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Escaping from an Abyss of Despair
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2016-01-20 16:57:37
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Escaping from an Abyss of Despair

Soon-i SEOL 
A female defector from North Korea

The author submitted her hand-written witness accounts to NKHR field research group during her stay in China, in June, 2002.          

Due to my husband’s active duty, I had lived in Pyongyang for ten years.  Then after he was discharged for various reasons, we moved back to Hoeryong. Among them, the most significant reason was that he didn’t have bright future in his career since his uncle on his father's side resides in China. He had never been able to get promoted to higher position simply because one he was from China and two his relatives were still in China.

From early twenties to mid forty, he had dedicated his whole life for his mother country, not even caring much of his own family. However, a series of continuous disappointments finally led him to leave the army, and then came back to Hoeryong, where his stepparents were living. 

Until then, we hadn’t experienced shortage of food, because of his status as an army officer. But as we first went into the real world, we faced up to the cold facts of the reality – we could barely live on a crust, and even that was not enough to feed us all.

Being in China securing foodstuff illegally made me awake to reality.  We always heard that N. Korea is the only place of united socialist country in the world, and that we, the citizens of N. Korea, were receiving all the benefits available from the government.  It was more than just a shock to find what is really going on in an outside world, and to see how badly we, the people of N. Korea, were treated.  Obviously, the reality hurt…

My husband and I couldn’t help resisting the temptation to defect!  Let’s get out of this frightening and dreadful country!!  We have no hope and future in here!!!

Any parents who care about their children would have made exact same decision as we have. We wanted to our children live happy and healthy with free of danger. 

Of course, it was not an easy decision to make. How undeveloped and inhuman she is, still my parents, family and friends all had lived there and still were living there – it was my homeland. I am ashamed of myself, not at all proud of myself. It was just such a sad situation. You escape from your homeland just to get a food to feed you and your family. But while doing so, you can’t communicate people in new place, and are exposed to such dangers as human trafficking, kidnapping, violence, murder, robbery, etc. All this thing would probably happened only to the people from N. Korea.

At last, we moved to China one year after my husband’s discharge. First he escaped with our son, then after three days, I ran away with two daughters. It was seemingly inevitable that we would gather more attention, ala more danger, on our way out if we all ran away together at the same time. So I decided to take a different route as my husband took, and it took me two days of one-hundred-and-eighty-ri-walking journey finally to get out of N. Korea. I could after all hove a sign of relief. 

A first few days in Yanbian were remarkably excited and busy. Especially our children were more than just surprised to see this whole new world that they never experienced before. Because Yanbian was not the safest place around, my husband moved to Harbin, where his uncle resided with our son. Me and our two daughters were left in Yanbian…

After one month passed, I got caught with our elder daughter by the security guard. A warrant for the arrest of my husband had been issued because he was high official in the army. I didn’t expect my sister’s house be watched. I thought to myself that everything was over now just after one month, and worried and feared what would be happened. Anyway, I was taken to Hoeryong detention camp by the security police.  

There, I was then questioned in a small cell. They conducted rough investigation with critical look – Why did I escape to China, Were I so hungry, Was it good to stay in China, Where was my husband, did I decide to go to S. Korea. Well, the common investigation procedure for anybody who got caught by the security, I guess…

I remember that it was early March, and consequently, was still bit chilly. Naturally, I got beaten by them. They kicked me on the ears, on the calves, on the head – probably light interrogation on their standard. Then I was transferred to Hoiryung Security Agency, where the real severe examination started. I was brought down to my knees on the ground with no hope whatsoever in my mind. I only regretted not being able to kill myself. I wasn’t afraid of their word of abuse or whipping. Asking myself what was going to happen? That’s probably only concerns the ones with time to relax…

After number of question from polices around there, they conducted body search. I had Korean cash worth of three-hundred-fifty Won, and some candies that Chinese police bought for my daughters – but had no Chinese cash. Money was robbed, and the candies were put back to my daughter’s pocket. The officer was young woman, and probably took a pity on us. 

Then we got separated and cross-examined in detail. Thereafter, we were thrown into a ward. There were only two big wards, and each one contains ten people, regardless of sex or age. Surprisingly, I met my brother over there – my real brother! He also had a trouble living in N. Korea because our relatives were in China. He came to China a few days back. And after finding our family’s defect and harsh reality, he tried to get his family to escape from N. Korea since his wife and son still lived there. But in that process, he got caught by the security police. I had never imagined that!

But I thought that he would be given lighter sentence than I would. Actually, I truly believed that. For approximately one week, I could stay with my brother, though we were not in the same ward. My daughter was released just after one night because she was under aged. 

In the ward with no light to escape, everyone became infested with lice. We were never ever allowed or able to wash ourselves even for a few months while we were there! The noise of people crushing a louse in a dimly-lit cell. The disgusting smell from urinating on a basket. Especially, for women, life hung heavy upon them. You just can’t imagine the hardship that she was facing while having her period – shame and sorry for the people around…

On sixth day, my brother was carried to the ward that I was in. I never knew that. I never knew that it would be the last time I could see my brother! Why didn’t I know that? Why couldn’t I aware of it?

It was the last chance that I could see my brother, the chance that the police had given us to see each other and talk to each other for the last time. If I could just know of it beforehand – although, nothing would have been changed. It is still the one thing that I regret most. It’s a bit consolidating that I gave all my rationed food to him that night. I hoped that he could get out of there as soon as possible, and I believed that he could. But for whatever, I haven’t heard from him for more than six years, not even knowing whether he is alive or not…

Can I see him back again? Can we meet each other someday? Can anybody help us?

