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From Shinuiju to Seoul
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2016-01-21 13:12:18
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From Shinuiju to Seoul

BAEK Myong-hak 
North Korean defector

*This witness account was presented by BAEK Myong-hak on July 1, 2000 at The 2nd Volunteers' Summer Camp hosted by Citizens' Alliance.​

I was born on January 1, 1972 in Shinuiju, North Pyong'an Province. After graduating the people's high school at age 16, I entered the army. From September 4, 1988 to November 1996, I spent eight years as an officer of some rank. During these years I was blind to the reality of the North Korean society. It was only after being discharged from the military service that I came to see the real difficulties of life outside the army barracks. Seeing the disparity motivated me to leave North Korea. 

My father was in the People's Army at the time of the Korean War. He was captured by the South Korean army and spent three years on Kojae Island as a prisoner of war. When he managed to return to North Korea suspicion and discrimination were his rewards. In North Korea, all POWs are treated the same whether you are a South Korean soldier captured by North Korean forces or a North Korean soldier returned after capture by the South Korean forces. POWs and their children are a distrusted class whose promotion in society will be restricted at a certain level. It doesn't matter how talented and loyal you are. At some point, you become indignant to the social persecution. 

In the army, I was one of the youngest among officers of my rank, namely sangsa, or second commander of a company. My early promotion motivated me to aspire to higher ranks, going to the university, and securing a respectable place in society. But my dreams were shattered by the social discrimination against me, the son of a POW. 

There were other shocking incidents that motivated my escape from North Korea. In 1996, the year I returned home from the military service, three of my friends committed suicide. One of them drowned himself in the Amlok River after being accused of conspiring with the South Korean CIA. Another friend committed group suicide with his entire family to end a life constantly threatened by hunger. In the army at least I had had no fear of starving to death; but at home, everything depended on money and there was never enough. 

To make a living I took up trading and began traveling to different parts of North Korea. On these trips I would often see things that I could hardly bear to see. From November to March, for example, not one day would pass without witnessing people dying of hunger. In a train station near Pyongyang, probably the busiest in North Korea, 3,000 to 5,000 travelers would gather a day. There in December when the death toll is highest, some 20 to 30 people would starve to death. No one takes care of them and the government does nothing more than pile the bodies in one place and bury them in a large hole dug under below them. At times I would also see the young or the old who are unable to earn their living steal something to eat from the food stands. I saw those who are caught get beat up to death. The harsh reality disillusioned me of belief in the world's most wonderful leaders, KIM Il-sung and KIM Jong-il, and in the best place on earth, North Korea. I felt utterly betrayed. 

The decision to venture outside the country came when my mother died in September 1997. I felt that there was no hope for me in North Korea or for my children should I get married. Since the one person that I had to take care of left me, I set out on an adventure that would change my future. In that same year I left Shinuiju and headed toward North Hamkyong Province. On my way I learned that I was not alone in trying to cross the river. There were so many whose main purpose of leaving the country was simply to eat to their fill and return home. The majority of North Koreans who cross the border plan to return after relieving themselves of the hunger pangs or earning something for their starving family. It is after they reach China that they learn about the Chinese and South Korean societies and begin to get other ideas. 

North Koreans are often helped by ethnic Koreans who, out of compassion, give them shelter and food. On the other hand, there are those who are mean enough to make money off of these desperate illegal immigrants. This is most serious in the case of North Korean women who are invariably sold by Korean- Chinese, with the exception of one or two in a hundred. 

Finally on March 5, 1998, I successfully set foot on Chinese soil. I was so completely ignorant of China that I didn't even know that there was a Korean- Chinese community in Yanbian, where I could communicate in my native tongue. My first helping hand came from a village head in Hualong who turned out to be an ethnic Korean with great sympathy for North Koreans. He told me that he would think of me as his nephew and that I could trust him as my uncle. I was arrested by the police after three months because I often came out to work on his farm or to gather firewood in return for his kindness. My benefactor personally came to the police to defend me; and through his efforts I was released but he himself was arrested.

