12 year-old North Korean Boy, Chul’s Memoirs
-A Long, Dramatic Journey to South Korea via China and Mongolia-
Part I: Mom's death, and my escaping to China
This is Part I of a 12 year-old North Korean boy, Chul’s memoirs titled “A Long, Dramatic Journey to South Korea via China and Mongolia”. Chul’s narration is such a vivid expression of his tough and desperate, almost three-year journey to South Korea with his younger sister via China and Mongolia. Amid a distressing food crisis in North Korea, Chul’s father ended up leaving the family to find food. After that, his mother had difficulties taking care of her parents and two kids, finally passing away due to illness. Chul and his younger sister had to move into their relatives', where one day they made the big decision to cross the Tuman River. They had the good fortune to succeed in entering China. Once there, they were reunited with their father. In January 2001, Chul and his sister finally arrived in Seoul following their father, who had entered South Korea earlier. This story was published by Monthly Chosun magazine in May 2001. Starting with Part I, the rest of his stories will be followed in a series.
Started shoes repair shop
I lived in the Kowon district in Hamkyongnamdo, where the Sodong coal mine is located. In 1997, my Dad was a coal mine worker, my Mom a housekeeper, I a second grade elementary school student and my sister, Soyeon, a kindergarten student. At that time, life was pleasant. I remember it fondly.
I remember having fun studying in school and doing well at it. And I remember Soyeon to have been affectionate and outgoing. After coming home from kindergarten, she would dance and sing energetically to an enthusiastic audience of my parents. My parents’ smiles and clapping encouraged her to perform without end.
By my second term in second grade, my family, like other families felt the consequences of the food shortage. The rations stopped and our rice supply ran out. Thereafter, my parents decided to start a shoe repair business in our home. While they were gathering money in order to purchase the necessary equipment for the new business, we continued to attend school. We frequently were missing our meals.
Having purchased the equipment, my parents posted a sign, Shoe Repair, in the front of the house, and having learned the necessary skills from my Grandfather on my father’s side who had been living in Saebyul, Mom repaired shoes and Dad helped her when he came back from work.
The day following the opening of the shoe repair shop, a number of customers asked for sewing and patching jobs.
Upon coming home from school, I found Mom wearing black gloves and patching shoes without stop. She was so busy that she could not cook our meals and we had to make our own meals. With Mom working constantly and Dad coming back from work in the evening only to help Mom with the shoe repairs, our life had been disrupted. Soyeon no longer sang and danced. Still Soyeon would arrive at home and make a lot of noise, trying to call attention to herself. Mom would say, “Oh, you’re home,” and continue to work. Soyeon all the time felt ignored and soon began feeling irritated and angry at any little thing.
Circumstances worsened slowly. We no longer had rice for dinner, but cornbread that was so dense and difficult to eat. Soyeon did not let up her complaints, and Mom tried to console her by promising a better meal for the next day. Soyeon brightened immediately and did not think not to believe Mom.
As we were getting used to feeling the dull lasting pressure of less and worse food, my grandparents on mother’s side from the town of Saebyul arrived hungry and decided to remain, since it did not seem as if anything would change in the near future. My grandparents gave up their home in Saebyul and our new living circumstances were finalized.
Our new set-up invited immediate discord. Dad was less than inviting toward his in-laws and argued often with Mom. I remember hearing Dad mutter and grumble, to which Mom would respond that there was not a choice in the matter, that we would have to live together as such, and Dad would continue to mutter until he fell silent.
Soyeon was the only one to feel pure joy in our grandparents’ presence, often nestling in my Grandma’s arms, proclaiming her to be the best of the best. From her she received the attention that she found to be lacking from our occupied Mom and Dad.
The food situation became worse. We had to begin eating gruel, something worse than the cornbread that we hated. To gather more income, Dad suggested that we begin to repair both shoes and bicycles, making do with what tools we had. The next day, mother took down the Shoe Repair, and posted a new sign, Shoe and Bicycle Repair.
Still, it was difficult for all six of us to find enough to eat. Soyeon and I skipped meals and Mom and Dad worked through the night without a break.
Dad’s leaving searching for food
In May 1998, Dad left. He said that he could no longer stand the poverty. In tears, Mom told him to watch his health and to return with whatever food that he could find, and placed some bread in his bag.
I remember Soyeon hugging him and asking him to bring back food, and Dad assuring her that he would.
After Dad left, Mom continued to repair shoes, waiting for Dad to come back home with some relief. Immediately, we faced another difficulty. Somebody had to bring home the coal. Usually Dad brought it from the mine. My grandparents were too old and sick, I was too little, and so the task was left to Mom, despite that she was too busy repairing shoes.
One day, Mom brought coal. It seemed to be a huge amount of coal. I remember being aware all of the time that she was suffering from all of this work. The strangest thing was that however hard she worked, we now could not even afford to eat a small bowl of gruel.
With his eyes closed and hands folded on top of his stomach, Grandpa passed away while he took a nap.
Grandma wept all day long. Neighbors came to my home to build a coffin out of pieces of wood boards, placed his dead body into the coffin and buried him on a hill. I felt his absence, sad that he died without having the taste of enough soup to satisfy him.
