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Breaking Out of North Korea
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2016-01-25 18:10:38
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Breaking Out of North Korea


Chun-Hyeok KANG (Born in 1986)

Escaped from North Korea in 1998

Entered South Korea in 2002



1. “Breaking Out” of North Korea

Early March of 1998


It was the voice of my father I heard half asleep. When I opened my eyes, my father and mother were looking down on me, at an hour which I could not tell whether it was night or dawn. “Let’s go!!!” It was a low and trembling voice. Even though I had woken up in the middle of my morning sleep, it was clear that it was not the time to say anything. I had my doubts about where we were going, with the wind fiercely blowing outside, but every nervous face made me hold back my questions. 


The sight of my maternal-grandma pouring tears without a sound, and my eldest aunt sobbing while hugging my almost one-year-old cousin made me avert my eyes. “Good-bye,” “Take care.” One word turned into tears and it seemed as though someone would pass out if any more was said. It was impossible to look at my maternal-grandma, who was tearing out her heart, crying with her mouth covered. In the heart of the one who had to let go of us down the road of no return, there probably flowed the tears of blood…


Stepping outside, my family and my younger aunt made our way through the dark to find a new world, with dusty wind hitting our faces. Cutting through the early morning air and paying attention to the sounds coming from the forest, we tip-toed our way…


Some time passed, as the day started to light up. The Tumen River came in view, and already we began to see one or two people on the street. My father and mother became even more nervous and seeing this I had no reason to complain, even though I was out of breath. 


As we were walking along the Tumen River, observing the situation, my father and mother suddenly took my hand and began to run for the riverbank. It was March, but the Tumen River was covered with ice, so conveyed no sense of spring whatsoever. Without looking back, our team recklessly trod on the Tumen River. Only a few seconds after stepping onto the ice, we heard the sound of whistling and shouting. Looking ahead with the only thought of “we can’t get caught!” our family ran and ran toward the riverside. 


As we got close to the Chinese side, my body fell into an ice-pit with the sound of a splash. At that moment, my throat clogged up and everything in front became dark. Coming to my senses, my father and mother, who were even more at loss, fell in together and ran to the riverside carrying me. Because the water on China’s side was not deep, there were many places where the ice had melted. 

Even though our whole bodies had been soaked in ice water, not knowing when we would be caught by the neck, ever one of us pulled our frozen bodies up the mountain to hide without giving ourselves the time to catch a breath. It was only after we felt our throats burning, having run for so long, that our family stopped. 


After checking that it was safe, we, who had fled to the mountains, rubbed our bodies together and dried our clothes in the sun, then waited for it to get dark again. Tears trickled down the face of my mother and my then twenty-six-year-old younger aunt, Younnyeo, and my father fell into thinking of something with a red-flushed face. 

I was 12 when this journey with my family started. 


2. The ice world


I was supposedly 12, but I was too small compared to the Chinese kids, and malnourished. We had no relatives, no relations and it was literally a walk on thin ice. It was only natural for me to exclaim, “This is the actual place where we have always said in North Korea everyone eats and lives well!” when seeing the grounds of China, all the buildings high and shiny with everyone on the streets well-dressed and tall. It seemed nothing different from paradise, and it felt as if I was stepping into the land of the future, which I had dreamed of in the North. 


In the beginning, because I did not know the language and the kids seemed young, I avoided even hanging around them. But as I started to learn the language, things got better and I became more used to life in the unfamiliar land of China. 


Yet, this lifestyle did not last long, because our family had been offered assistance in finding jobs in Yeonbyeon, being told it would earn us more than working at the factory where we were. We had no choice but to follow our father. I had to quit school and leave where we had been living. Until then, not once, did we think that this person had lured us away to exploit us. 


However, when we came to Yeonbyeon, we wasted a month and found no job. Finally, someone told us to go and take an interview. It was a reporter from South Korea, and he said if we took the interview, we could get money, and good things would happen. But we stoutly rejected anything like an interview, because we had heard so many fake rumors saying that South Koreans abduct North Koreans and kill them by sucking out their blood or killed them when they became useless, and just the fact that a South Korean had appeared in front of us was scary. Then the reporter said that he only wanted to hear a few words and asked us to answer to some questions. 


