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Moving from Japan to North Korea, and to South Korea Again
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2016-01-26 10:30:31
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Moving from Japan to North Korea, and to South Korea Again


Chul-Yoon KIM (Alias)

Arrived in South Korea, in April 2008



Moving from Japan to North Korea


I was born in Japan in 1963 when activities of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (GAKR, Chongryon) were the most lively. I learned about North Korea from my kindergarten days, which was affiliated with Chongryon, and envisioned North Korea as a country of Utopia. Tears flew down even when we would hear the name, 'KIM Il-Sung' and any appearance of KIM Il-Sung on a TV documentary would lead to enthusiastic standing ovations. My grandfather made a lot of money doing civil engineering work and he was even the city councilor in the city we lived. But as Chongryon came into existence, the ideas (ideologies) changed and everyone wanted to go back to North Korea. My grandfather was one of the executives of the Federation of Koreans in Japan (Joryun, the earlier form of GAKR(Chongryon)) and he devoted himself to make the Chongryon school by using profits made from selling his business to a friend. Personally, I was influenced a lot by my grandfather as my parents had divorced early. Thus I was extremely pleased when I heard that he had decided to return to North Korea. In 1976, when I was 13 years old, I left to North Korea from my birth country of Japan. My grandfather's duty was honorary chairperson of Chongryon at that time.


When we arrived, we went first to Chodaeso (a building for inviting new people). The others were greatly disappointed by what they saw in North Korea and they put the whole responsibility on my grandfather and almost beat him to death. My grandfather decided to live in Sinchon in Hwanghaedo, the place where my uncle had already settled and lived for a year, because he wanted to live close with his family even though he was ensured to live in Pyongchon in Pyongyang. My grandparents passed away within a year after coming to North Korea, and uncle told me to write letters to my parents, who were still in Japan, to ask for necessary goods and my father obliged by sending materials to me.


I was much taller than my other friends in school. They called me "Jjokbari". It was compared to "Josenjing" that I was called in Japan. I played volleyball in school because of my tall height. I was eventually scouted by a gymnasium in Haeju. Thereafter, I practically lived in the gymnasium as they fed me and provided me a place to stay. I stayed there for two years playing basketball. As it came closer to my college graduation day, I gave a Seiko clock as a gift to the admissions consultant. He immediately put me in a physical education college where I could receive certification to be a physical education teacher in one year. This was in 1984 when I also happened to get married.


Living in Haeju with my wife in early 80’s, I had a television I had brought from Japan from which I saw many South Korean singers like NA Hoon-Ah and CHO Yong-Pil. I could also watch the South Korean television program because of the NTS television network system. I began to watch the 'Cinema in Saturday' programming and learn more about South Korea.


In 1986 I asked to create a women’s volleyball team but was refused by the school president. I quit my position and subsequently was taken as a “revolutionary”. When I refused to work, the district administration officer called me to write a self-criticizing paper. After about 15 days, they told me to keep teaching or I’d be sent to the mines. I still refused to work and thus was sent to Haeju port. At the port were ships loading several thousand tons of fluorescent materials called lin (minerals similar to cement) from Malta. I loaded these materials with two other people for days. It was compulsory labor. I thought it was revolutionary in the fact that a college-educated teacher was being made to do compulsory labor. After about 20 days, they sent me to Youngmaedo, an island located in front of Hwanghaedo. Originally the place was meant to be a center for trading, but the island was full of clamshells and we were made to dig them up. There were too many of the clams to even think about enjoying them for consumption. One tons of clamshells was about the price of one black-and-white television. Back then Korea Workers Party(KWP) members earned a lot by shovelling clamshells. I returned to the college in 1986 and saw my first poster of South Korea.


In the poster was a painting of a bikini-wearing woman saying, "Come to Seoul." or "Do not be fooled by the dictatorial government of KIM Jung-Il". There were so many posters in Hwanghaedo that I picked them up during the day and night. Despite the quantity, people ignored these posters then.


