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2016-01-21 14:45:23
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Sun Young KOH

Almost all of my memories of North Korea until I left when I was sixteen are of my life in school.  Eleven years of education is compulsory in North Korea: one year of kindergarten, four years of primary school and six years of senior middle school.  Sometimes I miss fishing and skating on the frozen river with my friends.  But the memory of my friends digging up plants to feed their families while working or studying at school is still very painful. 

My Childhood in Pyeongyang

I was born in March 1983 in Sadong District, Pyeongyang.  I am the eldest daughter of my father, a soldier, and my mother, a housewife.  I have a sister three years younger than I and a brother six years younger.  Fortunately, my father was faithful and hardworking enough to be accepted by the Party just after he had finished his studies and was the rank of major when I was born.  My mother always made us good food, so we didn’t imagine other people elsewhere in North Korea dying of hunger. 

Life in Kindergarten 

I learned how to sing, dance and draw pictures in a kindergarten with the army near my home for a year.  From kindergarten, we started to learn the importance of loyalty to the Great Leaders and to the Party.  Everything we learned was about the importance of loyalty and how great North Korea was. 

Two memories of kindergarten stick out.  We had a nap after lunch everyday, and I remember being scolded several times for running home.  The other memory is of an event on April 15, Kim Il-Sung’s birthday.  The birthdays of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il are special.  Children wait for them anxiously as they receive packs of candy, snacks, gum and rice-jelly, all of which are not common in North Korea.  Once I was scolded by my mother for not bowing deeply enough to the portrait of the Great Leader to show my gratitude after receiving a pack of candy.  After giving thanks to the Great Leader’s picture in a loud voice, I was finally allowed to eat my gift. 

Life in Primary School (Inmin School)

When I was seven years old, I started primary school. In North Korean primary schools, unless a teacher transfers to another school, students stay with one teacher until they finish.  A young female teacher was in charge of my class and she taught every subject.  There were about forty students in my class and everybody had a partner.  A partner was decided according to students’ academic grades.  A student with better marks was paired with someone with poorer marks.  If my partner didn’t finish her homework, I was not allowed to go home either and had to help her with her “remaining studies.”  Even though I finished my homework early, I visited my partner and helped her with her homework almost everyday.  As nobody wanted to stay at school longer for remaining studies, students with better grades often got angry with their partners and even hit them.  As we all wanted to go out and play, staying inside because of our partners made us hate our friends. 

Many unfair things happened during my school years.  The second-best student was given top place after his father helped the school.  When I was in third grade, some girls were beaten for singing a song that we hadn’t learned in school.  The teacher said young girls were not allowed to sing songs for adults that they heard on television.  Since we were afraid of our teachers, afterwards we never sang a song we didn’t learn from them. 

Most students brought lunch from home, but two students in my class couldn’t bring it from 2nd grade.  Their parents were farmers and so they were poorer than the other students.  Their grades were also the poorest in the class.  Most students in my class contributed one spoonful from their own lunches to them, but other students just made fun of them and didn’t help.  This easily led to fights.

During farming seasons, we only had classes in the morning, so that we had more time to help in farm work.  Just after the harvest, we didn’t study at all and just worked in the fields the whole day.  We rarely planted rice, but often we had to collect any grain that had been left behind.  Sometimes we had to catch more than two hundred grasshoppers as homework to feed the pigeons of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il.  We also had to collect rabbits’ skins, waste paper, broken iron, and glass every year.  It was our responsibility as a group.  If we didn’t finish the tasks altogether, we were not allowed to go home.  Students who didn’t do their homework were criticized and beaten by their friends. 

We all joined the Juvenile Corps in the second grade from three different dates: Feb. 16, the birthday of Kim Jung-Il; April 15, the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, and June 6, the date of the group’s establishment.  While every child joined the group, better students joined first.  The third date was the compulsory joining date for everybody regardless of qualifications, so students who joined last were normally ignored by the others.

The students who were scolded, punished or ignored were almost always the same.  Their parents could not attend parents’ associations as they were working in farms or factories.  They couldn’t bring lunch, didn’t do well in school, couldn’t finish their homework and were rarely loved by their teachers.

These students were usually the targets during the monthly reviewing sessions.  At these sessions, every student had to say what they had done over the last month.  After everybody had finished, some were forced to stand to be criticized by the others.  Some students were even forced to stand more than ten times.  The rights of the boys and girls were ignored according to the social status of their parents and their family background. 

Senior middle school years

Students in senior middle school have many responsibilities.  They have to collect waste paper, broken glass and iron as homework individually, while as a group they have to practice gymnastics, Taekwondo and other exercises including the hula-hoop and marching.  In addition, students above 4th grade had to plant rice for one month and work in the harvest for one month.  Since most students did not have the necessary social status for entry into university, they didn’t have any reason to study hard.  Even though many things seemed a waste of time to me, most students did not seem particularly unhappy. 

