12 year-old North Korean Boy, Chul’s Memoirs
-A Long, Dramatic Journey to South Korea via China and Mongolia-
Part III: Entering into Mongolia and escaping two times
This is the last part of a 12 year-old North Korean boy, Chul’s memoirs titled “A Long, Dramatic Journey to South Korea via China and Mongolia”.
At the House of Chinese Mom’s Relatives
One day we received a call from some strangers, who helped our Aunt go to South Korea. The men told our Chinese Mom to meet with them and they threatened her for money. The woman who went with my Aunt didn’t pay their allotment to these men, even though my Aunt paid in full her share. On hearing that the other woman had no money, the men were reminded of our Aunt and therefore asked for a huge amount of money from our Chinese Mom.
We called Dad regarding this matter, but he told us to just stay quite. However, the men found out where we lived and broke into our house. When I returned home, I found cigarette butts rolling around everywhere in our house. I informed my Dad of this incident and he told us to leave as soon as possible since our lives could be in danger.
That night we left home in haste, only carrying our money. Our Chinese Mom decided to go to her relatives in the country, which took 4 hours by taxi. Her relatives were farmers and without any explanation about our situation, we slept there that night. The next day, Mom tried to figure out our next step since we were still filled with fear of the men, who might be chasing after us.
While we were staying there, we got another call from Dad. He said that ten days later, a South Korean would visit and bring us to South Korea. It was an unexpected message since it was hard to believe that he could have found a solution so fast. Also, he said that Grandma and Yunmi would join us and his friend would arrange the travel details. Then, Dad added that we needed to follow his friend’s instruction in order to arrive safely to South Korea. One week later, Grandma, Yunmi, and Dad’s friend called us to bring them to our relative’s house since they already arrived in Yeongil. Chinese Mom, Soyeon and I rushed to Yeongil by taxi, but no one was there.
While we were looking around for them, suddenly someone next to me spoke “Chul! Here we are.” Turning around, I saw my Grandma and Yunmi waving their hands. We ran toward them and hugged each other. Grandma had grown very thin and Yunmi had grown in height. With the joy of a family reunion, we all returned back to the house.
On arriving to the house, we shared our stories of what happened thus far. Grandma explained that she had a call from Dad two days ago and followed his friend to the meeting place. The next morning Dad’s friend, who had helped Grandma, went back to his home.
You are not going there to study!
After a couple of days, Dad called us and said that his friend would come to our house the next day. On hearing his message, we really began to imagine going to South Korea at this time. But our Chinese Mom became depressed to hear this news.
Even though she was not my real mother, she had helped us and been with us, taking care of us with all her heart as if we had been her real children. She looked very lonesome for no one would be around with her. Soyeon and I were also very heavy-hearted.
In fact, sometimes I was impolite to her just because she could not replace my real mother. Despite my unfriendly attitude, she always took care of me without getting angry. So, at that time, my mind and heart was also downhearted.
At last, the day for us to leave arrived. Around 6 pm, we received a call from an ethnic Korean man informing us that Dad’s friend had been waiting for us at the hotel in Yeongil. The person who called us seemed to be his helper in these matters.
Our Chinese Mom immediately got dressed and went out alone to the hotel. After one hour, she came back with Dad’s friend. The man patted our heads and looking at Yunmi, he asked Grandma, “Can she walk?” “Yes,” replied Grandma and he just nodded his head.
He unpacked his parcels and inside were winter clothes, shoes and socks for us. After speaking with our Chinese Mom for a while, he left.
All of those gifts were from Dad. I already knew it because Dad told me over the phone before his friend visited our house. After seeing him off, Chinese Mom told Grandma that we would meet him at Domun on December 3 and there someone would be waiting for us. He advised us to be firmly determined to leave at this time.
The next day, Grandma and Chinese Mom bought shoes for Yunmi because she didn’t have any. We started to pack the basic necessities of our belongings since we couldn’t bring many things with us. When I tried to pack my books, Grandma scolded me, “You think you are going there to study? Take those books out of your bag.” The next day, we took a taxi toward Domun for 2 hours.
Arriving at Domun, we went to the train station to wait for the man Dad had mentioned. Ten minutes and then twenty minutes had passed, however he still didn’t show up after one hour. Chinese Mom went outside looking for him and we kept looking at everyone’s faces passing by there. Two hours passed by and still nobody.
While waiting for the man, in order to be easily noticed, we had Soyeon and Yunmi stand in the front. A man approached us and asked, “Are you going to South Korea?” “Yes.” we replied. He told us that he came there instead of the man whom we were waiting for. He was an ethnic Korean that came to help and guide us. He directed us to follow him, carrying our bags. We followed after him for a long time and went into a room, where there were lots of people. I thought that they were there for other businesses.
