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12 year-old North Korean Boy, Chul’s Memoirs (2)
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2016-01-20 15:05:54
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12 year-old North Korean Boy, Chul’s Memoirs 

-A Long, Dramatic Journey to South Korea via China and Mongolia-

Part II: Father and Aunt to South Korea… 





Crossing the Tumen River 


It was night when we arrived in Sambong. I couldn’t hear any sound of a person being around except for the croaking of the frogs. Grandmother took us to a house. The landlady of the house and Grandma seemed to have made an appointment between them, and the woman friendly greeted us. The woman made some soup for us. After eating, we went to sleep there. As soon as Soyeon and Yunmi lied down, they fell fast asleep. 


But I couldn’t fall asleep with all the memories of leaving my hometown. Suddenly, I remembered the photos that I left at home since we were in a hurry. Among those pictures was a special one of my Mother. Without Mother’s photo, how can I hold a Memorial Day of Mother’s death? At first I was worried and then I felt like hating myself for not bringing those photos. I started crying but it was useless. 


The next day, Grandma went out and left us there. Everyday, she would leave and return at night. We stayed there for a couple of days. One day, Grandma brought us to someone’s house that she had contacted before. At that time, we all didn’t know how we were going to get to China except for the fact that we would go there somehow. 


By chance, I overheard a conversation between Grandma and the lady of the house and found out that the lady was going to help us cross the Tuman River. We were going to cross the Tuman River! 


We spent one more day at her house and the next day in the afternoon, after having lunch, we followed the lady to wherever she was leading us. I saw many soldiers marching in line. She stopped us at the railroad tracks and told us, “When crossing the river, don’t shout or shiver. Hold each other’s hands tightly and just cross. After you reach the other side, don’t stand there, you need to rush into the mountains. Otherwise, you might get caught by the Chinese security guards. So, be careful!” She hastened us to cross the river. I was so nervous that I couldn’t see the river. But after walking through the bush, we found the real big river in front of us. It surprised me. 


Soyeon was on the back of Grandpa, Yunmi on Grandma. Hand in hand with Grandpa and Grandma, we stepped into the river. As soon as I got into the river, I shivered from the chilly water. It was November and winter had just started. When we reached the middle of the river, the water was up to my belly and I felt like dying from the cold. 


Even though, I was really nervous and in spite of the cold, I bravely crossed toward the other side hand in hand with my Grandparents. Even Soyeon and Yunmi didn’t make a sound at all in the water. Step by step, we walked deeper into the river and when we almost reached the bank, the water around my belly suddenly came up to my neck. I was about to shout in surprise, but controlled myself with a small sound “Uk!” On arriving to the riverbank, I pulled up Grandpa and Grandma from the water. Grandpa was completely exhausted, and he hobbled, so I helped him up to the bank. 


“Chul, Your father is coming here.” 


There was no time to rest, as we followed Grandma into the mountains. We hid ourselves in the bush and sat for a while and changed our clothes. Soyeon, Yunmi and I all sat down shivering from the terrible cold. We waited there until it became dark. 


In the darkness, we followed our Grandmother. We seemed to be like running mice to steal something. During our course, when we heard people’s voices, we froze wherever we were and strained to listen to where they were. 


We finally arrived at a town in complete darkness. The road leading to the town was a very meandering lane. We reached the house of Grandma’s relatives and on arriving; they joyfully greeted us and served us food. 


I felt a great relief upon seeing the delicious and plentiful dishes of food. I felt like I was dreaming when I was eating after experiencing such terrible pangs of hunger. Hearing that they usually had meals like this, I was extremely delighted. 


My grandparents, Soyeon and Yunmi ate like horses. We all changed our clothes into the Chinese style. I loved to wear such tidy clothes that I often looked at myself in the mirror. It was as if we had come out from hell and we were in heaven. We stayed there that night. 


The next morning, we also had a delicious breakfast. Grandma came close to me and said, “Chul, your Dad is coming here now.” It was such unexpected news that I just couldn’t believe it. Still in doubt, I said, “Don’t lie to me, I don’t think it can be possible, do you know where Dad is now?” With a smiling face, Grandma said, “I understand your doubt but be patient and see.” 


