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2016-01-21 12:01:45
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I was born in Cheongjin, North Hamkyung province, in January 1982. I lived with my father, mother, and older brother. When I turned three in 1985, my mother died of a heart attack after eating something wrong. I then lost my father to starvation when I was twelve. After my father died, my brother and I were sent to an orphanage in the North Hamkyung province until we graduated in April 1998. During my four years in the orphanage, I was fed 320g of corn rice and soup made from, I believe, boiled pickled radish. I could only dream of having something else to eat. It was certainly a far cry from a nutritious diet. There were about 70-80 children in the orphanage. Thankfully, within the orphanage, there was a school where I completed my secondary education. I was sixteen years old when I left the orphanage. 

My first job after I left was in the forestry industry. The job mostly consisted of making mine timber and lumbering. However, I quit after about half a year. Afterwards, during a period when I was unable to find food, I decided to cross over to China. At first I went with a woman I knew, but soon thereafter I began to cross to and from China on my own. At the time, numerous people were starving to death and going to China was my sole means of survival. In 1998, I persuaded my brother (who worked in a company) to cross over to China with me. I was able to find a place to sleep in China, and even earned a little money by helping out in farms and in orchards. However, the frequent inspections by the security police forced me to leave China. As a result, I was unable to stay in China for more than one month at a time. 


In November 1998, I was arrested on charges of illegally crossing the border. 70 to 80 percent of the people in the detention house were detained on charges of illegally crossing the border. The remaining 20 to 30 percent of people there were economic criminals or were charged with homicide. There were a total of 10 cells, each jailing 10 to 20 prisoners. 

One afternoon a jailor called my name. I had my hopes hung on the fact that I was only seventeen, which I presumed were possible grounds for release. Contrary to what I expected, I was ordered to have my head shaved. Prisoners’ heads were infested with lice and gnats, the agony of which seemed to outweigh the correction imposed by the jailors. In the prison everyone had to sit upright, with hands tucked under the knees, which created a free realm for fleas and lice to crawl around. If anyone tried to catch these insects, he was punished for one full day and was beaten. This is why everyone desired to have their head shaved. Although I felt a sense of relief, the act of being marked as a prisoner, as someone deprived of human rights, left me feeling gloomy and pained. 

The physical toll of being in prison, coupled with a bout of pneumonia, left me spent. I was unable to even walk around the cell. I was even unable to hit or curse at those who stole food from the plate I was eating. The greatest resource I found at the time was my lingering attachment to life. I wanted to live even more strongly. I felt an injustice in dying after seventeen years. The thought of dying in such a place filled me with spite and led me to stand up on my feet. Later, in March, I was tried and sentenced to 9 months in jail.


I was imprisoned at Onsung jail from March 24, 1999 to mid-November. Everyone considers jail as a place of shame. Rarely does one think of jail in humanistic terms. Similarly, the jail I experienced was a place that was anything but humanistic. 

The reality was that people could only survive by sinning. I believe in places like North Korea, even people who eat human flesh should be pardoned. After all, what are human rights? Deprived of human rights, only contempt and disregard are given to those in prison. In the old days, people spit on or avoided criminals. However, where I was, the growing number of prisoners compelled people to become compassionate. 

Some would even sneak in food for us. I became so weak in jail, so much so that there was a point where I was unable to walk. I had to crawl on my knees to go to the bathroom. I had to grip the wall to stand up when coming out of the bathroom. I had to sustain on 390g of leftover corn skin. The soup consisted of a few pieces of radish floating in water. Everyone became weak after three months in prison. By the fourth month, prisoners wage a battle against death. About 90% of the prisoners were ailing in weakness.

They were weak not only in body but also in mind. When hearing the word “weak,” people usually associate it with physical weakness. However, one cannot perceive the feelings of weakness that many felt in prison. It is not possible to understand the pain in their hearts without going through what they experience. They were sentenced to an unimaginable experience.  

And it’s true that everyone has a difficult experience. However, in North Korea, people die because there is no food, not to mention an absence of human rights. Because people are deemed criminals in North Korea, they are then starved.  But this does not take away from the fact that they are human. They also possess love, a conscience, morality, and a mind. They are just caught in the flow of evil, and are left to survive it if they can. So many prisoners even turn in their fellows, in return for food. The desperation leads people to resort to all means to survive.   


In November 1999, I received a three year sentence and was sent to No. 12 Concentration camp.  I was basically imprisoned again for 6 months. I entered the camp with twelve other prisoners. We were led into a room in front of the headquarters.  There I saw receipts in the hands of the jailor.  It was almost as if we were no longer human beings, but more like goods being exchanged.  I agonized over what would lie ahead.  A worse feeling was realizing that the regime which virtually created our crimes to cover its own faults was treating us like beasts.  Who made criminals of us?  I could not understand why they did not look at their own faults but tried to stifle the lives of innocent people. 

How can anyone live in a world like this?  There were two paths for our lives: one that led to death by starvation, and the other that led to a life of “crime.”  I felt that even if I had to commit a crime to survive, I would have to, no matter how much it offended “socialism.”  Ultimately, I felt that the essence of human desire becomes eating in order to survive. 