So we answered a few questions, asking not to be on camera. We thought if this video with our faces was released in South Korea or another country, it might do some harm to our relatives in North Korea. After the interview, through the same person, we met a professor at the Yeonbyeon University and found out, after a detailed explanation about South Korea, that South Korea was an even more developed and prosperous country than China. 


It was not easy getting a job in Yeonbyeon and we did not have any money. The South Koreans gave some money for the interview, and we had to maintain our lives on that. From then on I started to draw some cartoons about North Korea and after some time the story got longer to the length of a few books. 


The life in Yeonbyeon was, yet again, temporary and the person who brought us to Yeonbyeon said that we were of no help but a burden, and offered to marry away our younger aunt. At that time, my younger aunt had never been married, but was not young either, so she totally fell for the words of that person, thinking it would be better to meet a nice guy and live happily rather than to suffer with us. This was not favor, but he merely wanted earn money by selling my younger aunt away. Since then and to this day, there has not been a way to find out what happened to her. 

He also said there was a good job at Amur River State, but had actually sold us to something like a country farm in Amur River State. It would have been nice to know of such conspiracy beforehand, but the world afterwards was not a place to gain any sympathy. The sorrow of our family, which we could not even share after having gone through what we did, started all over again and repeated itself, and all we could do was be vexed and angry for having been tricked by him.


That is how we had spent half a year in the mountains, when the owner of the farm who had bought us, said he was going to go away, taking us with him. We were transported to a village called Kumgyang in Amur River State, and it was a place for digging gold. There we dug gold, earning one quarter of a Chinese worker’s pay. We became farm servants, working like dogs. 

As time passed by, my father and mother said that, even though we were badly off, I was still young and needed to go to school, and they pleaded to the boss, who allowed me to go to school. However my school life was not as good, and because I was not able to socialize well with the classmates and could not speak Chinese well, the rumor that I had come from North Korea started to go around. On the way back to home after class, there were kids who always picked on me, and everyday I was sent to the teacher for being in a fight. I hated the teachers, who would blame me, though I had done nothing and myself for not being able to live like a human.


Everyday we had to deal with the Chinese-Koreans and live each day feeling uneasy. Then one day, this drunk was about to hit my father, when my father hit him back harder. But my father was mercilessly trampled on by this reckless gangster and the people working under him, and was tabbed with a knife in six places, and could not get any help while spewing blood. 


Father was bruised all over, ending up catching tuberculosis and unable to get up. Being ill, father could not do anything, and mother also could not do anything. As for me, being young, I had no option than to watch these scenes, and nothing but silent tears streamed down my face. 


Afterwards, father recovered and we made up our minds to run away again thinking we cannot live like this, and at the quiet break of dawn we made our ways empty-handed. We really thought it would be better to die of starvation in North Korea than to live such a life like a homeless dog or a vagabond. 


At that time my cousin had come to China. When we heard he was working in Yeonbyeon, we decided to go there. We took the bus going back to Yeonbyeon and arrived where our cousin was living around four o’clock in the morning the next day. There we met our cousin and talked of all the events of the past few years and the news of grandma, grandpa, and our relatives in North Korea. From then on, we lived in Yeonbyeon with our cousin hoping there would be no more misfortunes. Even though our cousin was from North Korea, he was an accredited worker by the boss at the lumber mill called ‘Limupgook’ in Wangchung. He had already been highly praised for his diligence back in North Korea. My father and cousin worked at the lumber mill together and forgot, or tried to forget all the past hardships. We were getting along just fine. 