The Chinese Train 


While we were waiting, suddenly someone opened the door and came in. He kept looking at us and when I looked closer, I realized he was my Dad. I was very surprised at his sudden appearance and for a while I was not myself. But we didn’t cry. 


My Grandparents approached him in tears and they all sat down together and he called our names with a smiling face. He hugged Soyeon and told Yunmi, “You’re going to meet your Mom”, which pleased us very much. His mentioning about my Aunt made us even more surprised and we shared in the joy of our family reunion. Our Dad was living far from the house where we were staying so we put on our clothes and followed him outside. 


The relatives saw us off at the bus stop and we got on the bus. The bus ride was long but we were all happy and had fun because it was my first time riding on a bus. Our Grandparents were also very pleased. After a few hours, we arrived at a train station. It was very big and beautiful and inside, I found numerous goods that I’ve never seen before. 


Dad told us, “Stay here. I’ll be back. I’m going to buy tickets.” He seemed to know everything about Chinese and China. As he directed us, we sat there without moving due to fear. 


Surrounded by people, speaking a strange tongue- curling sound from everywhere, I became panicky. At that moment, a lady spoke to me in a bizarre language. In fear, I didn’t respond to her, pretending not to have heard what she was saying and turned my head. While she was talking to us, I was terrified in sweat. After speaking for a while, she left and Dad showed up with the tickets and some snacks. 


We waited to board the train on the scheduled time. We had fixed seats and they were very spongy unlike the solid wood seats in North Korea. I found windows everywhere and no one standing up. When the train started to leave, it ran so smoothly that I was not aware that it was moving unless I looked outside the window. In North Korea, the sudden movement of the train usually caused us to fall while departing. More surprisingly, people continued to eat food from the table while traveling in the train. Unlike North Korea, people couldn’t eat anything and had to skip their meals while traveling on the train. We continued to travel by train, as it grew dark. 


Meeting with Aunt 


Grandma waked me up while I was sleeping, saying that we arrived. When we got off with our packages, some women approached us. As they came closer, one of them was my Aunt. She was Yunmi’s Mother! She happily hugged us all and our Grandparents cried for joy. 


My Aunt came up to Yunmi and hugged her, saying “My baby, are you really my daughter, Yunmi?” Yunmi was too young to recognize her Mom and tried to keep away from her. 


At last, we got in a car with Dad and everywhere outside was complete darkness, unable to see anything. After a while, the car stopped and we out to walk for a long time following Dad and Aunt in the dark. Dad led us to a house, opening the door in his stride. All at once, I heard dogs barking everywhere annoyingly. 


Dad relieved us by saying, “No problem, just come on in.” Opening the outside door and coming in, we had to open another door inside. It was totally dark, so we couldn’t see anything until my Aunt switched on the lights. The room was very small connected to a kitchen and there was a wardrobe for clothes and blankets. 


Taking off our shoes, we entered the room. Taking Yunmi from Grandma, Aunt hugged her and kept her close by after not being able to meet her daughter for one- year. Dad was also very pleased to hug Soyeon. We unpacked our bag and sat around in the room, sharing with each other stories of what had happened in North Korea and China. Then I realized that my Father couldn’t have found any way to get food in North Korea so he crossed the border to China to find some. Aunt came to China to find support from our relatives living in China and by chance, she met Dad. 


Dad didn’t know anything about China and was ignorant of the Chinese language. Because he escaped to China, he was in danger of possibly being caught. I found that a woman supported my Dad and they lived together. He didn’t have any other choice but to live with her. 


Chinese Mom 


This woman was a Chinese citizen and an ethnic Korean and she spoke Chinese well. Dad’s house was located nearby the town, which was a little bit far from the city and the house where we were staying at was located in the mountains. 


On hearing the news of Mother’s death, Dad became very mournful. That night, Dad and Aunt stayed with us and didn’t return to their homes. Dad told us, “You have to stay here from today.” and the next day, they went back to their houses. 