The ethnic Korean man introduced us to the others in the room. I was surprised at his explanation that everyone in the room was a group going to South Korea. Including us, the number amounted to 15 people. More surprisingly, all of them were from North Korea.
There was a young man, an old lady and other adults. But only Soyeon, Yunmi, and I were the only children in the group. Our Chinese Mom wanted to buy some winter clothes for us worrying about cold weather, but I courteously declined her kindness.
We were supposed to leave for Beijing around 10 am. I couldn’t find the man who guided us there since he left before us. While waiting, we talked with each other until ten and then walked around for 5 minutes and boarded the train. Our Chinese Mom did not leave us then and boarded the train with us.
Separating from Chinese Mom
Chinese Mom sobbed, holding Grandma’s hands and she trusted Grandma to take care of Soyeon and me. Grandma said through her tears, “I’m sorry for leaving you here alone. I’m sorry.” And Chinese Mom embraced us, cried and told us to take care of our health. Soyeon and I wept while talking with our Chinese Mom, holding her hands tightly.
It was time to leave. As soon as she got off the train, she came up to our window outside. She was waving her hands saying good-bye with tears in her eyes and I hardly looked at her in such sorrow and weeping.
When the train started to move, I stood up and waved my hands toward her. She continued to follow the train, waving her hands. Then the train started to run fast that we couldn’t see her anymore. Extreme sorrow overwhelmed and took me over. Looking outside the window, I sighed and thought, why can’t I have a Mother? I might not be allowed to have a Mom.
Regardless of my grief, the train kept passing through the mountains and fields endlessly. I silently stared out the window until lunchtime. The ethnic Korean man poured boiling water into noodle cups and distributed them to the 15 defectors. The train was endlessly running forward and we were told that we would arrive in Beijing the next afternoon. Again for dinner, we had noodles in a cup and fell asleep soon afterwards.
It was dawn when I woke up and before we had a chance to wash our faces, we had another cup of noodles for breakfast in the running train. It was one in the afternoon when we finally arrived at the crowded Beijing train station. The ethnic Korean man told us to carry our bags.
In a line, we got off the train, and the ethnic Korean led us out away from the station. In front of the station, I was amazed to see a fantastic scenery of tall buildings and numerous running cars. I was carried away in such a beautiful scene.
On the train again
We had lunch at a restaurant and went back to the station. The ethnic Korean man distributed train tickets to us, saying, “We are going into Mongolia. We will depart here at 5 pm and arrive tomorrow at dawn. You can use these tickets for your beds so make yourself comfortable and please be up before 3 am.”
At 5 pm, we walked to the ticket gate to show our tickets and found our seats. It was a real bed seat! After unloading our packages, I soon fell asleep from fatigue.
While I was still sleeping, Grandma woke me up. Outside was dark and the train was running. The next stop was our destination so I collected my mind and things to prepare for getting off the train. At last the train arrived, decreasing its speed at the station.
We got off in a line and an old lady and a young man greeted us. They came there to guide us. We moved to the front of the station and there I saw some bizarre language characters, they were Mongolian words. We were led to the station front and told to sit down. The old lady and the young man were talking with the ethnic Korean man.
We stayed at the station front for a long time and I dozed off for a while. In the morning, the old lady brought us to a restaurant for breakfast. She was a fluent Chinese speaker and told the restaurant waitress to serve us some meal.
Surprised to hear we’re going to cross the border
The waitress set the table for us and we had an enjoyable breakfast. It was bright outside. The old lady led us to a bus and she bargained with the bus driver for 10 minutes. After bargaining, the bus driver told us to board the bus. The bus began to move away from the restaurant and it was running very swiftly through the grassland leaving the city behind. They said it would take 5 hours to arrive at our destination. I was completely obsessed with the scenery I saw from the bus. The vast grassland! People began to fall asleep during the long bus trip. When I woke up, only 2 hours passed by.
I began to suffer from nausea and it was unbearable. The sickness kept continuing and I spoke to myself, ‘Should overcome this cold! It is just a mere beginning. There might be something more terrible waiting for me. I should be able to stand up with this’ In this way, I mentally controlled myself.
In the end, we arrived at our destination, which was a small city. And a man boarded the bus. He looked weak and tall, wearing glasses. Entering the bus, he greeted us and introduced himself as someone who would help us go to South Korea. There were three other men who came on the bus, one old man and two youngsters. The old lady who had guided us here called the old man “Honey” and I learned that these five individuals were one family, all of them tall and sturdy.
