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"I Was a Broker" (1)
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2016-01-26 10:37:04
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"I Was a Broker" (1)


RYU Sang-Joon

North Korean defector and activist 

Entered South Korea in 2000



This is a memoir of a man who escaped North Korea in April of 1998, entered South Korea in 2000, where he became an activist. While on a mission to extricate other defected North Koreans in China, Ryu Sang-Joon was captured at the airport in August of 2007. He was released on the 16th of December 2007 and has written about his time in prison. He has given us permission to share his memoir with our members and visitors. 


Although I cannot reveal all of my details, I have chronicled parts of my activities in order to encourage those who wish to help North Korean defectors as well as the defectors who wish to come to South Korea from China.



North Korean Refugees call me a Broker.


I had no way of predicting the events that would transpire in the upcoming hours. I was too busy to think of anything other than looking after my companions. Our train was crowded to the point, which it was impossible for our traveling party to sit together. As a result, we were dispersed throughout the train, which made it that much more imperative that we watch out for each other's safety, both physically and emotionally. Eun-Sim, who was seated close to me, had a tranquil expression and occasionally smiled softly to herself. However, Young-Ok seemed anxious, with his normally flushed face darkening with each moment. Gal-Lyang, who was seated farther away from us beside a window, stared absent-mindedly at the passing countryside. It was the beginning of August and the vast desert outside was covered with tiny white flower buds with green patches of nameless weeds. Everything seemed to be going smoothly as we passed the cell-phone security check. I distributed twenty hard candies to our companions. However, the clothing of the women in our party caused a bit of trouble. They weren’t wearing the clothes I had prepared for them, providing an excuse that the weather would be too hot. They had promised that they would change before getting on the train. However, they didn’t end up keeping their promise, and I regretted that I hadn’t been firmer with them before we got on the train. Although they could have changed on the train, that would have roused suspicion in the minds of other passengers. I had no choice but to tell the women to change in the restroom, one by one, and then sit somewhere other than where they previous were. Yet, even this plan fell through since the train was incredibly crowded as the train was approaching its final destination.


The train slowly pulled into the terminal. I held Eun-Sim's hand and tried blend into in the crowd. Young-Ok and Gal-Lyang followed us, pretending to be a married couple. Usually, I exited through the older part of the station but we ended up exiting through the newer part of the station. The security seemed tougher but thankfully, all our party made it out safely. As we exited the station we found a surprising number of taxies filling the station plaza. We went around the taxis and out on to the pedestrian street where I checked on each member of our traveling party and cautioned the women to fix their clothes properly. We headed toward a public telephone facility where I had often used to call South Korea and temporarily drop off my handluggage to Roban, a friendly Chinese owner. Whenever I tried to pay him for the keeping the luggages, he would always waive the fee and ask me to visit him again with a warm smile on his face.


My plan was to drop off the handluggages, spend some time by a market, and then head toward the border around 10:30 pm. Six kilometers from here was Mongolia—that was when our fate would be decided between life and death. At least, that was my plan. I cautioned Young-Ok and Gal-Lyang maintain about 3-4 meters distance behind us and act casual. I took Eun-Sim’s hand and we took the lead. I entered the public phone facility alone, only to find that all the desks and the phones were gone, as if the place had been raided. I felt a sense of foreboding at the sight, as an ominous chill crept up my spine. After I stepped out of the building, Eun-Sim rushed toward me, calling for me loudly. Her outfit was ridiculous and her smile was so pure and endearing, but I ignored her and chastised her sloppy appearance. We continued to walk together toward the final border area. Here, we had to be extra cautious in our appearance as well as in our belongings. I only carried a small bag containing a pair of underwear, basic toiletries, magnifying glasses, a military-grade compass, a ball-point pen, and a pencil. Even with such modest belongings, I intended to leave it at an inn where I knew the owner was kind and generous. She had never checked me for id and she charged very little.


As we headed toward the inn so that I could drop off my handluggage, a man asked us to stop by his inn. I took him as a solicitor since they were pretty common in China. Without thinking, I responded that we had other business to attend to and continued to walk. Another man asked us to stop by his inn before we could get very far. I didn’t bother responding to him and turned to keep walking until I felt that something was off. I abruptly turned to see a few men grab Young-Ok and Gal-Lyang. As I realized that something had gone terribly wrong, a man grabbed me from behind. A tall man behind Eun-Sim, who seemed so strong in comparison to her petit frail frame, roughly restrained her as well. Eun-Sim seemed too frightend to even make a sound, as her face paled in fear. A voice behind me demanded if I was also a North Korean defector and if I was helping these people escape. I automatically responded, "zen me zhi dao?" (How do you know?) to which they replied that a Korean-Chinese had reported us. Eun-Sim began thrashing claiming that she was a Korean-Chinese also.


The unimaginable had occurred in the blink of an eye. A large IVECO bus that seemed to have been waiting for us pulled up, and our captors forcefully threw us into the bus. The bus slowly drove along an alley that I recognized at and pulled into the Yiryeonhaohteo Police Frontier Zone. Inside, the Police Frontier Zone seemed much larger than it seemed on the outside. We were directed to a room on the second floor in one of the buildings. Iron bunk beds lined the middle of the room and a dresser stood on the west end of the room. Judging by the thick coat of dust that covered the scattered clothes and shoes on the floor, the place hadn’t been used in a long time. Outside the window, we could glimpse the alleyways and the vast desert that would have provided a safe sanctuary for us. 


An officer entered the room and asked me for identification. I complied without hesitation. As he examined my passport, he asked me why I was helping them escape. The man who had grabbed me earlier entered and suggested that we relocated to his room next door. This room was bare and only had a table and two sofas. A man sat languidly in the room, smoking, as if he had been waiting for me. He asked the officer if this was the man, and the officer mumbled something lowly in response. I asked the man in Chinese if he was Korean or Korean-Chinese and he replied that he was Korean-Chinese and that he used to live in Yeongil but moved to Yiryeon for his business. He shared that his name was Heo Young-Ho. With the table in the middle the Korean-Chinese man sat on one side and officer and I on the other. Heo Young-Ho interrogated me at a machine-like pace and I replied honestly. After the interrogation was over, I told the officer that I was a citizen of Republic of Korea and that the news of my situation should be reported to the Korean embassy as soon as possible. The officer didn’t seem to be listening as he asserted that he was in charge of the safety of this military unit. He said that he was told that I would be arriving and had sent soldiers to Hop Psy (a small city 120 km south of Yiryeon) and that he was surprised that I had made it this far. I asked him why he was so overeager to catch defectors, to which he replied that March 12th of this past year (2007), the Chinese government decided to tighten its border security. In a small town near Manjuri a border officer was known to have been promoted in just 10 months after catching so many refugees. He shared that since he had caught a South Korean as well, he might even receive a small sum as an award.


The officer was indifferent to my explanations as he continued to scribble something. Suddenly he asked if I had eaten, to which I replied that I had not. He suggested that we eat together and that he would put the order in a restaurant right now. I replied that my companions had come to China because they had been so hungry in their native land and pleaded him to look after them, to which he turned a deaf ear. On my way to my prison cell, I used the cover of the night to hand all of my money to a translator accompanying us and implored him to send news of my incarceration back home.