Mom continued to repair shoes and bring coal. I could no longer stand seeing Mom work so hard and insisted that I bring home the coal. She refused to allow me to do it, saying that it wasn’t my job, that it was going to be too tough a task for me. I continued to beg to do the job, and she allowed me to do it at once. Carrying a bag, I went to the bus stop. I waited. I asked a woman about the bus that wasn’t arriving. She told me that the bus had run out of gas. I was devastated because I did not know how I would manage to walk a distance of four kilometers. I walked. Having walked only half the distance to the mine, I rested for a while until I no longer felt the pain in my legs and felt energy enough to walk again.
As soon as I arrived at the mine, I saw that people were gathering around a pile of coal. I picked up coals and placed them in my bag until it was manageably full. I had enough to go home. The bag wasn’t that heavy to carry, nonetheless, my legs began to hurt, and I felt like collapsing on the roadside. After having taken several moments of rest, I arrived home. I realized then how difficult a job it was for Mom.
Upon my arrival, Mom looked through my bag and saw that the coals I picked up were stones. Smiling, she explained to me what coal looked like, and advised me to bring a hoe with me the next time. I was utterly ashamed of myself.
The next time I went to collect coals, I brought a hoe, and was very careful to pick out the coals. I knew that I had the right stuff but the coals were too heavy to carry and I felt as if my shoulders were being stripped off. Again, I thought about Mom and how painful it must have been for her.
At the time, Mom began coughing and having severe headaches. Mom ignored her condition for a while until she saw a doctor who told her that she had pleurisy, caused and aggravated by carrying heavy loads. To be cured, it was necessary that she take medications and rest without working.
Convincing herself that the results of the medical examination were of no serious consequence, mom continued to work. There wasn’t a choice because nobody else could make a living. Needing really to rest twenty hours a day in order to recuperate, Mom took only a couple of hours off a day. Her illness worsened. Grandma urged and encouraged her to continue working, to not lose strength, to continue to stand up. And it seemed to us that somehow she was overcoming her illness.
One day, Grandma breathing hard while lying in bed, passed away. Mom wept bitterly, begging her mother not to leave, devastated that her mother could not have a decent meal before she passed away.
Soyeon and I sobbed so much. We lost both of our grandparents. I do not remember how long we had wept with Mom, sitting beside Grandma’s dead body. Later we could not find a coffin. In the end, we dismantled the wood shed standing in front of my house, made a coffin out of it, and laid her body down to rest.
The coffin was shabby and rotten, but in it Grandma’s body was carried on a bull lead cart and buried next to Grandpa.
After Grandma's death, Mom’s illness worsened and she had to lie in bed for a longer period of time. Soyeon and I stopped going to school in order to nurse her. Soyeon placed a cold towel on her forehead to somehow lower her fever and she massaged Mom’s legs, while I carried the coals and made a fire. Without even much gruel, I cold not even make a diluted soup.
We ran out of food and so Mom resumed repairing shoes. She always felt faint and her face was always pale. Customers worried about her, and some gave her medicine. However, any care was futile, and her condition worsened.
One time, Mom asked me to go to the hospital and retrieve a doctor. I rushed to the hospital and brought with me a doctor, only to find Mom gasping. I asked her what was wrong and she only waved her hand as if to dismiss me. Suddenly she stopped breathing and her hand dropped. My hand went to her chest, but I could not feel anything, as if her heart stopped moving. In shock, I shouted, “Mom! Mom!” but she could not respond even though her eyes were open. I knew that she had died.
For several moments I was dumb and mute. Soyeon called out to me, and I was able to focus again. My eyes filled with tears. Soyeon knew that Mom was dead. She held Mom’s body and wailed, “Mom! Mom!” Hearing us, our neighbors came to the house and began themselves to weep, pulling us away from Mom’s body. Soon, our house was crowded with people. I elbowed my way through the bodies, leaned on the wall and continued to cry. Soyeon continued to cry.
When I returned, Mom was covered with the blanket. I sobbed and wept again. The female neighbors consoled us. I could think only that life without Mom was unthinkable. Impossible.
That night I slept somewhere in the neighborhood. The neighbors refused to allow me to sleep with Mom.
Buried Mom beside Grandma
On the next day, the women gathered my house to prepare a meal and the men gathered to discuss the impossibility of constructing a coffin for lack of wood. We searched and rummaged through everything but could not find wood.
I visited Dad’s working place and asked his co-workers for a coffin. The superintendent came over to my home and built a small coffin with wood boards he had collected. That afternoon the neighbors laid Mom in the coffin that was carried on a bull to the hill where her parents were buried. We dug a hole, placed into it her coffin so that she could rest peacefully and quietly. I lost the one I loved the most, and afterward, Soyeon and I were left alone at home.
After Mom’s death, my sister and I were left alone at home. In the morning, we left home with the miners, ate lunch and dinner with them, and came back home to sleep. But it was scary to sleep at home only with Soyeon. Sometimes we stayed up all night without turning off the lamp. And we were still hungry. At the boarding house in the mine, the food ration was rice and corn in water or soup or a boiled tomato or corn noodle. The corn noodle was so swollen and thick and disgusting to eat. However, we were not in a position to complain about the content or the amount of the portion.
