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"I Was a Broker" (18)
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2016-01-26 11:42:32
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"I Was a Broker" (18)


RYU Sang-Joon

North Korean defector and activist 

Entered South Korea in 2000



   When we returned with our successful missions, I was told that there were refugees in Mabansan, who were going through really tough times and desperately needed help. The next morning, I arranged to meet them in Wangqing and headed toward Wangqing. After preparing for my journey, I sought out a person that would guide me into the mountain. In order to get to Mabansan, I would have to take a bus to Hunchun, yet buses to Hunchun did not operate frequently. As a result, I had to wait a while in the bus station. Mabansan is a small village, There were nine North Korean women there with six out of the nine children in the village belonging to these women. Since there were many North Korean women there, they didn’t like having South Koreans, religious organizations, or human rights organizations to come to the village. There were already a few women that left for South Korea who hadn’t been heard from since. In that place, they didn’t think about the sufferings North Koreans—they only thought of themselves. They didn’t provide anything for these women refugees and they barely got through each day. I knew what the village people were like and if I headed toward the mountain from the village, my status as well as the status of the people in the mountains would suffer. I stopped at the nursing home in Farley and decided to climb the mountain by following the mountain range. It was mid January and the weather was cold, with the streams frozen over, and the snow coming up past my ankles. Since I had grown up at a park near a mountain range, I had experience climbing mountains from a young age. However, I had never climbed a mountain covered with ice like this before. My guide told me several times that he was too tired and wanted to stop and rest so many times. It was impossible to take a step without falling and we made our way, sweating until we saw a small hut in the distance accompanied by the sound of barking dogs. It was evidence that someone lived in this mountain. We climbed the slippery steep slope to the hut and knocked on the door but no one answered. There had to be someone there, why didn’t anyone answer? I thought it weird and slowly opened the door. There were household goods in the hut, sacks meant to contain grains, and farming tools in the room. The stove felt hot as if it was on until this morning. There had to be people here, where were day? The mountain was covered in snow and hunting would be difficult. We came out to inspect the outside to find faint footprints. It seemed like they had left as we were climbing the mountains. Around two to three hundred meters away, we heard the sound of a young dog barking. The people living here must have heard us coming up and ran away through the snow. My winter clothes were khaki colored and from far away, it could have looked like a soldier’s uniform. From somewhere in the mountain, the refugees would be watching our every move right now. We decided to rest a little bit since we were tired from our long and perilous journey here before climbing back down. We decided that we didn’t want to scare the refugees and have them hide out in the mountains in the bitter cold. I asked my guide if he could get in touch with them and tell them not to run away next time I cam to visit.


After a day or two, my guide got in touch with the refugees and invited me back. It would take a full day to go back there and I didn’t have enough energy to make that hard journey again, but I didn’t want to go back on a promise. We headed toward the mountain again. We kept falling and tumbling but finally made it to the hut with the dog barking its lungs out at us. The door opened and a woman and man in their 60s welcomed us. At first sight, it seemed like they had lived a hard life. Their rough faces lined with deep wrinkles and furrows seemed to tell the tales of their weary lives. It was freezing so we quickly headed inside after our initial greetings. The room was divided into two and nothing had changed since the last time I saw it. They had lived here. We introduced ourselves briefly and found out they were a married couple and their daughter had married a Chinese man in the village below only to be arrested by the Chinese police and repatriated back to North Korea. Fellow refugees that he had worked with became sacrifices in the fight between the Chinese and fell to their knives. He had recovered his son’s corpse and carried him up the mountain only to bury him in a sunny slope, unable to give him a proper funeral. As they retold the story of the horrific lives, tears streamed endlessly down their cheeks. Even I felt tears gather in my eyes from listing to their life stories. I asked them why they didn’t live in the house their daughter used to live in, to which they replied that they used to stay with their daughter but the owner of the house didn’t like it. They had no where else to go and ended up coming to the mountain to manage a small inn that a Han-Chinese businessman was operating. Their hut seemed bearable as long as they had ample firewood in the winter. They were far from the village, and they could easily hide from police inspection and the watchful eyes of the citizens since it was difficult to climb the mountain. However, apparently this wasn’t the house they stayed in—their real house was in the next valley behind this mountain range. No one knew about that house. I asked them how they lived that deep in the mountains and they replied that they used a trap used to capture wild animals to catch birds and other animals. They sold these animals for a cheap price at the Wangqing market and bought necessities such as rice with the money. In the Spring and Summer, they picked wild greens and herbs and sold them to help their son in North Korea. Their story made me feel like I was in a strange world. They cooked us a wild bird to thank us for coming so far. That lunch was especially memorable since it was a mother’s cooking imbedded with her love. After a while, they showed us their secret house. Their house was covered in snow and they cleared the snow to reveal a cover. It was another small room. The wall was supported by a log frame and they used natural light that came in through a small window on the ceiling. There were some blankets, bowls, and spoons. Since it was underground, there were a pile of birch barks meant to be used as firewood in order to minimize humidity in their house. On the ceiling and the four corners of the house, unidentifiable mushrooms were growing. Soon I caught the smell created by fungus growing in the house over the years. Was this truly the reality? I didn’t want to believe that this was the reality their lives. As we walked back to the hut I asked them why they didn’t just live in the hut and chose to live in an underground hole. They replied that even this hut wasn’t safe. There were a few people that would come to pick wild greens and herbs, who weren’t necessarily kind-hearted. If they were reported, then the police would probably come to this hut. The police had actually come to the hut multiples times before but they managed to escape and afterwards, they dug that hole in the ground. Before we parted, I told them that I was also a defector and that I prayed everyday believing in the Lord. I told them to pray and I played tapes of hymns for them. It must be difficult for them to survive in this environment. I told them that I would provide 200 won for each of them, once a month. However, they refused to take it until I finally convinced them to accept the money. What they really wanted wasn’t living expense—they wanted to get to South Korea.