I continued to draw cartoons in Yeonbyeon, and drew life in China as it really was. Then I happened to run into a South Korean and the person asked for the cartoon book I had drawn. The deal was that if I have him the cartoon book, he would go to South Korea to show it and help us to go to South Korea. At that time, I already knew what kind of a country South Korea was, how wealthy it was, and thought we could start over and live well, since it is a country of the same language and people. We would not be treated inhumanly, as we had been in China, and I thought tens and hundreds of times, over and over, that it would be one hundred, no one thousand times better than our lives were in China.


Yet, we knew getting to South Korea was not easy, and every night we listened to the South Korean radio program and every night filled ourselves with hope. So father agreed to the offer of the South Korean and handed over my cartoon book to him. 


However days and months passed by, with no news from him, and finally we realized we had been tricked again. I decided to quit the games and focused on my daily routine. 


When I was at Yeonbyeon, the Korean cultural wave was big. The popularity of famous pop singers like H.O.T, F.I.N.K.L., SechsKies, Seungjun Yoo had sky-rocketed. I drew pictures of these pop stars and asked one of the bookstores under Munwhagoong Theater in Yeonbyeon to sell them, and kept supplying him with my drawings under the condition of sharing the money between the owner of the bookstore and me by certain percentages. Since the Chinese kids went crazy over pictures of pop stars, the drawing sold well. 


Drawing has been my hobby since I was little. But in North Korea, it was just a hobby and there were no ways of making my dreams come true. If I had been in North Korea, I would have, like the rest of them, graduated middle-school, and been forced to go to the military. Afterwards I would have lived at home like my grandfather and father, digging coal in underground tunnels. For someone like me, being in China, even though I was living in a foreign land as an illegal refugee, thinking of making my own dream come true in a country where there was plenty of paper and pencils was now possible.


3. On the verge of repatriation to North Korea


Yet China did not leave us alone, since we were illegal immigrants. One day, my father, mother, older brother and I ate dinner and went to sleep. Not long after, we heard somebody knocking on our door. Without even turning the lights on, we crept in front of the door and searched outside. 


At that moment, I felt as if my heart was about to burst! There were several Chinese security guards standing in front of the door with their flashlights. Not knowing what to do, we decided to escape through the back window quietly and quickly. My cousin escaped through the window and climbed on to the neighbour’s roof. When he stretched out his hands to get me, the Chinese security guards kicked the door open and spotted us. 


Immediately, my cousin stretched out his hands and told me to hurry. The moment I grabbed his hands to climb, my father and mother got caught by the Chinese security guards. When I was them get caught, I couldn’t possibly leave them behind, so I told my cousin to go ahead and also ended up getting caught by the security guards. 


My parents and I were sent to the police station. Each of us was locked up in a separate room and they started to torture me. They twisted both of my hands and shouted and began to beat me. They also questioned whether I had committed burglary or other crimes. 


When I had told them that I hadn’t committed any crime or burglary, they started torturing me again by saying that I should tell them the truth. I felt mortified and resentful. As if treating me like I was not even a human being was not enough, they were trying to accuse me of a false crime. I wanted to kill those vicious Chinese security guards because I hated them so much. The next day my father, mother and I were sent to a prison in a police station. My mother and I stayed in one room and my father, I found out later, stayed downstairs.


My mother wanted me to escape and searched the surroundings for any possible ways to escape, even using her nails to scratch the walls. She would cry and say why hadn’t I escaped? “It is okay for us to die when we get repatriated, but how would you, so young, ever survive?” we spent the days like that until our cousin, who managed to escape, brought a huge sum of 6,000 yuan by asking for help from several people he knew in the Chinese village. We were then released by the Chinese security guards. 


The land of China was in reality another world’s “prison,” where they made it impossible for us, the North Korean defectors, to live, by mercilessly trampling on the precious lives of us, human beings. 


4. Another unprecedented challenge


After our family miraculously survived, we could no longer hope for a future in China. Since there was a high possibility of getting caught by the security guards, we were not allowed to show ourselves in the village. So my cousin decided to go to South Korea.

