Escaping North Korea
For forty years, I had lived in North Korea. I received a basic training for eleven years, studied in a professional military school for another two years, and then was in the military from 1988 to 2007. In March of 2011I, I came to South Korea, and finally began my life in the South after taking a course in Hanawon, the settlement support center for North Korean refugees for about four months.
The position and social background I had back in North Korea were not bad. The reasons I escaped from the North despite being able to live affluently are ‘freedom’ and ‘basic human rights’. The North Korean government thought of the citizens as mere dunces. If the Jung-il Kim regime had spent even 1% of the money used for the military, not that many people would have starved to death. If the politics were to be tolerable, I would have lived there since it is my home.
In North Korea, dead bodies could be seen on roads near railroads very easily. There were so many that it was impossible to make enough coffins to handle the corpses. Therefore, we used to bury them in holes in the ground. The period of famine was at the worst in the times of ‘The March of Suffering’. Most of the deceased were the old and the young; particularly, those who were naive enough to obey the government too well. As the government thinks that we are dunces, it was the first reason I decided to flee from the North.
The second reason I decided to leave North Korea was a currency reform of the country. When the currency reform was carried out, all the money we had worked so hard to earn became useless. Meanwhile, every organization in the country: the military, the security agency and the judicial authority had declared a state of emergency so that we were not able to realize the currency reform was being implemented until the very last minute. All the money we had became nothing but pieces of paper. Jung-il Kim and his government; however, executed a few senior directors by blaming them all for carrying out the currency reform while skillfully evading their responsibility. As important as a currency of a country, how he could have not known. Of course, everyone knew that Jung-il Kim was lying through his teeth when he said he knew nothing of the sort. The enragement toward the currency reform was the second reason I fled from North Korea.
After deciding to escape North Korea, I prepared thoroughly for three years praying. Thanks to this, I was able take my whole family out with me, including my sister’s family, , and all my direct kin. For a period of two months, our family split into six groups and crossed a river separately. In Yanji, a city in China, I took my father and child to Kunming, another city, in eight days. After staying at a broker’s house for a day or so, we crossed another river and continuously walked through mountains for 17 hours straight. We got into Thailand by a dugout canoe across the Mekong River, and finally arrived in South Korea.
Escaping North Korea is a matter of life and death. If you succeed, it means life, and if not, it means death. In that process, North Korean refugees experience a series of traumas. However, despite all these hardships and risking their lives, we wonder if we should not have escaped to South Korea in the first place when we arrive. In my case, I had tried to work for North Korea’s democratization in the South through a company called Gyeoreeol. I intended to make enough money to do so, but I came across many unfair and upsetting incidents. I even got sued for some dubious reasons that did not even make any sense. I was frustrated and outraged when I found out there were many people trying to take advantage of inexperienced and vulnerable North Korean refugees. It made me think if I had gone to a country like America; it would have been less humiliating.
The Economy of North Korea
Malnutrition can be terribly prevalent in North Korea. Basically, people lose all of their hair, unlike babies who grow their hair back again. Their necks are as thin as chickens’, able to be grabbed with one hand. They are just skin and bones. There is a lot of dandruff in people as well. As dandruff is formed when cells die, thus this means that the cells die more rapidly than they can be replaced. People’s anus would not close properly,so all the food taken in comes out straight. Particularly, when women suffer from malnutrition, all of their hair gets damaged and rough, their breasts become flat, and they cannot even have menses. In the North Korean military, not only men, but many women also died, and it was really scary to see malnourished women.
Surprisingly, women’s breast milk is known as the best remedy for malnutrition. Since so many people died from malnutrition, breast milk was used to save soldiers while many babies who needed the milk died commonly. Meanwhile, all the rice from the South has been consumed by the military. As the ordinary citizens have been given nothing, I have never eaten any of the rice as well. Additionally, the medical supplies sent by the South have been used only in the military. All of the rice and other goods from South Korea have been used to maintain the power of the government, and even the televisions from the South were used to brainwash the soldiers in the North Korean military.