When they came on the bus, the man wearing glasses spoke to the driver in Chinese and the driver changed its direction. The bus was going toward an isolated area where there weren’t a lot of people. The man who spoke before told us we had nothing to worry about and that helped to lesson our nervousness. He also gave us some tips that we needed to be careful about. When they mentioned that we were going to cross the border, I was really surprised since that was the first time I heard of such news.
Crawling and going through barbed wire
We kept those tips in mind and the bus continued to move forward to the isolated area. “What is it!” I saw the barbed wire just like the ones on the TV set. I couldn’t believe that our group was planning to cross through the barbed wire. After driving along the wire for a little while, the bus came to a stop and we all got off. The man wearing the glasses told us to follow the old man and then he and the ethnic Korean man went away on the bus.
In this open grassland, 20 people were left in front of the barbed wire. We had to wait until it got dark and so we ate all the food that we had. I realized that the old lady with us was also a North Korean but she was born in China and went to North Korea with her father and then came back to China. She had been in China for 5 years since then. We waited and the old man who was guiding us informed us that the army could catch us. Finally, darkness came and we started moving. In the front the men and in the middle the women and children. We carefully crawled and stood up beside the barbed wire. The men threw all the packages over the barbed wire and they pulled up the wire to let the women and children pass through. We quickly picked up our bags and started crawled again.
It was a delicate memory in my mind that Yunmi passed clumsily through the barbed wire to survive. We already safely crossed 4 barbed wire lines and fortunately, these 4 lines didn’t have electricity yet. However, during the middle of crossing, the electricity sparked and we found one string of electric line. We cut the line and went straight ahead. After running for a long time, we began to see some blinking lights from houses. And finally, we were in another country, with China behind us and there we took a rest for awhile.
We began to discuss. The old man told that we should be caught by border security guards in towel. He explained that to be caught was the only possible way to make a chance to go to South Korea. So we walked in stride toward the towel. Our hearts were beating fast and suddenly a dark shadow appeared in front of us. At that moment, the old man went up to them.
Put in a prison
The old man bowed to them saying, “We are all North Korean.” They shouted and pointed their guns at us and besieged us in a circle, shouting some words. We just stood still unable to listen to what they were saying. They threatened us to kneel hitting us with their guns and ordered us to stand.
They ordered us to move and lie flat on the ground in other place. They were very busy contacting each other and we kept silent. I heard Yunmi’s snoring; she was riding on the back of a man and was still sleeping. On hearing her snoring, the soldiers laughed and talked amongst themselves.
After a long time, cars arrived with their headlights beaming in our eyes and stopped in front of us. On their arrival, the soldiers suddenly shackled adults and tied something around their eyes and pushed them into the car. They didn’t tie or handcuff the children. There were two cars; I was in the first car, and Grandma, Soyeon and Yunme were in the second. Two soldiers and an army dog rode with me in the car.
An hour and a half later, we arrived at the headquarters where the soldiers were staying. Looking out, I saw all the soldiers around us. They took us into the building by holding our arms. Entering into the building, I saw several wooden cells where they put us in. What on earth! The cell was too small for five people and there was just one human head size window. The air was stinking in the cell and we had to sleep on top of each other but still there was no space to lie down.
I went fast asleep. While I was sleeping, I was woken up by a rummaging sound; the soldiers were searching our bodies. All the packages we had with us were taken away. They took everything, even Yunmi’s 30-won Chinese currency from her clothes.
Arguing with the Mongolian Soldiers
When they finished searching our bodies, it was already morning, however they didn’t offer us any food or water. The old lady gestured to a guard for water and he brought us some water. Using the restroom was also a problem. We gestured to the guard to use the restroom and he took us one by one. Pointing their guns at us, they took us to the restroom and then back to the cell.
We were all separated to several cells and given lunch, which was yucky mutton mixed with rice. We couldn’t even eat it because of the disgusting smell and felt like vomiting. For dinner, they brought solid corn bread and mutton soup. Almost dying from hunger, we ate those up unlike our lunch.
Late in the evening, a female soldier came in and talked to us unexpectedly in Korean. She awkwardly asked in Korean, “You come from North Korea?” “Yes! We want to go to South Korea! Please send us to South Korea!” we replied. She wrote down our names and age in English not in Korean. After she went out, we realized that all our names were written down. We spent one more night in the cell and the next morning, out of the blue, the soldiers took us outside and took our picture. After taking our picture, we were put into the cell again and had a yucky breakfast.