Although there was a route that we could take to South Korea, the money required was tremendous. Not only did we have to find ways to pay the 6,000 yuan we used for bail, but we also needed the money to go to South Korea. Amazingly, an old man, whom we were close to, gave us the money. 


Despite the fact that the old man was suffering from paralysis, I was very thankful for his willingness to help. After telling him that we would pay him back once we arrived in South Korea, the three of us, my cousin, a guide and I, left for the road. 


We didn’t have enough money for the whole family to go, and my cousin and I were determined to leave because we thought there would be no difference between staying there and getting caught and killed, and getting caught and killed on our way. We promised the impossible – that once we arrived in South Korea, we would come back to get mother and father.


It was another moment of separation in which no one was guaranteed of anything. On our arrival in Beijing by train, the person who guided us stole our money. The cruel world did not leave us alone. Our tears were dried up and our hearts turned into gray ashes. 


Since we couldn’t go back, my cousin and I had no choice but to go forward with no particular plan in our minds. We bought a world map, got on a train and headed south…to the south…to the south…


In order to look like as Chinese as possible, we didn’t talk much and avoided the eyes of train security guards who conducted inspections for identification. We were surprised at ourselves because we could literally hear our hearts in our heads beating “thump thump”.


We could not ask for directions but had to look up on a map how to get to South Korea from China, which seemed so far away. Leaving traces of tears behind, time was as precious as gold and no one knew what was to come in the future. 


Since we couldn’t even sit in a train seat, we leaned against the platform of the train looking over the passing fields thinking, “Could we really go there?” or “Is this the right road that we’re taking?” The time passed and we entrusted everything to luck. Even though we rode on the train every day, there was no way of telling when it would all end. 


At that moment, a person who came out to the platform for a smoke thought we were from Yeonbyeon and started to talk to my cousin. It was so delightful to hear someone speak North Korean on the way to the south. Although my cousin may have been frightened, he started talking with wariness and gathered valuable information, which became a light to the future. 


As the conversation continued, the person thought of us as one of the smugglers from Southeast Asia and started boasting about himself, and told us of the path that could lead us safely across the border. We could not trust the information, but being totally lost, it was like we had found a road, which was not even a road, and made a decision based only on the thought of us needing to across the Chinese border as fast as possible. My cousin was determined and I was invigorated. 


Just as the person had told us, we got off at a station and started moving toward a place near the border. Strangely, people in the southern province did not seem to care about us and I felt a little more at ease than when I was in Yeonbyeon. 


It was when it was getting dark that we checked into a motel. Although it was called a “motel,” it was more like a storage room, and its surroundings made us more nervous as we lay down to sleep. It was then that we realized we hadn’t eaten for two days since we had gotten on the train. However, neither of us said anything and the sense of hunger slowly faded away.


Our hearts were already in South Korea and we couldn’t sleep with the thought of mother and father worrying about us, having left from Yeonbyeon a month ago, and thinking what may happen to us, considering the fact that the place we were headed conducted strict inspections. We could only wait for the day to turn bright again.


We finished our breakfast without knowing it was even going into our mouths and lets with the plan from the train ride. It was as if my cousin had been there before, as he had no trouble finding the way, and I also started to feel calmer. 


However, as soon as we reached the entrance of what we thought was the frontier, tension started to build up again. Like an old proverb that says, ‘as luck would have it,’ rain started to fall and we appeared like beggars. Without a second thought, my cousin and I went into a house in a village. The owner of the house started asking questions in languages we could not understand. (Thinking about it now, I assume the first question was in Vietnamese and the second question was in Kwantung, which is a Southern Chinese language.) After saying some more, he then started speaking in a language we could finally understand. We told him that we would give him money if he could just help us cross the border. 


First he looked at us with an expression of “I don’t understand,” and then he shook his head. He must have had a lot of thoughts after seeing how soaked we were in the rain. We tried every method to converse with him by using our hands, feet, and any Chinese words that we could think of left in our heads. As time went by, he started to listen to our story. We were exhausted after the long journey and we had to cross the border under any circumstance. We could not stay or go back. Thankfully, the owner of the house offered us a meal and helped us dry our clothes. Time passed and the day was getting dark and the owner looked at us in silence. Later, he told us that he would help, and I felt like I was flying. 