Regardless, all of the supplies taken by the government can be bought in black markets these days. This can be interpreted as a sign of the collapse of the socialist system. Since 2005, people have been made to pay real-estate tax according to the grade of the land they used. Basically, although the government owns the land, the right to use it has been given to them. Heedlessly, these capitalist movements didn’t improve their lives; rather, things got worse and worse. North Korean merchants complain, “Things are getting from bad to worse. It is even worse than the time of the ‘March of Suffering’ back in the 1990s.”
Still, these days, the situation in markets hasn’t gotten any better. In the past, business was not bad. We could live about two days on a hard day of work in Jangmadang, a black market. Nowadays, however, it is difficult to even make 1,000 won, or a dollar, a day. If there were to be more goods, running businesses would have been much easier. Nevertheless, businesses cannot be run smoothly as there is not much to sell in the first place, with no proper distribution channels. Merchants used to quarrel over good spots, but these days, there is much space totally empty here and there. Selling goods is hopeless, and many people say that farming would be better since it can let you eke out a living for a few months.
Poor Military Circumstances
After coming to South Korea, I had many chances to visit South Korean troops for giving lectures about security, and there, I got to see soldiers eating their meals. The thing that I envied the most is that they were given very fine food. The meals I had eaten back when I was in the military was about six potatoes a day with about two or three side dishes, consisting of salted radish and cabbage. We were not given any oil unless it was holidays. No meat was given regularly, either, but only on very rare occasions. Compared to these circumstances, soldiers in the South Korea are well provided and I am very envious of them. Even more, South Korean regular soldiers serve in better conditions than North Korean officers. It makes me sigh whenever I see them complaining about their term serving only one year and nine months in the military, in such a blessed environment.
The Current Situation of the North Korean Military
Military service is mandatory for men to serve, but optional for women. For men, the term is ten years for regular soldiers, and thirteen years for those in Special Forces. For women, the service period is six years for regular soldiers, and eight years for officers. However, North Koreans are taught how to handle guns since 14 at the Young Red Guards, so most people know how to use guns basically. In the case of men, after ten to thirteen years of the military service, they get transferred to regional reserved local forces. Soldiers in Special Forces are trained in various areas such as special administration even after being transferred to local troops. These people also get regular annual military trainings. There are approximately 1.2 million soldiers in the North, and 7.7 million counting the reserved forces. In total, almost 10 million soldiers are ready to fight if a war breaks out.
Despite the huge size of the military forces and the constant ideology educations, there were a lot of deserted soldiers in the times of “the March of Suffering.” However, these days, the number of runaway soldiers is decreasing rapidly, mostly due to the improved social educations as well as the increased number of personal consultations since the whole troop is responsible for any runaway. In the past, deserters were forced to continue their services even if they had run away; however, these days, the military forces runaways are discharged, and labeled as ‘dishonorably dismissed’, which makes them impossible to be accepted back into the society, and eventually merely surviving. According to the ten major codes of the conduct, soldiers are to be educated and persuaded through personal consultations and punishments, so the number of soldiers going AWOL has decreased.
During the service, there is no vacation for the whole ten years. It is impossible to sleep out though some visits are allowed. They are only allowed to see the faces of the loved ones, and depart almost immediately. Even if a parent is in a critical condition, they still don’t let soldiers go out. They only permit soldiers to go out about 15 days when their parents die usually, so they cannot sit by the deathbed of their parents. Letters can only be received through the military channels, and each mail is checked in order to prevent any secret information from leaking. North Korea is very skilled in protecting their secret military information from being revealed, and they even keep all their weapons and equipment in concealment. In fact, often South Korea says they know a lot about North Korea, but actually they do not. The claims experts on North Korea are not totally correct, either. The books and the testimonies of North Korean refugees cannot be always correct as well since the situation in North Korea differs by period and region. Particularly, as there is no freedom of residential mobility in the North, no one knows about the whole situation of North Korea, other than the region he or she lives in.