When I was in the second year of high school in Pyeongyang, my father was discharged from the military because some of our relatives were living in China.  We then moved to Hweryung in North Hamgyeong Province, where we had many relatives.

When I was in the first year of senior middle school, our Great Leader Kim Il-Sung died.  It was unbelievable and a lot of students fainted.  We were not allowed to sing, laugh, exercise or be noisy at school. Any student singing or playing an instrument would have been severely punished. 

Senior middle school had different teachers for each subject.  My mathematics teacher was the daughter of the principal.  She was enthusiastic and kind. Her whole family had been exiled from Pyeongyang due to something the principal’s brother did.  Later she committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.  She left a note that said there was no reason for her to suffer the pain of being sent away from her hometown and her fiancé.  While things have apparently improved recently, many people were punished then for the actions of their relatives.  I was quite shocked by my teacher’s suicide. 

A strange homeland

In 1995, my family arrived at Hweryung after a train trip of more than 20 hours from Pyeongyang.  My grandmother gave us corn gruel without any rice for lunch.  She said she normally ate porridge with it, but had made corn gruel especially for us.  I had never seen that kind of food before. I learnt that my life in Pyeongyang had been privileged, and from then on there would not be enough food.  Children on the streets would steal food and money or pick up and eat food from the street due to their hunger.  Once I saw a man give his 5-year-old daughter to a soldier.  He was so malnourished that he had nearly lost his eyesight.  His wife asked him to give their daughter to someone who could feed her so that she did not die of hunger.  I still vividly remember her appearance.  People then were dying of hunger, so we cannot criticize people for throwing away their children. 

Hunger then was not just a problem for other people any more.  The food distribution system had ended and we didn’t have any land or money to make a living.  I thought several times that we should not have left Pyeongyang.  However, if I was still there, I would not have had a chance to come to South Korea. 

I was confused as to whether the region was really a part of my country or not.  At that time I still believed that the leaders would soon make us equal and well.  I always did my best to endure hardship and overcome the circumstances.  I remember students in Hweryung were freer.  As we didn’t have a school uniform and didn’t have to go to school, we had time to work in the market. 

Escaping North Korea

After a year in Hweryung, my father decided our family should leave North Korea, having already visited relatives in China.  The five members of my family all succeeded in crossing the border into China in 1995.  The abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit in the markets in China was even more shocking for me than seeing people suffering from hunger in Hweryung. 

Forced repatriation

After one happy month in China, I was caught by the Chinese police with my mother.  We both were sent back to North Korea within a week.  As I was only 15, after only one night in the detention center, I was released to the care of my grandmother, but the authorities watched me continuously.  If I had been absent from class, some classmates would have come to take me to school.  I was given a very hard time by other students.  I had no idea whether my mother was still alive or not and I was also worried about the rest of family in China.  I also had to rely on my relatives, who were treated badly because of my family. My first 15 years in North Korea seemed very comfortable as I knew little about the outside.  But after spending a month in China, I learnt the truth about life in North Korea.  Even though they didn’t treat me properly as a fellow human being, I felt pity for my teachers and friends as they didn’t realize that they were living in horrible conditions.

One day I was so ill that my aunt allowed me to stay at home and she wrote a note for my school.  The next day I had to stand in front of the class to be criticized by my teacher.  “You are not entitled to be sick.  You must not be sick and you must come to school everyday,” my teacher said.  Other teachers even came over to ask who the traitor was.  I couldn’t stop teachers and friends saying bad things about me, but I was too worried about my family to take any notice of their stories. 

To China again and on to South Korea

My mother was finally released from political prison camp after six months.  She had lost so much weight that she had to wear a fur coat in summer and couldn’t walk by herself.  Thanks to the help of relatives in China, my mother’s health improved and we escaped to China again in February 1998 after the surveillance of us had relaxed.  After my family was reunited, we moved to a place with only Chinese people and introduced ourselves as Chinese-Koreans.  We learned Chinese and lived and worked in China for five years.  The most difficult thing about life in China was that we were always unsafe, facing the possibility of being caught.  Before safely arriving in South Korea in November 2002, we always became uneasy whenever we saw police or heard a siren. 

I was in the fourth grade of senior middle school when I escaped North Korea, but I was allowed to enter the 8th grade of middle school at the age of twenty in South Korea.  I passed an examination for college and was admitted to Sogang University to major in business administration in 2005.  As I haven’t experienced school in South Korea, I am very much looking forward to studying here.  While I am very hopeful, I am also worried about competing with hardworking South Korean students.  However, I will not give up.  I have learned in my life that studying itself is not the most important thing.  I believe in myself and I promise to do my best in university.