5. After China


When I woke up in the morning, the rain continued to fall and it didn’t seemed like it was going to end anytime soon. My cousin and I started to climb a steep mountain or cliff, just one step at a time. Perhaps it was a border, which only the village people passed across, since it was a very rugged road. Still, it was a road that we could take so I didn’t feel tired and I was happy. After crossing many mountains for over two hours, we reached Vietnam.


Although the final destination was far, I was relieved since we were able to cross the Chinese border safely. Frightened of getting caught, we rode the bus for three nights and four days and reached the border of Vietnam. There, we started looking for somebody who could help us. Although we were in a country with a different language, we found ways to communicate with each other. One of the people in our group was able to find a motorcycle driver, who could guide us. We took out all of the little money that we had left and started to negotiate a deal, despite the communication barrier. 


Everything felt so magical. But it was too early to celebrate. We were worried sick about crossing the border in the middle of the day. Ultimately we were caught by the police on patrol while trying to cross the border separately on two motorcycles. We didn’t give them money, moreover we didn’t have enough energy to run away. But we were in a critical situation since they had guns, which meant our lives were in danger. We were on the verge of getting caught and repatriated since we didn’t have passports and couldn’t even communicate.


But we were ready to do anything so my cousin and I started explaining to them by using Chinese and English. Anyone would have agreed that it was a gloomy situation, in with no solution. After hours and hours of examination, a person, who seemed to be a soldier in charge, told us that he would let us go if we paid the fine. It was out of either sympathy or that he had understood my cousin, but he told us to make a decision. But we did not have enough money to pay the fine so we showed our pockets and took out all the money we had. My cousin had appealed to them saying that it was all the money we had to go our way and we did not even have money for food. But they were unforgiving and took all our money before letting us go. 


Still I rejoiced because our lives had been saved and it truly was a miracle but the tears of joy lasted only a few seconds before we found ourselves standing at a crossroad that could possibly change our fate. The border was in the middle of a plain and we could get caught if we made a mistake. However, we had to go forward since we already made it to the border. 


The gods must have helped us since we were able to safely cross the border to Cambodia. In the fields we fell, rolled and got rashes and stretched until it was hard to differentiate ourselves from mere animals. Even though we didn’t have any money, my cousin and I were happy simply because we were still alive. 


It was when we were walking aimlessly during the night, assuming that we were in Cambodia. Suddenly we heard a loud roar and soon we found ourselves being blocked by several big men. We were again caught by the Cambodian border guards. They started searching our bodies. When they could not find anything, they locked us up in a branch temple that was made out of straw. We couldn’t pay the fine since we had no money. Thinking this might be the end, we could only stare out into the darkness. It was okay if we starved, got ourselves beaten or scratched, or didn’t have any money. But when I found myself getting caught after all the hardships we had endured, tears started streaming down my face.


We weren’t repatriated even in China, but now that we will be repatriated from Cambodia, as if I was watching a film, I could see what was to come in the future. For hours, my cousin and I didn’t talk. Then we heard footsteps. We thought to ourselves, “This is it.”


When the door opened, there was a person standing in the dark. Beaming the light here and there with his flashlight, he asked for my cousins’ watch. My cousin didn’t have a choice, since he just snatched it away from him. But the watch wasn’t the problem. The only thought that went through our heads was how we could escape now that we were “captives.”


But suddenly the person motioned to us to follow him and put his finger to his lips and started to say something. At that moment, my heart fell and my mind went everywhere. Where would we be going? Are we really being repatriated? Or is that person going to sell us? So many thoughts went through my head when my cousin told me to go. 


Being in a situation with no other choice, my cousin probably just wanted to leave the place. As we walked further, even during the day, it was impossible to find the actual road because the swamps and sloughs stretched out into many different branches. After thirty minutes of walking across the swamp, the person stopped us. Before we could utter a word, he whistled and a motorcycle without its headlights on came toward us. The person said something to the motorcycle driver and told us to ride on it. Soon we found ourselves going back to where we came from. 