In the military, there are relatively many female soldiers. The number differs by each troop, but generally, most female soldiers are placed in managing anti-aircraft guns, which mainly handle cannons. Additionally, many women soldiers are placed in medical corps, guarding troops, art propaganda squads, and the artillery. It is said that the expenses needed for one female soldier is three times of a male one, so the support for female soldiers is not bad at all. Although lipsticks and powder are not available, they are given moisturizers for their skin. Even if men’s expendables are not supported, female consumables are well provided. During their military service, it is uncommon for female soldiers to be pregnant as dating publicly and officially is strictly banned. They start their service since they are young, and can only get married after being discharged. If a woman becomes pregnant during the service, she usually gets discharged dishonorably, but sometimes it is overlooked.
The Mental Strength of the North Korean Military
The North Korean military are equipped with superior mental strength. Even without proper food, they can march down to the South carrying weapons as one if a war breaks out. As people are brainwashed constantly throughout their lives, they are completely made to worship Kim, Il Sung, the founder; Kim, Jeong Il, his son; and Kim, Jeoung Eun, the grandson in power now. Along with this ideology education, they are forced to believe that they should always win in fights against the South. They have learned that the country can become extremely wealthy and powerful when the North’s military forces and the South’s economic powers are combined. This brainwashing ‘education’ usually takes place in the mornings when a person has a clear mind, and the actual training is done in the whole afternoon every day. This empowers the mental strengths of the North Korean soldiers which is stronger than the South Korean ones inevitable.
Once, I gave a lecture to sophomores in a middle school in Daegu after coming to South Korea. I asked them what they would do if a war broke out, and over 90% of them said that would flee. This is a truly pitiful reality. When these students grow up, serve in the military, and later become important members of the society, I worry what would happen to South Korea. Since the South Koreans are living happily, they tend to forget how precious freedom and basic human rights are. I believe that this shortsighted view will lead to the absence of the will to protect one’s country.
The View of North Korea
Things are getting worse and worse. After the military service, I had studied economics in North Korea. Back then, I had learned if 99.9% of the North Korean local industries collapsed, it is better to start a completely new economic system from the scratch. Particularly, as I had learned about managing economy, it is evident that the North Korean economy has already been near destruction because nothing has been produced as there are no raw materials. No factories have been operational; all the machines and lumps of scratch metals are standing alone, completely being neglected.
The privileges of North Korea think as long as the military is maintained, they can preserve their power even if everything else collapses. They use all of their connections to maintain their power, which inevitably leads to more corruptions. Particularly, they can do pretty much anything and everything they want anywhere as long as they wear a military uniform. Most officers have secret stash funds. They use their authorities and social positions to collect more money. Bribing is the most common; booze and women along with corruptions related to money are already pervasive. Basically, there is no future in North Korea.
Furthermore, the forceful attitude of the privileges also makes the prospect even dimmer as we have become much more aware of things. In the past, when we picked up a flyer from the South, we use to think that they were just trying to lure us. However, these days, people are more receptive about information from outside. For example, the culture of South Korea flows in through China in CDs, and most of the newly recruited soldiers in North Korea haven been exposed to South Korean songs and movies. I think that times have changed a lot, along with people’s mind.
Celebrating the 100th birthday of Kim, Il Sung, the founding dictator, North Korea claimed ‘a strong and prosperous country’ as their new goal, which stated that they would progress greatly in political, economical, and military perspectives. However, this cannot be achieved without the reunification. When I was in North Korea, people thought that the unification was not done because South Koreans did not want it to happen. However, after leaving North Korea, I realized that it was not possible because the North did not agree to it. If the North stubbornly insists on seclusion, rather than open-door policies, the collapse of the regime is only a matter of time. The current situation of North Korea is like an overly infected wound that is just about to fester when touched.
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