|My Life in North Korea|
My Life in North Korea
Currently resides in South Korea with his parents and is preparing for exams to enter into the University.
The following is a testimony given at the 4th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees in Prague (March 2-4, 2003).
My name is Hyuk Kang. I was born in April 4, 1986 in a place called Onsungkun, Hamkyungbuk-do. I escaped from North Korea by crossing the Tuman River with my parents.
For thirteen years before I came to South Korea, my belief in Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il was firmer than anyone else. My life was ruled by the regularity of a life in an organization. I was taught that there is no happier place than North Korea to live. I firmly pledged and clung to this belief.
I took it for granted when my friends couldn't come to school because they were too feeble from starving so much. When I was in my third year, a fellow student, Oh Eun Kyung became sick after eating a bowl of wild apricots. For hours she twisted and turned out of agony until she died untreated, medical help being out of reach for her. The only outlet allowed for us was to sob together in silence.
I had a close friend named Lee Kwang Jin, when I was in my fourth year, his father fell ill and had to stay at home. His mother would work in the market however they were cut off from their ration and his mother could not make ends meet. The whole family was reduced to starving. Kwang Jin and his brother became emaciated to the point that it was painful to even look at them. I heard that his father ran away and died and out of despair his mother ran away leaving my friend and his brother to tend for themselves. In the end the two brothers dropped out of school and started begging in the market (ggotjaebi). Kwang-Jin’s brother starved to death at the market and he lived from hand to mouth stealing food to eat until he froze to death by the river that winter.
Now I poignantly realize as I remember those days, the invisible chain that shackled us and prevented us from defying the North Korean society although it gave us so much pain.
During after school hours, we were ordered to work at farms. All through the year we had to weed, fertilize the fields and help out during the harvest. The fields and soil belonged to the state and the farmers and villagers were left with nothing. In the fall, the harvested crops were turned over to the state and after helping out, my friends and I would steal something to eat from the fields since we were all poor. There were many thieves amongst the workers in the fields owned by the state as well as private individuals and during my fourth year, soldiers were stationed to guard the fields.
However the soldiers would also steal and conspire with the thieves dividing the loot among themselves. They would even trade a bag of bread with a bag of stolen maize. Our field was pilfered and we even caught a soldier trying to steal our television. The villagers had to starve because they were too afraid to be caught stealing the crops by the soldiers. We could not even work in one-day jobs since people would gather the sprouts as soon as spring came to eat.
When we were told to gather grass for rabbits at school, students complained that there weren't enough grass to eat. However we had to gather grass from the mountains and fields anyway. We would divide the grass we gathered into a pile for rabbits and a pile for us to eat. We used to hand in only the pile for rabbits and took the rest home to eat.
As the famine wore on, class attendance shrank to 40% and the number continued to dwindle. The students who came to school had sores from eating grass and their faces became so swollen that they were unable to see. If the students came to school, they would only stay for an hour before heading home and eventually the school closed down when the teachers began to leave because of the lack of food in our farming village. My friends began to die one by one and I became frustrated with the twist of fate and felt that the sky would darken and fall down upon me any second.
Before Kim Il Sung died in 1994, we were able to eat corn rice but after his death, North Koreans quickly descended into a world stricken with famine and poverty. People who had no income other than salary and ration were cut off and resorted to selling furniture, blankets and dishes in order to survive. And for those who had nothing would make soup from the bark off of trees.
We lived in a mining village but we weren't able to work because water filled up the mines due to the shortage of electricity. The mountains became barren as woods were timbered to substitute for fuel and patches of grass became a rare sight since most were already gathered and eaten. People's faces whose only diet consisted of grass became swollen and most of them would lie down waiting for death since they were too weak to move.
I cannot even count the number of people who died in our village in 1996 and 1997. Every morning I would wake up to the sight of dead bodies being carried away next door or in the neighboring village and people began to escape to China. My father followed a friend to China after hearing that a few months in China would be enough to be able to earn something to live on for a while. When my father was away, my mother became bedridden due to a backache and I managed to go to school cooking gruel for myself.
During that time North Korea was a chaos of people crossing the Tuman River to China in order to find something to eat and then were recaptured and sent back to the North Korean Security Agency. Our family was under surveillance by the Security Safety Agency since my father had gone away to China. The guards would turn up at any moment at night to question us if there were any contacts made by my father or to accuse us of conspiring with him. Then one day my father was caught by the National Border Patrol crossing the Tuman River at night carrying 250 yuan and sweets. He was beaten brutally and sent to a labor detention center because the Security Safety Agency feared that he would try to escape to China again if he was sent home.
The forced labor detention center was known as 'kovach'. Most of the detainees were sentenced to forced labor because they committed the supposed crime of crossing to China. Some were detained for stealing vegetables or corn from the state-owned fields. There were even some who were arrested for stealing a radish.
My father was forced into hard labor from five in the morning until ten in the evening with only a handful of grounded maize skin and a bowl of soup and salt water with maybe a leaf of radish or two. He contracted paratyphus and was released on parole after fifteen days thanks to a blacksmith who used his influence to release my father out. However he had to return to the detention camp after he became well to complete his sentence of 6 months. My father did not want to return to a place where he had to live a life less than a beast so he tried to persuade my mother to go to China saying "let's go and live in China" and " In China even the poorest have food to eat." However, my mother was steeped in socialism and rhetorics of Kim Il Sung for thirty years and argued there was no other place like North Korea.
We believed that people were cared for by the state in North Korea and that we should never leave. My parents argued for many nights and in the middle of their heated conversations, my father would ask for my opinion but I did not even want to think of leaving saying " I will uphold socialism even if I die." Eventually, my mother succumbed to my father's firm insistence and her sister wept every day saying " If you leave now when will we meet again."
We had no time to waste since the Tuman River was beginning to thaw and so we left at 5 in the morning in March of 1998. After bidding farewell to my grandmother and aunt with tears in my eyes we had to climb the mountain and calmly passed the guard post of the border patrol at 7 in the morning running towards the frozen slate of the Tuman River. We moved into a house of an ethnic Korean in China working and moving, moving and hiding. There were so many North Koreans hiding out in China that North Korea ordered them to be repatriated. The Chinese security guards were arresting all North Koreans they were able to find.
After four years and eight moves in China, there wasn’t a place that we had not set foot in. Every single day we were not able to breathe freely and during our time in China, we became aware that numerous North Koreans defected to South Korea, a land of freedom finding new lives and freedom to listen to the radio. As I heard of people defecting one by one, I began to wish that I could go to South Korea as soon as possible. Then one day we received news of a close friend of my fathers and with the help of ethnic Koreans, we were able to come to South Korea.
As I am now in South Korea, the land of freedom I am determined to live up to my dreams. I would like to live happily with my friends and relatives in my hometown, leaving the past and sorrows behind, when Korea becomes reunited.