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2016-01-21 12:03:47
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My name is Kim Hee-Sook. I lived in Seohang-1 dong, Songpyeong, in Cheongjin city, Northern Hamkyeong province.  In August 7, 2002, I fled North Korea and arrived in South Korea on August 31, 2002.  Before the division of the Korean Peninsula, my hometown was in Suwon, a city in South Korea. My eldest brother remained in Suwon for his studies and the rest of the five siblings moved to North Korea. When I finally returned to South Korea, I was reunited with my brother, who I had not seen since he was twelve, and my maternal uncle, who was a soldier 56 years ago. 

Before I begin the story of my escape, let me first share with you the memories I have of North Korea, and the fresh news that my son-in-law recently brought to me.


Food rations began to dwindle beginning in the early 1990’s. In 1995, they stopped altogether. I remember once wearily calculating the rations we failed to receive. It amounted to 8 months worth of rations per year. 

North Korea’s system is designed so that the Party and State ensure the livelihood and well-being of all the people. Therefore, the breakdown in the food ration system forced helpless, ordinary people, to literally sit and wait for death to come. North Korea’s food crisis then became worse in 1996 and 1997. People starved to death and froze to death. The mortality rate soared with people dying from various diseases. 

The number of deaths can be verified by the housing situation.  Prior to 1990, the shortage of housing led families to take accommodations in other people’s home.  However, after 1990, the number of deaths and people who fled North Korea left many apartments vacant in (the cities of) Cheongjin and Musan. Not only was there a lack of food, but there was also a lack of raw materials. Factories stood still, and land was left idle because there were no fuel, pesticide, or seeds. 

With my very own eyes I witnessed people starving and freezing to death.  I also witnessed people dying of ailments without once being able to receive medical treatment. Dozens died every day. At the time, Cheongjin was abnormally crowded because of migrants.  Many had come to Cheongjin from all over the country because it was geographically close to Yanbian, China. 


After a dreary battle with starvation, my mother-in-law succumbed to death in 1996 and my husband in 1997. I then lost my only son in 1998. My son was at the third stage of malnourishment because he was not able to get enough food. He died at the age of 26, fighting both malnourishment and pneumonia.  With respect to his pneumonia, he never once received medicine or an injection for it.  

At that time a shot of penicillin cost 40 won in North Korea. It took 3-4 days of work at the market to earn 40 won. With 40 won it was possible to buy 1 kg of corn noodles, which could feed our family of three for a week.  I was not able to even dream of buying penicillin for my son.  Those desperate for medicine would try to get a hold of expired medicine, but I was not even able to get my hands on anything.  As a result, I had to watch my son waste away. 

A young couple in their thirties lived in my neighborhood and sold the house they lived in with their son and daughter.  They sold it at a dirt-cheap price of 300 won. Afterwards, they took the money and took their children to the market and ate to their heart’s content. With the leftover money, they bought pesticide, which they all shared together.  They then died together. 


Countless vagrant children, called ggotjaebis, died everyday during the winter in front of Cheongjin Station.  Many of the ggotjaebis had severed hands or feet due to frostbite that was never properly treated.  After the ggotjaebis passed away, workers received 50 won for removing their dead bodies. The bodies, which were carted away, would be buried in the frozen earth without coffins, while some bodies were just thrown away in the mountains. One time, I saw six bodies being carted away in front of Cheongjin Station.  However, the body at the top of the pile appeared to be alive because although listless, the eyes were blinking. 

It came to the point where people called the station master of Cheongjin Station the “Cheongjin City Funeral Committee Chairman.” There was a saying that, ”I thought only corn could be jikpa but people could also be jikpa.” (This refers to the agricultural terminology in North Korea in which seeds are first incubated in a pot before being sowed in the field. Jikpa refers to seeds that are sown directly into the soil when there is a shortage of pots.).  Furthermore, every morning a different child’s body would be found on the riverbed of Suseongcheon. People suffered not only from hunger but also from the fright caused by gunshots fired during public executions, which took place frequently in an effort to quell social confusion. 

Numerous people died during those two years, making the mountains around Cheongjin into cemeteries. Cheongjin became more like a city within a huge cemetery. In 2001, Kim Jong-Il observed the scenery of Cheongjin, surrounded by countless graves while on his way to visit Russia.  He ordered the mounds of the graves to be leveled. He gave an inhumane order to level all the grave mounds and ordered each factory unit and work place to take responsibility over a designated spot. 


