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"I Was a Broker" (21)
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2016-01-26 11:50:24
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"I Was a Broker" (21)


RYU Sang-Joon

North Korean defector and activist 

Entered South Korea in 2000



I had seen so many inexplicably horrible things during my trip in China. The image of the teenage boys in Ryongsandoe linger before my eyes. The familiar North Korean jihajok (shoes worn by North Korean laborers), the tattered backpack that was barely functional, and their hurried packing that didn’t leave room to acknowledge a visitor, and the sight of them swallowing money, as if they were planning to cross the Tumen River in mere hours…the thought of them pressed down heavily on my conscience. The state of lives of the people of North Korea seemed to be reflected in them. They were dirty poor, driven only by the obsessive desire to live. Their image surrounded me in bitter melancholy.


Nowadays. I had to teach Korean to Mr. Wang from Songwong, start planning the escape routes for defectors, and start sending groups to the border area for reconnaissance. I was told he was a good man, so I gave him money to study Korean, yet he wasn’t dedicated. I also asked Young-Ok and Hyang-Mi to teach him the language of Chosun, yet they didn’t get along. I had decided that Han-Chinese people would be better than Korean Chinese after leaving the border area, and I had found a Han-Chinese person and paid him and taught him Korean. However, I could not stay there for long, and asked the refugees in the shelter to learn Chinese from him and teach him Korean as well. A while ago, The North American Commission on Human Rights, sent me a survey to be administered to refugees in China. If the request came from South Korea, I would have refused but since the request came from a man I knew well in China, I couldn’t quite turn down the request. It had become my burden. Anyways, everything had to be hurried. I think there were more than 20 refugees that I was supporting per month during June to August of 2006. It was difficult to determine the number of refugees that needed to be self-reliant and reduce the amount of people I was supporting. There were no defection routes that I was operating individually, and it was difficult to ask missionary organizations or somewhat morally conscious brokers to help move the refugees at the shelter. Missionary organizations claim to be free yet they would ask for more than I could provide when it actually came to helping them. Even brokers needed a deposit before helping them. It was incredibly difficult for me to financially provide for all of the refugee’s escape fees. I had to find a route to the third country so that I could have freedom to plan and work.