After seeing Dad off, Grandpa and I looked around the house. The house walls were made out of mud and the roof was thatched with rice straw surrounded by dried trees. Beside the house, there was a main road where people walked and cars passed by. 


Dad was living in a village located downward from our house. At his house, there were two dogs, always barking at me whenever I stopped by his house. But later, they became accustomed to seeing me and I used to play with them everyday. 


Whenever Dad came to the house to see us, he brought rice, side dishes, clothes and a bicycle with him. I loved to eat the dishes that he brought us every morning. 


Though there were few people living there, we were very satisfied with our good meals and clothes. We liked the life there. 

One day, I came down with a bad flu and Dad took me to see a doctor in town. The doctor gave me a shot and something that was a bottle half filled with some water with a long cord and it looked very special to me. I felt so good after that shot without any pain and they kept giving me shots for a couple of hours. 


After seeing the doctor, Dad and I went to a house that was a straw-thatched cottage with a large room where an old lady lived. She was the woman’s mother, who was living with my Dad and we greeted each other. Dad told me to eat there and he went outside to wait for someone. An hour and a half later, a somewhat tall and healthy woman came in. Dad introduced us to each other since it was my first time meeting her. After that, Dad took me home on his bicycle. 


I felt sad when Dad told me to call her Mom but Dad assured me by explaining, “the woman is just a second Mother, your real Mother was the woman who passed away. Don’t forget your real Mother, who gave birth to you and raised you till now.” His talking consoled me, and I realized that Dad still truly loved my Mother. 


We couldn’t stay where we were living and had to move out. Soyeon and I didn’t fool around or waste time in Dad’s house. We learned Chinese from my Chinese Mom and practiced it because in order to live in China, we had to learn to speak and write Chinese. 


Learning Chinese from Chinese Mom 


Our Chinese Mom spent her childhood in China, so was very fluent in speaking Chinese. Before she was 10 years old, she did not know how to speak Korean. Everyday we studied Chinese from her step by step but it was not easy for us to learn Chinese. I frequently forgot what I learned after studying Chinese. 


Finally, it was January 1, 1999, New Year’s Day. It was the first New Years since we came to China. In the morning, we visited Grandpa at the factory kitchen where he worked, bringing some snacks to do a New Years bow to our Grandparents. Grandma greeted us and then we started the bowing ceremony. We bowed to our Grandparents, Dad and Aunt and they all gave us 2,000 won for the New Year. We were all glad to receive it. Our Chinese Mother couldn’t come because she was visiting her relatives. 


Grandpa said, “It is already New Years and crossing the Tuman River just seems like it happened yesterday.” I shed tears thinking how good it would be if Mom were here with us together. We shared holiday stories all day long and at the end of the day returned home. On returning home, we resumed our studies. 


One day while we were at Dad’s house, he told us, “You have to move out and live with your Grandma so pack up your things.” After we packed up our clothes and books, we went with him carrying our belongings. We reached a brick house after passing many narrow lanes. The house was larger than the one we lived in and at the end and there was a kitchen. Our Chinese Mom, another Chinese and a landlord came into the house and were speaking in Chinese for a while. They seemed to be bargaining. 


On hearing the noisy sound of a car, we found our Grandparents and Aunt with Yunmi getting out of a car. I saw a lot of furniture piled in the back of the car. We took some packages from Grandma, and led Yunmi by the hand to the house. The door was open and our Chinese Mom stepped out and Dad introduced her to Grandma, “This woman is who I’ve been talking about.” 


We were all very busy moving in and arranging packages and didn’t finish until evening. Then the room appeared larger and cleaner and Grandpa was very satisfied with the large room and said to Dad, “We don’t need such a big room like this.” Dad replied that he wanted his parents and children to live in a good house. I looked up to Dad’s respectfulness towards my Grandparents and swore to myself that I would become like my Dad. That was our third house after arriving in China. 