In October 2003, my son-in-law escaped Cheongjin and arrived in South Korea. He relayed to me the present situation in North Korea.  In 1997, three to four people died each day in Cheongjin. However, in 2003, that number increased to about twenty. The food ration system broke down completely in July 2002. Wages were supposed to be raised by 20 times. However, wages could only be given when there was work, not when factories were standing idle. In the end, prices rose by only twenty times.  The train fare rose 20 times as well. The fare for the commuting train, which used to be 1 won, rose to 30 won. The fare to Pyongyang, which used to be 14 won, skyrocketed to 530 won. Prices in the market rose too. The price of rice, which used to be 150 won in July 2002, rose to 425 won in October. Ordinary people without the means to buy food had little choice but to starve to death. The highest wage given to a laborer was 2000 won.  However, wages were given once in July 2002, and nothing was given since then. 

For example, the wage for a miner in the Musan mine with five family members is 90 won. Since no wage is given, the workplace usually provides a loan.  Under the loan, the head of the family receives 500 won and 100 won for each member of the family. The family is then able to live off of the loan, buying food for a month. However, even with the loan, there are still some expenses that cannot be accounted for, such as the commuting ticket, which rose from 24 won to 1800 won.  As a result, many ordinary families have run up huge debts.

In the name of land reformation, the government collects 12 won per pyung for individual land.  For fertile fields in collective farms, the government collects 18 won per pyung; and for non-fertile fields, the government collects 10 won per pyung. The scheme also includes small plots of fields that are cultivated in the mountains. People who do not have the money have to sell part of their produce and raise money.  A large labor force is needed in farming. This was possible when students and workers were mobilized to farm. However, now that the workers have to be paid, there is a lack of workers to farm. As a result, the farming scale has become smaller. In addition to this, there is no money to buy or transport fertilizers. People first buy fertilizer on credit and then sell it for money. Then they buy petrol with the excess money to transport the fertilizer. The money borrowed for the fertilizer is then paid back to the government after harvest 

North Korea boasts that conditions have improved as a result of the economic reform. However, in reality, only the prices have jumped, thereby making the lives of ordinary people more difficult. 


Although I lost my only son, I still had three daughters. My eldest daughter escaped North Korea in 1998 and eventually made her way to South Korea. After settling in Suwon, she got in touch with me through China. I finally decided to leave North Korea by crossing the Tuman River near Musan. I spent a whole night climbing a mountain to reach China. Up until that point, I thought my daughter was in China. But when I got on the phone with her, I realized that she was in South Korea. I thought that Hankuk (South Korean term for South Korea) was a place in China. When I realized that Hankuk is South Korea, I was so astonished that I could not sleep for five days. During those five days I pondered hard as to what I should do. I then decided to use the money my eldest daughter sent and to make my way back to North Korea. I wanted to see my two daughters again, and wanted to give them some of the money I had.  

After returning to North Korea, I decided again that I should leave for South Korea. At the time, I did not tell my two remaining daughters in North Korea that I was leaving for South Korea. I lied to them, saying that I was to marry a rich Chinese man. I gave them money and told them to take care of the family gravesite. I crossed the dreadful Tuman River once again. And then finally, I was able to arrive in South Korea by way of Dalian.

South Koreans question me about the difficulties of living here in the South. I don’t find any difficulties in South Korea except one. Since I am over sixty, I am not able to find a job. However, I am not eligible to receive social support because I am not yet 65 years old. Since I am too old to work even as a janitor in a subway station, I am currently working as a housekeeper three times a day. I wish I could become old enough to receive the social support of 35,000 won. 

Although I was happy to be reunited with my eldest brother and uncle, I cannot get the thoughts of my two daughters off my mind. I dream of the day when we will live together again as one family. Until then, I cannot wait until both my daughters, the one awaiting in Vietnam, and the other still in North Korea, come to South Korea.


Korea is historically known for being a country full of decorum in the East. In North Korea during the 1960’s and 1970’s, we were shown documentary films depicting the human rights conditions in African countries, while highlighting the “humane” politics of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. 

The human rights condition in North Korea rapidly deteriorated in the 1990’s. Confusion enveloped the entire society, resulting in an increase in prostitution and robbery.  The first to be sacrificed to this degeneration were children, the elderly, and women. 

I am speaking before you in the hopes of raising awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea. I would like to plead with you to contribute in solving this problem.