In the concentration camp, I was able to survive because we were given rice mixed with beans.  The food in the concentration camp is called gadabap, which is rice mixed with beans bunched up into a ball in a molder. The rice ball would be 8 to 9cm in height and 7cm in radius. Sometimes it would be so mushy that the ball would break before it could be placed on a plate.  The soup was pickled radish full of sand.  The radish in the soup was not diced evenly but floated in large pieces. Sometimes it was too salty, and sometimes as bland as water. 

There were lumber units, carpenters, construction workers, car mechanics, farming units, livestock units, kitchen units, etc. in the camp.  The products manufactured included wooden products, furniture, lumber for furniture, car parts, etc.  However, the operation was not fully functioning. The food shortage made the conditions in the concentration camp worse and reduced the output.

I became weaker every day. Any lingering attachment to life was gone by then.  Even if I was released, I felt that there would be nobody to welcome me or take care of me.  I lost my mother before I could even call her mom. My father died when I was thirteen, before I was even able to learn what love is. The only person I could depend on was my older brother.  At the time, more than a year had gone by since I parted with him.  I felt frustrated as to how I would possibly find him in a county as large as China.  My heart was heavy, and I did not feel that life could give me joy, especially since my health took a turn for the worse. 

The concentration camp regime started off with daily sessions for reflection. After these sessions we had breakfast. Then beginning at 8am, we learned the ten principles of the camp and the ten principles of correction and read the correctional newspaper. If our work was not done correctly, we would have to repeat the work again.  Any person who was inspected would be beaten.  This was the daily routine that was laid down for me for years.  I felt as if I was walking through shadows without any hope. When I tried to stand up, my eyes became blinded and my head numb.  I could not erase the thought of when I would be able to exit the gates of the concentration camp. 

I often broke down and cried in the concentration camp.  I deplored the life I lived there, and was numb to the amount of injustice that had been done to me.  However, if I tried to escape, I knew that there was the possibility of being executed.  I still do not know how I survived one year and a half at that point.  It was a period that seemed so short and so long at the same time.  Still, the future seemed to be veiled to me, and I lived in a hell dominated by tears.  Even during moments where I was happy, I still cried.  And many nights I went to bed thinking of my parents and my brother, whose whereabouts I did not know. Did my brother know what became of me? Would he be thinking that we are slowly turning into the earth?  These thoughts flooded me, and as a result, my grief over my parents and brother was bottomless.  Tears kept streaming down my cheek.  After shouting in my mind, “Brother where are you? Please come and visit me. I want to see you before I die. So that I could die without any regrets…” I would then fall into silent remorse.  There was not a day that passed where I did not grieve over my dead parents and my brother. 


The day of July 2, 2000 is still very vivid in my memory.  There was an unexpected assembly for special pardons that day.  The cadres of the protection agency and the security agency all came and called the names of people who were to receive pardons.  Towards the end, they still did not call my name.  I felt more than deflated, as if my insides had burnt and turned into ash.  Then they called “Ra-136,” my number. That day, about 1000 people, 1/3 of those in the concentration camp, were pardoned. 

Four days later on July 6, 2000, we were released. The hardship that I encountered at age 22, both long and short, had come to an end.  I was deeply touched to be released outside the camp where I had longed to be for so long.  My heavy and gloomy heart seemed to be eased – and I no longer had to deceive my heart - because I was finally free. 


After receiving the special pardon, I did not waste anytime trying to recover my health.  I immediately decided to cross the Tuman River to China on August 11, 2000.  After entering China, I went back and forth to North Korea three more times until I met a South Korean Christian organization, where I studied theology.  At the time, I grew a strong faith and tasted freedom at last.  Those who had led me to faith encouraged me to go to South Korea.  Following their advice, I decided to go. 

To be honest, I thought of going to South Korea when I was confined in prison. These thoughts regarding my future flooded me while I was in the concentration camp.  Whenever anyone faces despair, everyone wonders about the future and how to overcome great obstacles. That was the state I was in while I was in the camp.

Even if I was released I had no one to turn to, no place to eat or sleep.  No one would want to feed me or give me a place to sleep.  I did not want to undergo the experience of hunger and physical stress once again.  

I wanted to go to a place where I could eat and live in comfort, where I wouldn’t be constantly on the run as I was in China. The only place that accepted North Koreans was South Korea. So I thought that since we spoke the same language and shared the same blood, no one would try to catch me or confine me there.  I had heard of many who left for South Korea from China, and I also wanted to take the risk to get there. 

It turned out that the thoughts I sowed in 1998 bore fruit in October 2001. I was able to start my journey to South Korean on July 2, 2001 with the help of a few people. I crossed several borders before I arrived in South Korea in September 20, 2001.  

When I arrived on South Korean soil, I was investigated in the National Intelligence Service, and  was the enrolled in a two month long program where I learned about South Korean society. Then I finally lived in freedom. Needless to say, I am thrilled to be living in a world that I longed so hard after - a world without the pain of fear.