Dad helped our Chinese Mom by farming and didn’t earn a lot of money, which made us still very poor. Everyday was a boring day until one day, Dad came to our house and said that we had to move again because, according to the radio, the North Korean government was trying to arrest and repatriate all the defectors by sending security agents to China. 


He said that all the people in the neighborhood knew that we were defectors from North Korea. So we were in danger and had to pack up all the household goods and leave by tomorrow. 


His explanation surprised us all and without saying anything, we began to pack. He told us that he would look around for another place that we could move to and left in a hurry. Grandma hastened us to pack up so we packed everything. There was no time to say goodbye to our third home because as soon as we loaded our packages onto the bus, it left. 


Color television for the first time 


The bus let us off at a small town at the end of a city after many long hours. We brought our packages to the front of a house and Dad told us that this was our new house. It was a red brick house, closely connected with other houses and looked small. 


Dad and our Chinese Mom left and went to the street market, saying that they needed to buy some necessary goods. They came back with a big box and inside was a television, that I had been longing to have! I kept repeating my thanks to Dad. After he installed it in our room, he tested it. Wow! The clothes the people were wearing on the screen were blue and red and all other clear colors! It was like a dream. 


Moreover, I found a small machine that I could use to work the television. When I pushed a button of this small thing, the television came on. By pushing volume, we could change the sound to loud or quiet, and the channel operated in the same way. Unlike the North Korean TV with only one channel, it had several channels. It was really amazing! I was so happy and stood frozen in front of the television and my eyes opened to the television world. 


In the evening, we had a good dinner and sat around to watch the television. I became absorbed in television but we still had to be cautious of everything and lived under extreme tension. 




One day, Dad suddenly said to us, “Let’s record our situation and send it to South Korea.” What he said was unbelievable and I kept asking him if he really meant what he said. He was not kidding. He told us to think about what we wanted to record about our living situation. 


Dad wrote down the things he would ask in detail. The next day, we were playing after breakfast in front of the house when Dad called us in and we saw a recording machine. He taught us how and what to say during the recording and our Chinese Mom went out during our recordings. Once recording began, our hearts started beating fast. Dad pushed the record button and said, “Start!” 


Dad asked us to answer sincerely about all the facts as it were. When we stammered, he stopped recording, gave us some tips and resumed recording. At first, I was nervous but later, I got used to just speaking naturally. We all explained honestly and in detail about our predicament and hard life in North Korea. When coming to Mom’s death, Soyeon started sobbing but we spent the morning and afternoon doing the whole recording. The next day, Dad listened through our recording again and praised us for doing a good job. In the evening, our Chinese Mom and Dad went to the post office and mailed it to South Korea. 


Guest from Seoul 


One day, I overheard Dad’s conversation with Mom. He said, “I got a call yesterday, someone from the Chosun Ilbo newspaper will visit us in a few days.” Dad told us to behave politely to the person from South Korea. He received another call from a South Korean and sent Mom and Aunt to Simyang to wait for his call. The next day, we went to bed unaware of everything but Dad didn’t go to sleep. While I was sleeping, some sound woke me up and I found a stranger sitting with my Dad and Chinese Mom. There were lots of packages and Dad introduced the man to me, “He is working with the Chosun Ilbo press.” I greeted him and he stroked my head. 

In the next morning, we washed our faces. Dad took the man to a Chinese restaurant while we had breakfast at home with our Chinese Mom. After couple of hours, Dad and the man came back home. After taking off his jacket and talking about our recording, the man wanted to hear about our accounts on the North Korea situation. We answered frankly and our conversation continued for hours. He wrote down notes and took pictures of us. He stayed at our home for a few days and talked a lot with Dad and gave us a watch and other gifts.


One day, Dad held a family meeting and asked Grandpa, “Why don’t you move out from this home?” Grandpa replied, “Oh, right. That would be good. This house is too small for all of us to live together. We can live peacefully by ourselves.” He answered as if he had predicted this situation before. Their conversation surprised me and I thought, ‘how could they live without us and what are we going to do?’ After a couple of hours of talking, Grandpa seemed to be sullen and didn’t say anything more. 