Our family maintained its relatively comfortable life until 1999 when my children began to enter college. My first born child went to Pyongyang medical college and second born child went to Kim Il Sung University. As my wife and I were both graduates from the college of education there were many people we knew. My first born child was admitted to the department of pharmacy even though he wanted to enter the department of medical basis because he was not the child of party executive. We ended up paying 500 dollars to the Central Party to change the department of pharmacy to the department of medical basis. Our second born child needed 1,000 dollars. Even at that time the admission fees to enter college in North Korea was known and set. Provincial students who wanted to go to the central university needed at least 1,500 dollars and Pyongyang students needed at least 3,500 dollars. The nation did not provide rice to children anymore when they went to voluntary help in countryside. Each child had to prepare rice, clothes and money to give teachers on a regular basis. Even the car taking students to the countryside was supplied by the money collected and paid for by themselves. With the 200 dollars provided by the family, children hardly made it past a month.


Students in KIM Il-Sung University did not even wear school uniform. They wore t-shirt and cotton pants because jeans were prohibited. They also wore t-shirts with 'Adidas' written in big letters.


I worked in the interpretation booth at the National Academy of Sciences. I mainly translated foreign science books into Korean as I was trilingual in Japanese, Chinese and English. The National Academy of Sciences, at the time, was in a state of paralysis; they could not buy books from abroad and concentrated on research because of the lack of property. When we heard the news that KIM Il-Sung succeeded in its nuclear experiment, other scientists said, "How is that possible with only 1 or 2 kilograms of Plutonium? Maybe that was a lie." I later heard that 30 young scientists were dead from the radiation while preparing the nuclear experiment. Scientists who dealt with the nuclear experiments were made to write a loyalty oath to risk their lives on that experiment to KIM Il-Sung. There were talks that one artificial satellite would be able to save all the people in Hwanghaedo. Because there were no works being done in the academy, the scientists would by electric light stone from the gold mines with their own money and, after melting it into electricity, they would re-sell the gold. There were about one hundred middle class factory workers and thirty of them were researchers in that academy in Haewoondong, Haeju City.


Earnings of foreign currency


I eventually quit my position at the National Academy of Sciences and started to collect and trade foreign currencies like the US dollar. Used cars were often imported to Wonsan from Japan. A returnee I knew worked for the vice chief in Guksabong associated with the Culture and Guidance Department of Central Party. I established a branch office between Nampo and Wonsan, and sold copy rights of used cars which were certificated by KIM Jung-Il. When I failed to sell a 2.5ton truck that I bought in 2500 dollars I purchased a smuggling vessel that was selling pine nuts from Nampo to China in 2006. For the first time I traveled across territorial waters of China to reach Dandong in China. I remember it was before the 10th of October. Usually, North Korean coastal defense ships could not chase the other ships because of the lack of fuel. But, our ship was controlled because it was hard regulation season before the festival days when they can earn some extra money. The executive of the smuggling vessel took our ship licence and ordered us to drop by when returning from China. Most people who could travel across to China were rich. Executives were not worried because they had no reason to escape.


After anchoring the ship in the harbor in China, we took a Chinese ship and went inside China. When I set foot in China, I knew this was an opportunity to escape. The trade was not smooth and I gave all my money to the person accompanying me and told him that I would stay behind. There were about 4 people in the ship that I took and I attempted to send the ship back. As hearing that I had relatives in Japan, the Chinese merchants let me stay in China believing they could receive some money. I borrowed a phone from them and made a call to my aunt in Japan. She told me she would be coming to China around Christmas. Back then it was the middle of the November. But then the people from the boat threatened to report me to the National Security Agency. I think they wanted money because they knew that most of the returnees had some properties. The Chinese merchants persuaded me to return to North Korea and come back by other means. Therefore, I returned to North Korea.