Completely unaware of what was happening, the motorcycle continued to run across the darkness. The motorcycle ran around and the swamp without difficulty even with the headlights off. It continued running through the village and stopped as we entered a house that was outside of the village. There the motorcycle driver just left us without saying a word. It was clear that we were not in a police station or a prison. 


Not knowing the reason we were there or what the owner did, we just stayed in the empty house until a robust person, presumably the owner, entered. Without saying a word, he gave us food to eat and took us to a room and told us to sleep. That day was the happiest day of our lives, which we would never forget. Days passed and yet the owner still did not say anything. As time passed anxiously, a week later, the owner brought a car and drove us out of the house. 


We drove for hours until we reached a place and were led to another car. Inside, there was an older person wearing sunglasses looking at us smiling. As soon as the car started running, to our surprise, he started speaking in Korean, which was similar to the Pyeongyang accent. Without a doubt we thought we were caught by the National Security Agency. He told us that he was a North Korean working in Cambodia. We couldn’t breathe and our hearts froze instantly.


6. Rebirth


As the car stopped, we pulled ourselves together. Then we realized that we were led to a house with a big garden. The atmosphere of the house was unexpectedly not something that froze our hearts. There was a cross hanging on the wall, and there was music playing, nothing like music I had heard before in my entire life. Then, the person who had brought us started to explain. He said, “Aren’t you the North Korean defectors who wanted to go to South Korea?” and added that the place we were in right then was a church and he was a messenger. 


Everything he said was unbelievable. What surprised us more was that we were now not in prison handcuffed, but were soon going to South Korea. It had been forty-five days since we had left Yenji. Finally, we had arrived at a destination where we could go to South Korea. We met some people who had gone through harder times than we had. 


A man had bled his way, a young mom fed her baby a sleeping pill when crossing the border, an elder buried his seven year old son in a desert because there had not been a sip of water, a lover had to watch his girlfriend get raped right in front of his eyes helplessly; these were the very movie-like realities that the North Korean defectors had gone through. 

There I learned of God for the first time in my life and learned a song. This long and rough road of life, a hopeless road of a vagabond I had lived aimlessly wandering and being at a loss, wanting this lonely body to be comforted. I had succumbed to world’s temptation and had lost everything. 


With a heavy burden on my back, my body was miserable with nowhere to rest. Whether I pass out or fall, I had no one to console me. Being cast out from the world, I have dissipated the priceless times. Only when I met my father did I realize I have been a sinner.


Repenting with tears, I threw myself into my father’s arms, nailed my body sullied with sin onto the Holy Cross. Nothing can measure up to the happiness of being saved I praise my Jesus for allowing me the glorious road. 


7. Saetoemin (A settlement place for North Korean refugees in South Korea)


I now live with my father and mother. I am giving myself another chance in a new land. Sometimes I make big and small mistakes, and I have tried to enjoy freedom to its very extreme like a hungry young wolf roaming about in a widespread plain. 


On the outside I smile, but all my past experiences piled up throughout the long time that had hurt and are hurting me. I keep crying out in my bruised little heart, as I run and roll around in the free land of South Korea. I am searching for a true life. 


I also needed the time to adapt. Everything is free, abundant, and bright, but on the one side it is empty. It is a life with something seeming to be missing. 


It was when I came to South Korea that I realized the great strength of our people. It was a life challenge that only North Korean defectors could face. What would have been the last wishes of our ancestors, who have passed away, having only lived as North Korean defectors, doing what others tell them to do and being thought of as less than scum? How many parents in this world would there be, who have lived their lives wishing “at least my children?” I believe that what we are going through is a truly historical phase and an unstoppable flow of the century. I sing again in my heart “our wish is reunification.”


 ■ Translated by Lee Ju-hyang and Kyun Sung-Ah