The next day, Dad and our Chinese Mom left and took a bus to search for another house. Even after they left, my Grandparents still said nothing. Grandpa seemed to think that they were regarded as a burden to the family but Dad didn’t have any other choices. In this mood, I also didn’t feel like saying anything. 


That evening, Dad returned home and informed us that there was a house for my Grandparents in Hukryongkang district, Haerim City, where we had lived the first time after arriving to China. That’s when I learned the name of the place in which we had lived. He said that the place was good because it was near Aunt’s house but my Grandparent’s faces looked heavy-hearted. Dad suggested that they move out the next week. 


Attending School 


We started studying at home after our Grandparents moved out. We studied hard, reviewing everything that we had learned. I would memorize 10 words a day and skipped dinner if I didn’t finish my allotment. It was very difficult to learn Chinese. Among the 10 words that I had memorized the day before, I could only remember just three of them. Worried about our studies, Dad decided about putting us in school after pondering for a long time. Our Chinese Mom and Dad went out to find a suitable school for us.


That evening, Dad told us, “Attending school in the city costs too much, so you will attend one in the rural area, a little far from here.” The school was far from my town. In order to go to school, we needed a bicycle. So thinking about the matter Dad made a decision to move out again. One reason was because of the inexpensive rental fee and second for our schooling. 


After moving, just before falling asleep, I would recall everything that I learned before. However, I didn’t remember multiplication or division. In Soyeon’s case, she could attend the second grade because she was at that same level in North Korea. But the problem was my case. I didn’t even know multiplication or division; I was very disappointed in myself. 


The next morning, I washed my face, brushed my teeth and dressed neatly. Putting books in my bag, I went out with Soyeon, Dad and Chinese Mom. 


Elementary school of Ethnic Koreans in China 


Other students paid 1,000 won each but unlike them, we paid 1,000 won for both of us in Chinese currency. I attended the second term of forth grade and Soyeon, the second term of the second grade. The principal of the school brought me to class. I was so nervous but I tried to tell myself, ‘No problem, this is a school for ethnic Koreans, speaking Korean.’ 


At that time, the principal didn’t know that I came from North Korea. Dad had never informed him about our background. If people had known this fact, it would have made an unfavorable situation for us. I followed the principal into class and he introduced me to the teacher and the students. 


After his introduction, the students applauded and I bowed to them as a greeting and was seated, then the principal left. After class, students thronged around me and asked me a lot of questions. The first one was where I came from, after some hesitation; I answered “Haerim” where I first lived in China. To my response, the kid nodded as if he understood. 


After another class, we returned home. We didn’t face any problems attending school and I studiously took every class, especially Chinese language, which was an hour everyday. After class, I received tutoring from my Chinese Mom to review Chinese but it was still difficult for me to learn. 


One day, the teacher asked me to read some Chinese text. On hearing her calling my name, my face promptly blushed and answered that I couldn’t read it and that I would do it later. She continuously persuaded me to read, but to my stubbornness, she gave up. I didn’t know any other way but to refuse her request. 


In that way, I just barely passed Chinese class. Therefore, it became the hardest time for me. In all my other classes I had done well except for Chinese, so I worked hard on it. A couple of months later, I was able to read some of the words. One day in class, I was forced to read Chinese text by the teacher’s instruction. However, whenever I pronounced words, the students all laughed at me. I was so ashamed of myself that I almost started shedding tears. I not only incorrectly pronounced the words but also changed the intonation, and consequently the meaning of the words. I will never forget that shameful moment. Since then, I worked even harder to learn Chinese but it was still tough for me. 


Another move…. to an apartment 


Grandma moved to our town because bad rumors were spreading out again in Haerim. Dad had predicted it before and that was why we moved from there before. 


One day, Dad and I visited Grandma’s house. When we arrived, Grandma looked extremely restless and pensive. Dad kept persisting on asking her what was wrong and she finally confessed to him, “Today I chattered with some neighbor women and I met a very kind and naïve lady. While talking with her, I revealed that we were from North Korea. Is that okay?” 


