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"I Was a Broker" (27)
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2016-01-26 11:58:31
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"I Was a Broker" (27)


RYU Sang-Joon

North Korean defector and activist 

Entered South Korea in 2000



Whenever I returned to South Korea, I used a computer once or twice a month. I would look on websites concerning defectors to check on the states of those settled in South Korea and to keep up with incidents going on in China. In September 2006, on the message board on Association of North Korean Defectors, someone wrote a message asking for help in getting to South Korea. Her name was Young-Mi and had left her email address there. As I read her words, she seemed to be honestly requesting for help. I sent her an email asking her when she had defected, what she was doing, and what was wrong. I also requested that she send her phone number to me. She only replied with her phone number and I called her to say we should meet up when I returned to China in a few days. It was raining in Yangi as I waited for her. I forgot an umbrella so I was getting wet in the rain. I found her soon enough. She was short but confident and greeted me, sheltering me with her umbrella. We walked together under her umbrella when I noticed that she was limping. When I first talked to her on the phone asking why she wanted to get to South Korea and how her health was, she said that she had fallen from her apartment building and that her hip had been shattered. As a result, it was hard for her to walk and she couldn’t work properly due to her injury. I stopped to see how she was walking to confirm just how bad her injury was. She was determined to get to South Korea even though she couldn’t even walk properly. In order to get to South Korea, one must walk at least 12-16 kilometers. I told her that it would be difficult of her to get to South Korea and that she might be a burden to her companions and might even bring misfortune on her party. However, she implored that she needed my help in getting to South Korea. I told her that we had some time and that she should practice walking and get some treatment. I wondered if I could take her with the team leaving in September. I wasn’t confident but with some effort it might be possible. The most important thing was her determination.


We sat in a café and I asked her why she had jumped from an apartment building, knowing she would get hurt. She told her story without any hesitation, even adding body movement to mimic the events. She had been living in an apartment in Yangi and one evening she had been getting ready for bed when someone pounded on her door. She didn’t think it was a civilian since most people would have knocked softly. She crept softly toward the door and drew the chain on in. Outside, what seemed like the police had called a locksmith and was demanding him to opening the door. There was no place for her to go in the middle of the night. She ripped her blankets and hastily made a rope. She scaled down the building with her rope and knocked on the sixth floor door but no one answered. She climbed in through that window and tried to exit through their door but the police was outside of that door as well. She made a rope from the sheets from that house when she completely lost her memory after then. She only remembered her grip loosening and people gathering around her asking for ID. She regained conscious after getting treatment at the hospital and a woman she knew helped her through her injury. She had gained her injuries from running from the police. She had broken a rib, shattered her hip and had broken her arm. Her state of health is not good. There weren’t many days until our departure but it was growing questionable if we could safely take her to Mongolia. Even if we took the long three-day route to our destination we wouldn’t be able to sleep properly for days and we’d have to walk many kilometers. Her hipbone would be severely damaged under that kind of condition. Furthermore, there was a high chance that we would be caught by border guards. I agonized over what to do about her but our success rate was low. We were set to leave tomorrow but she called me crying that her hip still hurt. After going over the teams heading to the third country, I met with Young-Mi to tell her that I couldn't bring her this time around. I told her that I couldn’t guarantee her safety and asked her to wait a few months. I promised her that I would take her to South Korea safety and told her to take it if a safe route came up when I wasn’t around. If none came up, I asked her to wait for me until I found a way to bring her to South Korea. I was worried for her so I told her I would help her with living and hospital expenses but she said that she wouldn’t take money. She told me that she just wanted to get to South Korea. It will be exceedingly difficult to travel with her. I need to protect her health as well as find a safe route. After entering South Korea, I tried my best to find a way to get her here safely. From what I figured, I could get her to an embassy within three to six months. I started preparing for her departure. I met many people for their advice and it turned out that I could get Young-Mi to an international organization sooner than I had originally thought. I didn’t waste any time—I met up with Young-Mi right away and I was able to get her to our destination without any troubles thanks to her fluent Chinese. I couldn’t have dreamed it better myself. Before we parted, she gave me a tiny package wrapped in thread and told me to open it once I was back in South Korea. When I opened it back home, a single hundred-dollar bill fell out. This money must have been her last resort. I don’t think she’s ever parted with it. She had faced so much risk to avoid being detected by the Chinese Police. Her body is still damaged from her fall. She must have been driven singularly by a burn desire to live, to avoid going back to North Korea, even if it meant her death. This desire is what must have given her courage to scale down that apartment building in the darkness.


December 1988, there were six defectors in Helong, Ryongseonghyang Heungseochon. One day, early dawn, the police conducted an impromptu search of the village and three refugees were arrested and forcefully repatriated. Eight months after that event, I saw a man who had been repatriated return back to Ryongseochon with a heavy limp. It was near impossible to return after having been caught and sent back to North Korea. I was glad to see him and I longed to hear news of North Korea. I greeted him and asked him why he was limping. He replied that after he had been arrested, they had gone through customs and was sent to North Korea, but there weren’t any soldiers in the middle of the bridge they had to cross. There were North Korean soldiers approaching them from ahead and he knew it would be the end if he ended up in the custody of these approaching soldiers. He jumped from the bridge but landed wrong, with his knee getting stuck in the frozen sheet of the river. His joints were shattered. He ignored the pain and ran cross the frozen Tumen River but the Chinese soldiers ran after him and started beating him with their rifles. He had twins but he had to give over the girls to a man in Helong since it was for him to take care of both children. He didn’t know what happened to his wife and children—he had defected alone. He went to find that man in China that he had given his daughter to, but they had already moved. After that he cried often for his family and tried to drown his sorrows in alcohol. After a while, he never returned to the village.


This man had crossed the river for a single bowl of rice but no one could take him in. There was no night or day in Chinese Public Police’s hunt for refugees. These defectors had no protection and were herded to their deaths. Their desperation could drive a frail woman to jump from a high apartment building without even consideration of the consequences. As I worked in China for a few years, I had learned just how often defectors flirted with life and death after crossing the Tumen River. I met a young man in Baekchogu, Wangqing. He was handsome and clean cut. We talked about life in North Korea and I asked him how the scar on his head came about. He said that the scar on the front side of his head was from a mining accident. When he lived in Onsong, he had dug his own cave where he could mine for coal to make a living. One day, he had crawled into the narrow cave and was in the process of digging out coal with his tool bounced off a rock and hit his head. He seemed to relive the pain of that day as he frowned. He said that he held his bleeding head for a while and managed to barely escape the cave. As for the other scar in the middle of his head, he said it was from when he was attempting to cross the Tumen River. He had been caught by the North Korean border guards, and a soldier hit him on the head with the butt of his gun. He barely scraped by in North Korea by mining coal and decided to cross the Tumen River to make money in China in order to survive. He explained that he examined how the soldiers were patrolling the River every day and finally managed to escape through a narrow path. He didn’t think he would encounter any guards when suddenly, soldiers started running toward him, commanding him to stop. He was determined to get to China and the river wasn’t too far from where he was. He started running for the River with his last breath. He was only a few steps away from the Tumen River when suddenly a figured appeared and grabbed him, hitting him across the head with a butt of a gun. He almost blacked out but he knew that he was facing death so he pushed away the soldier and ran toward the River. He jumped in the river and ran forward as hard as he could and when he had finally crawled onto the Chinese shore, he was covered with blood. As he told me his near-death story he said that he was convinced that he was going to die then.