Without a clear plan I decided to go to the South Korean Embassy. On the way I stopped at the University of Science & Technology in Yanji which was established primarily for ethnic Koreans. I wanted to learn about South Korea, and upon hearing that there were South Koreans in the institute, I went and met a professor. It was my first encounter with a South Korean, and I asked questions about the South Korean government's policy on North Koreans seeking asylum and the general public opinion about North Koreans. He was kind in answering my queries to the best of his knowledge and in lending me some material assistance. I then got on a train and headed for the South Korean Embassy. My luck betrayed me on the train. A policeman approached me for smoking in the compartments and my inability to speak Chinese disclosed my nationality. I was then taken to a detention center in Tumen where there were some 150 North Koreans: 40 to 50 men and about one hundred women. Most of the women were in their teens or twenties, and a small number were in their thirties. Recently, there was news about a riot in a detention center in Tumen. It was, however, not the first time such a riot was staged by North Koreans in detention. I was witness to one such attempt during my three days in the center. It was suppressed as soon as it was started, and the five suspected instigators were repatriated first. Other rioters, about thirty in number, were sent back in the following few days. 

On June 6, I was sent to Namyang in Onsung County, North Hamkyong Province. I was interrogated by the security officers in Namyang and transferred to the county security department for two more days of similar interrogation and ten days' detention. From there I was again moved to Chongjin provincial detention center. The detention center in Chongjin is a large prison where ludicrous offenses have been fabricated to punish the arrested. I heard that in one such case, a person was found guilty of selling a train to someone in Beijing. The life in the detention center is horrible. Once you enter it, all kinds of curses become your new name. The smallest mistakes can earn you a beating or some other form of punishment. At each meal, the prisoner is given a bowl of corn mixed with feed for the livestock and a glass of warm water. No salt or soup is given to compliment the meal. 

The day ends at nine o'clock, when the prisoners are allowed to go to sleep, and it begins again three hours later at midnight, when they start making bricks and work until 4 a.m. If you are slow in your work, the group leader or the security officers will notice and beat you with whatever they can lay their hands on. There is no special treatment for the elderly or for women, and often it is the pregnant women who are most severely assaulted. These women are considered dirty for having conceived a child of foreign men, and brutal violence is waged against the mother and the child in her womb. 

Three days in such a hell pushed me to the verge of insanity, and I was determined to make my escape. While planning my way out I tried to win the trust of security officers. Eventually I succeeded in being transferred from the temporary detention center to an interior productions office. I found my way out through the sewer, got on a train to Moosan and crossed the river for the second time. As I had nowhere to go, I once again headed for the home of the village chief who had been so kind. He received me with the same warmth. After spending three months there I set out on my way to Yanji. 

In Yanji I met again the man who had helped me before. He gave me some money and suggested that I either get a job in Yanji or go back to North Korea. At the time, I was more inclined to go back as I still had my two brothers, three sisters and thirteen nephews and nieces there; And the money he gave me was too large a sum for me to use alone when I could help my second sister suffering from an illness. I must say I thought too lightly of the North Korean border patrol after my successful escape from the detention center. Out of courage or folly I tried to break in on September 9, 1998, on the anniversary of the establishment of the DPRK government. I didn't think it would be very hard because I figured the border patrol and security officers alike would drink and party on such a national holiday. But luck wasn't with me that day. The border guards spotted me as I entered the river and I was captured once again. 

I cannot even begin to describe how brutally they beat me. There wasn't one part of my body that was intact and I could barely open one of my eyes. I was well aware where I would be sent next: the provincial detention center in North Pyong'an Province, the province of my origin. To me, death was sweeter than going to the detention center, and I would have tried to run away had the seven prisoners not been outnumbered by nine escorting officers. 

My expectations of the detention center did not fail me. Seven very violent security officers beat me senseless. The kind of work we were forced to do was not for human beings. They would, for example, load earth on a wagon and make the prisoners pull as if we were cows. If you don't satisfy the officers they beat you up with shovels and bricks. I was myself beaten for not being able to pull the wagon. The only thought in my mind then was that I won't walk out of the detention center alive unless I make a run for it. 