Sympathizing with a small child such as Yunmi, soldiers gave her some cookies. And she distributed her cookies to us. In the afternoon, the soldiers suddenly ordered us to put on our clothes and come out of the cell. We hoped that they could send us to South Korea but at the same time, we were worried that they would send us to China and then to North Korea.
The soldiers led us to the bus and there were our packages in front of the bus. We took our bags and got on the bus. Behind the bus, a military car followed. Unaware of where we were headed, the bus just left.
We came to a building with Chinese writing on it, noting that this place might be the border between the two countries. We caught these words on the building and in the front, the Chinese security officers were standing. We threatened the driver that we would jump out so the driver stopped the bus.
When the bus stopped, we all jumped out and ran toward the way in which we came. At that moment, soldiers behind the bus got out of their vehicle and seized us. So we all got off the bus and gathered together.
We just continued to walk ahead the way we had come from. The soldiers tried to throw us into the car but we stayed together in order not to be scattered. When one of us was forced in a car, all of us together pulled him out from the bus. It was a real demonstration and some officers kicked us.
God, Help us!
After a while, a squad of soldiers ran toward our group carrying their guns and began to separate and scatter us from each other. The ones who were not separated from the group also struggled to seize the soldiers from taking away the any more individuals from our group. But all of us were exhausted and so we knelt on our knees and wailed loudly.
Then, one of us stepped forward and called out, “God, My Lord! Please help us!” And then all of us started to shout after him, “God!”
In fact, at that time, we were ignorant of God, but we followed our group’s shouting of “God.” We continued to wail out, “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” Our mournful wailing was so ardent and sincere that several officers also shed tears on seeing this scene, just standing and not trying to seize us.
Witnessing our cries, a couple of Chinese officers talked amongst themselves and went back in their cars. To their response, the soldiers gestured us to go back on the bus, implying that they would take us to the army headquarters. So we boarded the bus again. The young men of our group kept their eyes on the driver, standing beside him to make sure that he wouldn’t drive us toward the Chinese border and the bus went towards the army headquarters.
During that time, an old lady suddenly fainted and fell to the ground. She was riled up from the demonstration and therefore lost a lot of her strength. So the bus driver drove faster to the headquarters.
On reaching the headquarters, a soldier carried the old lady on his back and took her to the hospital. The men were put into cells and the women and children followed the old lady and soldier to the hospital.
At the hospital, the nurses treated the old lady by massaging her feet. After they finished giving her medical treatment, the soldiers ordered us to stay with her in the hospital and they left. Later on, the old lady recovered her consciousness.
Officers would come in and out several times, checking the total number of our group. Whenever they came in, we would show them our map, explaining that we came from North Korea and that we wanted to be sent to South Korea. Hearing our explanation, the officers nodded in understanding.
After we came back from the hospital, we still didn’t know what was going on with all the men. That evening, we were given some food and lied down to sleep, covered by our winter clothes and lying down on blankets that the soldiers had given us.
Taken over to the Chinese Soldiers
The next day at dawn, the soldiers suddenly came into our sanitary room. Being waken, we put on our clothes. They tied the hands of the old ladies and sealed our eyes and we were all embarrassed. Holding our arms, they took us to the bus and I slightly lowered the seal in order to see. As soon as they put us on the bus, it departed. There were all women and just three men including myself. A young man and an old man were with us and the old man said, “They are taking us over to China.”
Hearing this, the old ladies became shocked and began to wail out. The soldiers held our arms one by one and some of the ladies started shouting, “God! Jesus Christ!”, “Why do you abandon us all!” And the rest of the other ladies wailed after them.
The bus kept going and I saw a sign that read “The Republic of China.” Seeing that sign, I realized the situation that we faced. We were on the way to China. If we crossed to the Chinese border, we would be sent to North Korea and if that happened, we would all die in North Korea.
The bus reached the Chinese security agency building and behind there was a car with all our packages. As soon as the bus arrived, the soldiers forced us to get out of the bus. I saw the soldiers of both countries salute each other; they took our blindfolds off and untied our hands. The old ladies just kept on wailing and they took us over to the Chinese Army and went their own way.
“You! You guys are not human! How can you leave us here! What on earth!” Their loud wailing disturbed the squad. After the Chinese Army left, we were forced into a small van. Two soldiers got inside of van, our packages in it.
We looked around for the other ten missing people. The small van passed by the Chinese security guard building and the old ladies were still weeping.
How can we send you to North Korea knowing that you would be killed in North Korea?