As soon as I arrived, they threatened me again. Because I did not have a certificate of qualification that was approved by an authority, they threatened to report me to Bowibu (National Security Agency) saying I had deceived them and stayed in China. They demanded one thousand and five hundred dollars from me but at that time, I had only four or five hundred dollars. I wanted to go back to China because my parents were supposed to come to China at Christmas time. I hid with help from somebody who was from Nampo. In the winter of 2006, Measles was prevailing throughout the country. I had been to Pyongyang but gave up because the situation was not good. Next year, on the first day of May, I departed the place I had lived in Hoeryong and I got out of North Korea on May 4th.


Leaving North Korea to China


After crossing the river, I stayed at someone’s house and made a call to my relatives in Japan saying I needed some money to stay in China. But 10 days later, while waiting for the money, I was caught on May 14th (Sunday). I didn’t know it at that time, but the house I was in was a trafficker’s house. They had been trafficking in Korean women as well as drugs. The Chinese police had been watching the house for an opportunity to catch them. After being inquired, taking a picture, and shackling me I was detained in Yanji Detention Center where foreigners were gathered. I can’t forget the thick shackle that was locked up on my feet and tightened. It was locked up on my feet for 15 days. Whenever I walked, my ankles became scratched. After 20 days, I was sent to Tumen district Security Prison.


Right after getting off the bus, they drew us up into a line and pushed us into a room. There were men and women there, the youngest one being 21 years old, and the rest were women in their 30’s and 40’s. The guards were standing with a stick. They wore rubber gloves and they ordered us to take off our clothes. They checked our anuses without changing gloves. They took all our money and belts.


They took out the women every night and made women massage them and did other acts on the women. Sometimes, they took the women out even during the daytime. In the interrogation room, there was a room, a door with iron bars, and chairs. They investigated people by putting them in handcuffs on chairs across outside the iron bars. During the daytime, they took women into that room and made them take off their lower garment and turn around and face them. They watched the women do this. I was there for 20 days before they transferred me to Namyang on June 6th, 2007.


Hellish Bowibu


Arriving at the customs, Chinese police unfastened our handcuffs and the North Korean guards took custody over us. In the beginning they treated us kindly saying “What a difficult time you must have had,” and “We will give you a nice meal in Namyang Hotel.” But when the Chinese police handed over all the documents and left in their cars, one of the North Korean military officials came and suddenly began kicking us. They put handcuffs linking ten people together, and kept hitting us with hands without any reason. After taking off shoes, we entered the room, and we were made to kneel down.


The initial process was to check fever because they thought that we might be infected with AIDS. Then, they asked us whether we had any family member working in the army. Those who had family members in the army, he/she went to Bowisaryeongbu(Headquarter of Security Agency) directly. The others were made to tell their addressed and re-shackled and taken by car. From then on we were no longer treated as humans.


We left on June 6th at night, and entered Bowibu, located in Onsong, at around 2 or 3 in the morning. While heading there they ordered us to bend our necks. If we put up our heads at all, they beat our heads severely with their guns. We got off the car with handcuffs and they made us stand up in front of the building of Bowibu for about 4 hours. I stood out to them because I was tall and unshaved and was poorly dressed. They asked me what I did. I answered that I came from the Hwanghae Province and I worked to earn foreign currency. Then, they kicked me. I felt humiliated. They took pictures of us with digital camera and saved it on their computers. The other prisoners probably had no idea what they were doing since they didn’t know about the digital camera. The people at Bowibu told us that we would be in big trouble because our pictures and documents were saved in computer. The leaders of Bowibu and passersby looked us when they passed the building. It was really shameful. Even when we needed to go to the toilet, we had to ask for permission. When the guard permitted someone to go, a man and a woman went to the toilet together because they were tied. For men it was okay but how could a woman do their needs with tied hands? When one of the women, who had escaped to North Korea with me, was on her period she had to go to the toilet to change her sanitary pad with a young man. She asked him to close his eyes and he held a feminine pad for her. Seeing this situation, young guards from Bowibu laughed. I thought they were not human beings.