He is not guilty of anything. Yeah, he was a betrayer against his nation. But that’s because his just needed to feed his family and himself for survival! That was it! Was that his fault that he could barely survive in N. Korea? Was that my fault? It wouldn’t and won’t happen if one could at least eat and survive according to his effort. If one could dream of future, it just won’t happen. One can’t. We have to eat to survive. Should we starve to death just because of sense of loyalty to our homeland? I don’t think that’s right treatment. I believe that human being has a right to survive and power to live. Why? Why couldn’t one who worked hard get a guarantee to survive?

It’s too bad. That community. If they want to take us back there, at least they should give us some direction or condition to survive. We abandon our homeland and live in a strange land. And that’s not the easiest thing to do in the world. Different culture, language, and customs – It is difficult to stay in China. But I don’t want to blame anybody but myself – not even that country, N. Korea. I’ll take it as my fate. 

But still it gives me too much burden when I think of my brother. I desperately want to see him back, and make him stay right beside me. I would like to help him to forget his unfortunate past and scars. I’m just praying everyday for him to stay alive and healthy. Just want to talk to anybody to help him. Anyone with a brother or a sister would be ale to feel what I am feeling now. I just want to believe it. No, I am going to believe it. I will believe that my brother is healthy and alive and someday I could see him back again. So, I too will have to stay healthy and work and live hard.

After spending that night with my brother, I was taken to Jongsong prison camp on 18th of March, 1997. It gave so much pain to stay at one place without any movement for sixteen hrs per day. If you can’t stand it and move, you will get licked in a heart bit. Men were tied at a lattice window upside down and whipped with a hard wood-stick; and women were kicked or punched. Those people made such a gruesome scream that I couldn’t take that memory away from inside even for now. What can make a human-being a human-being if one lose his right and freedom?

With so much hunger, I didn’t even know whether I was alive or dead. I don’t even wanna think about that time. Rationed food contains only maize rice and plain salty soup. 

The place I’ve never been before, or never expected to be in.
Can I survive this un-survival place? I felt like I was freefalling from the Heaven to Hell. Yeah, for a few days, I had experience both heaven and hell.

Can I survive this place? Can I stay alive while I am here? I felt like I couldn’t do, and was about to give up. I was trying to take my own life. I felt sorry for my family, but I just couldn’t keep it going. So I didn’t eat anything for fifteen days except a bit of water. I waited and waited my time to come.  But I was still alive after all that. I was nothing more than a living skeleton, but was still alive. 

I am not sure how to express my feeling at that time. It was almost like stepping on a land of the dead, but not being able to enter the land? After that, I had a change of mind. I decided to try to stay alive. I had to see my family again. Were they, the one who was kicking and punching me, going to have a pity on me, if I would die? No, they wouldn’t give a damn about me. The only people who would be sad and hurt were the ones that were loving and caring me. If I was going to give up like that, I shouldn’t even consider defecting N. Korea. I decided to do my best to survive. 

I tried to eat little bit, and consequently, was getting bit healthier. Women were getting by, but men were having hard time to survive – they were literally starving to death. They guy in his fifty’s complained to head officer that he would be welcome to die if they allow him to eat as much as he wanted. He was begging, but I didn’t consider him lack of his pride. If I could, I would probably give him my meal. How desperate he was, I guessed.

With no lights coming into the ward, one took sunlight once every day. It seems atrocious deed, but nobody likes to see somebody’s dying. When a man get out, he went crazy to eat raw grains on the ground. I couldn’t stop him. No way I could tell them he would suffer from a disease. I knew that his will to survive was so strong that I couldn’t resist him doing so. I knew of it way too well.

One day, an old guy was tied at a lattice window upside down and whipped so bad because he stole the meal of his inmate – since it was too crowded, sometimes two peoples share the jail cell. Anyway, he was beaten so bad, that he excreted as he stood. There were so many things happened while I was there. Human dignity had been disregarded all the time. They, the security polices, did not treat us as a human-being. I want to look and read their mind. I know it was their job and responsibility, but couldn’t they at least respect basic human rights? I wonder what they were thinking.

A word of abuse and whipping happened everyday. If by any chance you had tried to defect to Seoul, and if that were uncovered, then you would probably be better off killing yourself. You would either sentence to death or imprisoned for life without parole, then moved to Family Camp 22 of Hoeryong, where you would never be able to get out. So, if you keep insist that you just defect to stay in China, you would get lighter sentence.

Suffering six months of horrible imprisonment, I was freed in Aug of 1997. Then only after four months, on around 20th of December, I defected to China, and my elder daughter followed in February of 1998. Finally, all of my family came together. 

Chinese government does not recognize refugees. Census taking and check and verification of identification take place frequently in China, so it is not easy to live in China illegally. We continuously ran off under suspicious eyes of security police. More than anything else, not being able to educate my daughters hurt me most. When I give them some pocket money that I earn from hard work, it tore my heart apart. 

Sometimes I asked myself why I came here if I couldn’t even give my dear children a chance to live as they should – I can’t help crying myself. My dear children comforted me, saying that we would eventually have better tomorrow, that we would be laugh off of what we’ve been thru.

I, too, believe that. We would have better future. I think that’s at least what we can do not to sorry for the people that we left off in N. Korea and for the people that helped and wished us thru our hard times. We would like to show you how much we enjoy our life and would like to repay your kindness in full. We’ll try our best to live happy and joy.