Watching our excessive wailing, the Chinese officer said in Chinese, “They said you guys are from North Korea, right?” In the car, there were two soldiers and one officer. Hearing their question, the lady who had been in China the longest time burst into tears and replied, “Yes! So, you are going to send us to North Korea? Right?”
The officer laughed loudly and said, “You guys thought that you’re going to North Korea? Ha, Ha, Ha!” We were bewildered at his response. The officer said, “Take it easy. How can we send you to North Korea knowing that you would be killed there? So far we have not informed anybody and we are going to let you off where you want to go. I wish for you to survive but I don’t want you to come back to our territory again.” It was unbelievable and we were in doubt of what we heard. It was like a dream. When we heard it at first, we asked the officer to repeat what he said to make sure that it was true. The officer swore that he was telling us the truth. Incredible! I sighed in relief but we were still in doubt, uninsured about our situation. The bus kept going and the officer informed us that we they were taking us to the train station to let us go. The bus reached a farm village after a while and stopped at a somewhat desolate area.
The high rank officer said the same thing as the former one did. He added that he already persuaded the others about dealing with us. When we got off the bus, they returned our bags to us and we followed the Chinese officer to the train station. The old lady and the young man were still shackled.
As soon as we reached the train station, the train arrived. Everything the officer had said proved to be true. We all boarded the train with two Chinese officers and four soldiers, who would help guide us. The train gradually left the train station and the other officers were waving their hands to say good-bye. They informed us that we would transfer to another train after arriving at our first destination. The old lady and the officer talked with each other and that evening, we slept on the train and ate bread that the soldiers bought, for dinner.
“Where do you want to go?
The next morning, we arrived at our destination and transferred to another train. Finally, we arrived at our last destination at 7 pm. The Chinese officer asked us, “Where do you want to go?” We discussed our options and decided to go to Jangtsun, where we could easily contact people.
The officers gave us some money to purchase tickets for Jangtsun. They were supposed to leave because the train they had to take had arrived. After giving us money, we said farewell and ran to the ticket gate. I was very grateful to those soldiers because they saved our lives. We owed our lives to them. The train was scheduled for 10 pm and until that time, we waited sitting in the station front.
At around 10 pm, we took our bags, purchased tickets, and passed through the gate. We were relieved when we boarded the train leaving for Jangtsun. That night, we slept in the train.
The next morning, we bought noodles with the money the soldiers gave us. That afternoon, we arrived in Jangtsun where we had been longing to go. Among our group there was a woman, who had lived in Jangtsun, so she was very excited.
We promptly contacted the church in Jangtsun. After a while, a church teacher came to us and we greeted each other. He guided us to a nice apartment with several rooms and separate rest rooms. We put down our bags and took off our outer clothes and had dinner. It had been a long time since our last meal and each person ate a couple of dishes. We were all extremely exhausted and fell asleep.
When we woke up, it was already morning. The Church teacher came to us and said, “You cannot stay here any longer. So, another church teacher from Huntsun will come for you this afternoon.”
That afternoon, a lady visited us. She was a church teacher and the wife of an ethnic Korean man who introduced us to the border. She told us that Jangtsun was a dangerous place and we’d better leave here as soon as possible. She suggested that we leave on the night train for Huntsun.
Through Domun to Huntsun
We spent that night on the train. The next afternoon, it arrived at Domun station where we had been before except now it changed places from the first to the last. The train slowed into Domun station.
From Domun to Huntsun, it took 5 hours by bus. Huntsun was just a small plain city. We went to an apartment building and climbed the stairs to the forth floor. There, the Church woman unlocked and opened the door. Stepping inside, we were shocked.
The room was spacious and splendid. Including the restroom, there were 6 rooms and it was empty then. The teacher’s house was located in another area and she told us that this was our place to stay.
That evening, we made dinner with some food the teacher gave us. We were really happy because at the time, we had no place to stay except for that apartment.
The ethnic Korean teacher said, “Now, we are going to make one more attempt to go to South Korea. Until the date we had to leave, you should stay here temporarily.” One more attempt! I was really excited to hear that.
We had stayed in Huntsun without going outside once. The teacher advised us not to go out. It was boring and stuffy to just stay in the apartment. We just sat around and waited for the teacher to show up.
On January 1, 2001, we spent it at the apartment. The next day at 10 pm, the teacher, who we had been eagerly waiting for arrived. He held our hands one by one and gave us the good news, which was the other group that became separated from us, had safely arrived in South Korea. The family of the old lady was really happy to hear this news. That night it was very late so the teacher told us he would come back the next morning.
To Beijing again…