They did not interrogate me in Bowibu located at Onsong. We went to Bowibu at Jongsong after loading equipments and monitors. We arrived there in the dark. There, they forced women to be naked and stand up and sit down repeatedly in “pumping” exercises. They also searched all our clothes and luggage. They called us one by one to the office where the people of Bowibu were gathered. They asked us our name, occupation, address, and the day we were caught and wrote them down. The guards said, “From now on, you don’t have name. You are number one. Okay? ” Then, we went out with our bare feet. The building of Bowibu at Jongsong was shaped like the character of giyeok, the first letter of the Korean alphabet. It was enclosed with a wooden fence taller than five meters. It was, in essence, a jail. It looked like a cattle pen. Opening the door of fence and walking into it, a garage was at the end of the building, and besides that, there was a warehouse. Inside of the tall building, there was a jail. In the jail, there were tiny rooms. They forced us to take off all our clothes and to kneel down, facing the wall. The guards took out belts and rubber bands and inspected our clothes down to every stitch. If there was no money, we were beaten. I was beaten with my belt. The guard asked, “Whose belt was this?” If I answered “It was mine,” they hit me severely with saying “how dare you look that way at me?” Although I bled, I was too afraid to feel pain. I sat there for about two hours. It was about midnight or one in the morning. Then, I went out to the hallway with my clothes in my hands. The guard went ahead to the entrance which looked like a dog hole and he told us to go inside. I slept in that 180 meter wide room. Sometimes there were as many as 18 people in there together. When it was bath time we washed ourselves in a small hole next to the toilet. They gave us a towel which was cut in a half not to hang oneself. With the towel, we could clean ourselves roughly when the guards ordered us to do. Because they wanted to prevent lice from appearing we were made to wash every morning.


I was investigated usually at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Women were pulled along to them and were raped at night. They returned to the jail about 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. We could know who was going out because our sense of hearing and vision had become more acute while incarcerated there. After women came back, we could hear their crying. The guards made the women sit on chairs where they would be raped. If they cried upon returning to their cells, the guards called them out and beat them with locked handcuffs.


The investigation was held during the day and the night. Perhaps because I was taller than the others they made baskets for me with iron 8mm thick with a 40-50centimeter round shape frame. They put the baskets in my leg from my calf to the upper part of knee which made me unable to bend my knee. While fastened to this and while walking with a limp, I would be called out for interrogations. The head officer was in charge of me. I went to his office because there was no interrogation room. When we were examined, we sat down with the back of the chair in front of us. Maybe they did this to make it easier to hit the back. They fastened my shackles between the chairs and started to beat me with a stick made of oak. The stick was one meter and 20 centimeter long and five centimeter thick. When I didn’t admit to the questions they hit me with the stick more severely.


The first time I was called in, I wasn’t beaten and I only had a one-on-one talk with the head of office. He asked me questions about whether I had contacts with anyone in South Korea or Japan and if I had tried to enter those two countries. I answered “no” with all those questions. I had called the Japanese consulate but I never told this fact to them. Despite the fact that the woman who was captured with me knew this too, she kept it a secret.


But from the second interrogation, they started to hit me. The head officer was sitting but when he called the men waiting outside by shouting “hey!” two men came into the room and they stood up behind me. The head officer asked me, “Haven’t you met some South Koreans?” and I answered, “No, sir.” Then, the two men started to hit me from the behind. It felt like they were using a heated iron skewer. Interrogations took one or two hours. One time, the head officer and a young man called me and hit my hands on the desk while putting a pen between my fingers. They kept asking me about how many times I had met Chinese traders. If my answer didn’t correspond with my answers that I told them before, they hit me. The most painful torture was being beaten with the sticks. People who were living in Jongsong were not beaten. During my last interrogation, the head officer ordered me to call Japan. He asked me, “How much money could you get if you call to Japan? Why did you cross the river instead of telling us? Do you think people in Bowibu are idiots?” It meant, in other words, that if I were to ever be caught again, I’d be in big trouble so if I was able to obtain some money, I should just bring it into the office. The head officer was about 65 years old and raged at me but didn’t hit me. I had stayed from June 6th to July 22nd. Sometimes interrogation was not held for a week and sometimes they made me to write down critics. It was the most comfortable time because when I wrote down the critics, they gave me wooden board to hold up papers, and I could move my bodies a little bit. Without that time, I had to stand at attention.