In surprise, Dad said, “Never, the woman knew us, too. You should not have told her that. How can we trust people?” Grandma was very agitated. Pondering on this matter, Dad decided to move again. Sitting beside them, I felt frustrated because at last, I had settled in. But another move? No way! However, we didn’t have any choice. The next day, we packed up our stuff and filled up the car. 

On moving day the car carried all the household goods as it did before. After 30 minutes driving, we arrived in front of an apartment building. I asked our Chinese Mom about the apartment, it was incredible to be able to live here. 


There were two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, a middle-sized room and another small room. After looking around the apartment, we began to unpack our stuff and arrange them in the rooms. The house looked better after putting things in order and cleaning up. That was my fifth house. Dad helped our Grandparents move out to a farm area near where my Aunt was living. 


Dad going to South Korea alone 


Dad was determined to go to South Korea, where he could freely communicate in the Korean language so we saved money. He could disguise himself as an ethnic Korean living in China. The reasons why he wanted to go to South Korea was first for survival and second because we are the same race. We made every effort to send Dad to Korea and he also worked very hard to earn enough money to go. When Dad left, we were supposed to live with our Chinese Mom. Our Aunt made meals for us until our Chinese Mom returned. On the fifth day since Dad left, she came back but she looked dispirited. The day she returned, we received a call from Dad saying that he safely arrived in South Korea. We were relieved to hear this news. 


We lived together with our Chinese Mom and worked hard at school. I was awarded the second best in my class during the first term of fifth grade. I was on cloud nine at that time and in this way, I caught up with the others in learning Chinese. 


When I was 5th grade in school, I heard that Dad came out to the society after investigation time. Two months later, my Aunt was planning to go to South Korea supported by the money from Dad. However, she didn’t speak Chinese, so she had to disguise herself as an ethnic Korean in China. She needed someone who could accompany her. Our Chinese Mom introduced her to a lady who wanted to go to South Korea and they successfully went to South Korea. 


She also had to go through the investigation time in South Korea. Then all the main members of the family had gone to South Korea. Oh! I forget to tell about my Grandpa. According to my Aunt, Grandpa became sick with paralysis and soon passed away leaving a will saying that Soyeon and I had to go to South Korea. 


Soon after his death, my Aunt went to Korea, which only left Grandma, Soyeon, Yunmi and I in China. Soyeon and I lived with our Chinese Mom, and Yunmi and Grandma moved to other place. 


Having moved to the city, we studied harder. One day, all of a sudden, our Chinese Mom got a call from Dad. She conveyed his message to us, which was that a Japanese reporter would visit us because he wanted to hear our situation and talk with us. 

On the way to meet Japanese reporter, I rode on an elevator for the first time.


Days passed by and we received another call. Mom told us that the Japanese reporter was waiting to see us at the hotel called “Mokdan River”, a little bit far from where we lived. We were scheduled to meet him the next day. 


So the next day, we put on some nice clothes and went out to the street. We took a Taxi to the big city called “Mokdan River City” after half an hour. After paying the taxi driver, we went into a luxurious hotel. 


We followed after our Chinese Mom and stopped in front of an elevator. She pushed a button on the wall. It was amazing to see an elevator for the first time in my life. The elevator door slowly opened and we went in. I felt dizzy when it went up and within a few seconds, it went up from first to fifth floor. 


When the door opened, some man was standing in front of the door. He asked us in Korean “Are you the people who came here to meet a Japanese reporter?” We replied, “Yes”. He greeted us by shaking our hands. He guided us to a room and we met the man there. 


The ethnic Korean man asked us about our life, just like the man from Chosun Ilbo. Thus, we answered as we had done before. The Korean man translated my story to the Japanese reporter. 


After a few hours of conversation, they took our picture. The Japanese man handed us an envelope. When we left, I thought, ‘We did a good job. Meeting with Japanese and South Korean reporters…Wow, we’d really done a wonderful job!’ 


It took us half an hour to get to our home. On arriving home, we had dinner. Our Chinese Mom opened the envelope and found Chinese currency of 1,000 won.