I told him in no uncertain terms that I would rather die here than return to North Korea. First of all, I fled North Korea because I was fed up with oppressive system and abject poverty. I would never return to the living hell. Then Mr. Kim said that if I went back right away I would be pardoned. "I didn't want to take you guys back home." "I was simply following their order to deliver this." He stayed with us for a few days and began to oscillate. Finally he made up his mind to stick with us.
One day in June an arresting team of 8~9 North Korean agents broke into my place and arrested me. Obviously they were tipped off by Chinese vendors. Fortunately the other two were living in different places then. I was handcuffed and taken to a waiting cab. The car sped away with 75 miles per hour toward Abakan City. It took six hours to get there. Then the agents and I were to get on a train headed for central penitentiary. I was hopeless. I was doomed. I would be taken back to the work area whence I fled. Then to central penitentiary, finally to North Korea. Before too long a train appeared. There was no way to escape. I was closely watched by 2~3 agents. I reminded myself that I would surely be dead unless I made a move right away. I asked their permission to go to a bathroom in the train. Two agents followed me. No sooner than I entered the bathroom I locked the door. Naturally they banged the door repeatedly and shouted. "Come out, now!" Somehow I managed to open a window and jumped out of speeding train. Of course, I was still handcuffed.
A few moments later I collected myself and saw the train moving far away. I was unharmed fortunately. I walked over 25 miles to Abakan City still handcuffed. A Russian on a street helped me to unlock the handcuff. I thanked him profusely, promising that I would return some day to pay back the favor. I took a cab. After six hours I was once again back to Guzl. Then I was joined with two other North Koreans, my former roommates. We were so happy that we shed tears of joy.
One day several Russian approached and asked me to come along with them. I was a vendor at marketplace then. Immediately I realized something was up. Then I pointed an airgun to them, they confided to me that they had been paid to do this. And they told me to look at those in a car. Of course, they were North Korean agents. I jumped into a cab nearby and paid the driver an exorbitant amount of money. "Please drive fast so that that car over there couldn't catch us." That cab driver quickly seized the situation and skillfully evaded the pursuer.
Several months later Koryo merchants told us that the North Korean agents would simply kill us and take a picture. "Then you would be buried." We couldn't afford to wait any longer. Discreetly we asked around about telephone number of Korean Embassy in Moscow. When we inquired about our case over telephone, their response was not very enthusiastic. So, we went to Korean consul in Vladivostok, where we submitted papers requesting political exile. With a nonchalant bureaucratic manner a South Korean diplomat merely told us to go home and wait. On our way home we took a long journey to Korean Embassy in Ukraine. There was not much to cheer about even after cross-continental adventure. We tried a telephone inquiry Korean Embassy in Moscow, since we were unable to visit there on our way home. Again our mission was failed. Returning home with broken hearts, we made up our minds to settle in Russia after giving a careful thought.
One day we visited a church served by a South Korean pastor. We didn't learn anything about religion in North Korea in the past. Undoubtedly we didn't know about God. Generally speaking we didn't have very positive image of South Korean pastors. But once we got to know him we felt genuine love and brotherly care. Through Sunday worship service our hearts were in peace. The pastor was concerned about our predicament. He consulted with other pastors over our situation. We were supposed to move for our safety. On February 6, 1996, a few days before the move, I was arrested again. Russian police put me into a prison cell for felons. When I pleaded with them for my release, explaining that I had come from North Korea, not a criminal but a person seeking political asylum. Upon learning that I was a North Korean, Russian police attempted to inform North Korean agents. They were ready to transfer my case to North Koreans. The South Korean pastor visited police precinct and asked my release. Of course, his plea was turned down. Some of my Russian friends unsuccessfully appealed my case.
Although Russian police was sympathetic to my case, they said that they had no choice but to hand over to North Korea agents because of repeated requests by North Korean side. I made myself perfectly clear. "If you ever want to hand me over to North Koreans, you are releasing a dead man. I am already dead when you deliver my body to them." I realized that I was standing at the cross-roads of life and death. One dark night as I was deep in contemplation, I noticed a pin on a prisoner's clothe sitting next to me. I knew right away it was the best chance for me. I ask him for the pin, pretending I was going to use it for toothpick. As soon as I got it I turned my back, stretched it, and promptly swallowed it. A brief tense moment later felt an acute pain in my stomach. I yelled from the top of my lung. "My belly aches!" Police officers rushed in, asking what was up. They took me to hospital. I was X-rayed two three times. While the police and doctor were consulting, I opened a window and jumped from second floor. Then I ran for my life. I took a night train, leaving Guzl, my second hometown, forever. I was heading for the destination I had already picked.
Later on I asked Korean Embassy for political asylum. My petition for refugee status was handled by UN. And by the decision of International Red Cross I was able to come to Free Korea for which I had longed so long. I still had the pin in my stomach.