A few days before I left for China, an elderly lady suggested that we travel together since she was planning on going to China as well. I told her that I could only take her when I was taking a ship to China. She replied that she would pay and asked me to get two plane tickets. I managed to get two tickets through a travel agency and met the woman at the Incheon Airport. My face blanched at the sight of her. She was over 80 years old, had to be in a wheelchair, and wanted to meet defectors in China with me. I had warned her that we would be visiting refugees deep in the mountains and she claimed that it wouldn’t be a problem. We were complete strangers but she kept giving me instructions on the plane as if she knew the situation there better than me. We rested at an inn in Shenyang and got on a plane to Yangi. On the plane, there were two North Koreans in the seat behind us with a flag with the portrait of Kim Il-Sung. I was suddenly frightened that they must have caught a whiff of something suspicious from us and came to sit behind us. When we arrived in Yangi, it was dark and my welcoming party and I took the elderly woman to a hotel. Her health seemed to have deteriorated during the journey: she was having a difficult time moving and her words were slurred. This was not the same woman that had left Incheon airport. I asked our companions to take care of her and told them to call me if something happened. I had to rush to Longjing right away. In the middle of the night, I got a call saying that the woman had been admitted to the hospital after a stroke. I hurried the next morning to the Yanbian Neurology Clinic in Yangi. She was on a hospital bed, with our acquaintances waiting by her bedside. She was having difficulties with even just opening her eyes but she tried to raise her upper body. I stopped her and fixed her blankets comfortably around her. After a while, she seemed to have pulled herself together and asked me if everything had gone well. I told her that I had called the refugees I was supposed to meet starting last night but they never picked up and we were unable to meet up. The truth was family of three that I was supposed to meet had been arrested by the Chinese police about three days ago. We were scheduled to depart for the third country tonight but their location were discovered by the police. I don’t think that the man supporting this family in South Korea knew about the arrest. The woman asked me what kind of work I was doing here. Since it seemed like she was gravely sick ,I quickly summarized my work supporting refugees. Despite the fact that we met in Incheon airport, we didn’t get a chance to talk since we were conscious of watchful eyes. Now, she was sick in bed in Yangi. Now and then,  a pretty nurse would enter the ward with medicine and shots. We left a flower by the woman’s bedside and pretended that we were here for a regular hospital visit. She briefly summarized her life for me and warned me to never provide support for those within North Korea. She had been providing aid for eight years to places to North Korean kindergartens, bread factories and day care centers. However, despite her hopes, everything was a fraud. She had sent whom she believed to be a trustworthy man to North Korea to supply rice to the needy. However, all of it ended up in his pockets, never getting to the poor. I was touched by the woman’s effort, at such an age, and enraged at the person who would dare use the name of religion in vain to trample the hopes of this woman. She continued to ask after my current plans so I told her my troubles. After listening attentively to my worries, she told met to focus on providing support for the refugees, and that they should not be left for long in shelters but rather sent to the third country as soon as safe routes were available. She warned me not to trust humans but trust only in the Lord. There was too much falsehood on this land and told me to trust in the Lord. Then, she gave me a pocket watch, as if she had been wanting to all along, and as they were her last words, she held my hand as she told me to carry out the work that she didn’t have a chance to do so herself. I responded that I would do my best to honor her wishes and pleaded her to return to South Korea for the sake of her health. She assented although I sensed a glimmer of sad dissatisfaction in her eyes. Before I left her bedside, I asked those next to her bed to make sure she returned to South Korea safely. She seemed to understand me well and appeared to truly love the refugees. I thought that she thought of the refugee problem in a very rational way. The pocket watch that the woman gave me then is still kept safely in my house and every time I headed into China, the watch would remind me of the woman’s wishes. Another reason why I couldn’t forget the woman was that she gave me emotional strength and confidence while I was worrying about how to the get the defectors to the third country. I had met many people since that day, but never had one of them given me such strength as she did.


It was now time to carry out all the events I had been preparing for a long time. I had asked a Han-Chinese boy and a Korean-Chinese man to look for a route toward Ahulsan and visited the shelter when I could to show areas that they should check out on the map. Ahulsan, was geographically closest to Changchun and if we crossed the border North of Ahulsan we could quickly get on the road to Choyoyippalssanjok. The Mongolian border guards would be near by, along with a small village. The river near the border would be completely frozen in the winter, so we didn’t need to worry. I still needed to confirm the location of the Boarder Guards before I sent the defectors that way. Afterwards I would follow the diplomatic path to prevent refugees from returning back to China. This was my first patrol around the border. I told my companions to first locate the Chinese border area checkpoint and the detours, and second, to locate the Mongolian Border Guard and to check possible approach routes. The last thing they had to check were how police officers inspected trains, buses, and taxis going to Ahulsan and what the detours were. They returned after a few days and said that they were unable to determine the location of the Border Guards and that a few refugees attempting to escape to Mongolia near Ahulsan  near Uicha-gu had frozen to death, and eleven of them had been caught by the Chinese public police due to severe frostbite on their feet. They were given quick treatment and recently repatriated to North Korea. They said if refugees wanted to head to Uicha-gu Guard individually, they should follow along a small stream, then head under a bridge where a car would be waiting for them if they were planning on heading over the mountains. Snow in the area currently reached over their knees. I had to send the refugees in small groups, but I didn’t think the Chinese would be patrolling the mountains in that snow. However, I deemed it dangerous to send the refugees on that route since my companions weren’t able to confirm the location of the Mongolian Border Guards. There is a military airbase and a military horse  training center on the way to Uicha-gu. I figured out the route heading that way but I needed more specific details before I used the route. I determined this effort as a fail. Yet, I couldn’t share the truth with those that had traveled so far determine the information for me. I told them to get a good rest and remain positive.