They gave me three spoons of corn and rotten beans for one meal. They also gave me bean-paste soup with the radish and cabbage roots which were not washed. If they asked to me, “Hey, number one, are you still hungry?” and I replied “yes” sometimes they gave me a little more. It was really pathetic.


Depending on the guards, they gave me time to exercise. If they told me “take a rest for a minute” then we could take a posture of rest but we could not stand up. The head officer carried out anal examination once a week while making his rounds in the prison. We would be made to take off our clothes and turn back on the latticed door lying our face down on the ground. It was for checking our nutritive condition. When people suffered from malnutrition, the anus got loose due to a lack of energy. The head officer made us sunbathe wearing only panties. The word ‘panties’ is Korean and not used in North Korea but they used it. When it rained, they sang a South Korean song, sung by Shim Sue-Bong, with the lyrics ‘the person I remind when it rains…’ and they watched Korean movies in their room. The cultures of South Korea such as songs, movies, and words had infiltrated North Korean society even then.


A month after my last interrogation, I was no longer investigated anymore. Because I suffered from malnutrition at that time, one side of my eyes and ears didn’t work well and I couldn’t walk well either. One day, in the morning, they called me to take a walk, and gave me a piece of round candy. I almost lost my senses then and into a fit of frenzy for anything edible. I only wanted something to eat. When I was alone with my guard, I asked him whether I could get out of the jail and he told me that I could. Then, I was released on September 20th. In shackles, we came to Bowibu at Onsong. They told four people included me, the woman from Nampo, and a married couple, who went to Musan to sell some goods, to remain in Onsong only for three days. But we went to Jipgyeolso (Detention Center) at Chongjin right away and stayed there about twenty days. Then the guard in charge of me and his wife offered me some food privately for a week. I had been sentenced to six months in Rodongdanryeondae(Labor Re-education Facility). However, due to the money my wife gave them again, I didn’t have to go to Rodongdanryeondae and everything was over by the end of October. I found out later that I was able to get out because my wife gave money to a man working in Bowibu who was a friend of my son.


There wasn’t any explanation about the law in Bowibu. When they read my official document, they said, “You’re really something, you’re going to die soon.” They told me that with it, I might live in a jail for a minimum of six years. However, the guard in charge of me burnt it.


After I got out of Bowibu, they kept a close watch on me. They called and came to my house directly to check periodically to see if I was home or not. They demanded from me money and other goods on special days such as their own birthdays or their relative’s birthdays. At first, I gave some money to them once or twice but because they came too many times, it made my living difficult. During that time, a person who I went to Bowibu with and had known I had made a call to the Japanese Embassy before but did not report it, and threatened me demanding money. I became anxious about being arrested again and concerned for my family so I decided to cross the river with friends who I had met in prison. On December 27th, 2007, we departed from Sariwon and arrived at the church in Yanji, China, on January 4th, 2008. Then, we traveled to Thailand through Beijing with the help of a Christian missionary, who was an ethnic Korean in China (Joseonjok) on March, 5th. After staying in Thailand for a month and a half, I entered into South Korea on April, 25th.


Because of being beaten in Bowibu I had severe back pains and was examined from a hospital in South Korea. I found that my vertebral discs 4 and 5 were damaged. Also, the tremor in my hands has not disappeared. I don’t know if it’s because my heart is bad. When it gets severe, I can’t even trim my nails.




■ Translated by Jisun Kim, Sohee Shim, and Stewart Seongwook Ho