My chance came when I was picked out to cut trees in the woods for winter heating. The head of the detention center was worried that I might run away, if given a chance to work in the woods. It was a weird fortune that there was on the logging team a man who had been in the detention center since the time I made my first escape from it. When I ran away, the remaining prisoners were given punishment meant to warn them against following my example. Others had been released since then but this one man had remained, now a team leader. He wanted to get back at me for what he had suffered on account of me, and assured the head of the detention center that he would keep a special watch on me. 

The first morning in the woods was spent cutting trees and loading them unto trucks. In the afternoon, we built a makeshift quarter for housing thirty people (25 men and 5 women) for a fortnight. Half among them had committed the crime of crossing the border to China. In the detention center, 99% of the women and 70% to 80% of the men are people who have been repatriated from China.

Before going to sleep I prayed to my mother in heaven to help me. Maybe it was my prayer being answered, but in my dream I felt someone put her arms around me. The touch woke me up and something told me that this was the moment to run. Quickly I made up an excuse to say that I was going to use the latrine and opened the door. There was a security officer standing with his back towards me and a raincoat over his head. There were two other men: one was the team leader out to get me and the other was a watchman. Both these men were prisoners like myself but with some privilege as assistants to the security officers. I closed the door and paused for two seconds to see if they would turn back. To my relief they didn't and I glanced around to decide my next move. The makeshift shack was surrounded by mountains on all sides, and so I ran some 150 to 200 meters up the slope. Shouts came from behind: "Get him! Get him!" They could shout all they want but eight years in the People's Army had prepared me for the most rigorous guerilla warfare. I was going up the mountain like a madman, and in 13 hours I had climbed up and down nine mountains. I spent that night outside in the rain completely exhausted. It being September I was able to eat potatoes in the fields and herbs picked along the way. The next day I walked from Chongjin to Moosan. It was a long distance to go on foot and I wanted desperately to rest at some place. So I went to a friend's house, and who should I see but one of the nine security officers who escorted me on the train to the detention center? In a shock I found the strength to make a run towards the border. But there was another dangerous encounter coming. 

In a state of exhaustion I supported myself with a stick as I limped along the border area. Suddenly, the man on the bicycle in front of me stopped and turned around. It was another of the nine security officers! Everything turned black in front of my eyes and the fear of death overcame me. Meanwhile, the security officer was surprised to see me and asked: "How come you are out already? At the provincial detention center, it is a month or fifteen days at the least!" I quickly replied: "The security officer in charge of our district came and took everyone belonging to his district away. I was let go because I had not committed any major offense." He asked again: "Where are you going now?" I replied: "I'm going to my Aunt's to regain my strength." The security officer seemed to be in a hurry, and he just let me off easy. I could not believe my luck until I realized that the street lay between the Tumen River and a mountain, in other words, it would be impossible to run away if the officers should pursue me. Then, it became clear that the security officer must have telephoned the post up ahead to catch me. In desperation I entered the Tumen River, which was closely dotted by border guards standing 15 to 20 meters apart. They did not shoot, possibly because they were too dumbfounded to see someone crossing the river in broad daylight and in the presence of armed guards. Before long I was on the other side of the river. 

Once in China, I went to the village head, who had taken such good care of me and stayed with him for awhile. I then went to the South Korean embassy on December 1, where I was given 100 yuan and a flat rejection of my requests. The next day I was back at the embassy and after four days of demonstration I was given an additional 500 yuan. I was gravely disappointed by the cold-shoulder treatment. For me at first, just seeing the ROK flag and its embassy was enough to move me to tears, and it felt as if I had reached South Korea already. How wrong I was! There I learned that there is no one you can trust. Now, I can afford to forgive a little but at the moment when I was rejected, I was enraged.

I thus set out to reach South Korea on my own, and on March 3, 1999, I left Yanbian. I went ahead with my planned route of escape. Several times I was caught along the borders and imprisoned. If it weren't for many of the South Korean citizens who have helped me, I would not be here. With their help I arrived in Seoul on May 8, 1999. I am now a happily married man who leads a comfortable and stable life.*