Soon the meals became sporadic. By that time I was in the third grade and Soyeon in the first. From being constantly hungry, we frequently missed school.
Soon we lived without food and money, and spent our days roaming the street market to search for food. Whenever Soyeon saw something that looked delicious, she had no qualms about eyeing it and drooling. One day I begged a woman to give us a half of a piece of her bread. She ordered us to go away. She shouted at us to go away. I begged her one more time only to be scolded at again. Our neighbors felt sorry for us, but were reluctant to give us food. Hungry, I could manage to understand their poverty and their actions.
There had been one old man, a neighbor who was kind to us. He visited us and asked me if I wanted to live with my Dad’s parents. I told him that I would like to live with them, but was not able to get in touch with them. He suggested that we send them a telegram. I sent them several telegrams but never received an answer from my Grandma. I was frustrated but I sent one last telegram.
House belongs to country, so should give in your house to country
The next day, one of Dad’s co-workers visited me at home. He said that I must give up the house that was the country’s property and must be devoted to use by the country. I begged him not to take away our house, reasoning with him that we had nowhere else to live. He replied that it was not his wish to evict us, but that he was following the party’s order. I convinced him finally to allow us to remain until we heard from our grandparents. I begged him until I convinced him. He said that he would attempt to explain our current situation and my efforts to get in touch with my grandparents, and he left. I was terrified. Grandma still had not responded to my telegrams and the man continued to stop by the house for any evidence of progress. One day someone knocked on the door. I thought that it once again was the man. But it was Grandma. I hugged her and in relief, wept for a long time.
Let's live together with me
Grandma looked through our home and asked if it was really true that Mom had passed away. We described Mom’s death to her in detail. While I was speaking to her, she wept and struck the floor with her fist said, “How did it happen to you, why, why...”
The next day Soyeon and I went to the hill where Mom was buried with her parents, bringing with us some food offering. We bowed before our grandparents’ graves. Grandma collapsed before Mom’s grave and wailed, asking why she had left so early, how she had expected her children to survive. She assured Mom that she would take care of us.
She bowed before Mom’s grave and together we left the hill. She proposed to us that we leave our home and live with her. We were relived to receive her invitation but were sad to leave Mom and our grandparents. While Grandma was helping us prepare to leave, the co-workers again visited us to confirm our departure from the house. For a couple of days we packed up all of our belongings and left our cherished home full of both good and difficult memories. The house meant too much to me. I remember our family together overcoming one difficulty after another, and of course I could never forget Mom’s death.
It was difficult to leave that house. I kept looking back at my home while we were walking away. Before leaving, we visited Mom’s grave, bowed to Mom and walked toward Gowon station. That would be my last encounter with Mom.
Went to Gowon with grandma
At Gowon station we boarded the train leaving for Chungjin. The train was so crowded that we could not sit down on top of our belongings and we stayed up all night so as not to lose our belongings.
The next day we arrived in Chungjin. At Chungjin station we had some dry corn bread and were prepared to depart on the train leaving for the town of Hakson. For lack of gas, the train did not leave on schedule. On the fourth day, the train departed. Upon arriving at Haksong, we had to walk a very long distance to Saebyul.
When we arrived at Grandma’s home, we saw Grandpa and Yunmi, the daughter of my father’s sister who went to China. The house was tiny, and all of the neighboring houses were adjoined. In the house was a room constructed sloppily with wood boards, used to repair shoes.
Grandpa repaired shoes, my Aunt worked in the street market, and my Uncle, not possessing any special skills, worked at any job that he could find. We did not attend school, but played with Yunmi, who at first kept her distance from us, and then soon overcame her shyness and played with us. Due to the food shortage, Uncle’s children did not go to school as well and played at home.
Every morning my grandparents ate soup and repaired shoes. At home we played with Yunmi.
Grandma got back from China
At one point our grandparents told us that they had to go to China to get food from relatives living there, and that we were to stay home alone.
Grandma promised us that after ten days they would return home and that Uncle would see to it that we were fed. She promised to return with clothes and food.
When they left, three times a day Uncle made our meals and returned to work. After we ate soup, Soyeon would wash the dishes, and spend the rest of the day playing with Yunmi.
In the evening, the three of us were scared that somebody would break into the house and we could not sleep. I remember especially being scared hearing the noise of the rats scampering across of the roof.
Ten days passed and our grandparents did not yet return. Waiting for them, we were nervous. All day I would either go to the station or hang out in the street anticipating their arrival. I was getting scared both for ourselves and for them. Soyeon, Yunmi and I became exhausted waiting for them. At the time, I realized how difficult it is to wait for somebody.
One day, again expecting that they would not arrive, I heard Soyeon shout that our grandparents had arrived. I thought that she was lying, as she would often do to play a joke on me. This time she wasn’t lying. I was so relived to see my grandparents. I hugged them and cried and asked why they had been so late to come home.
Grandpa replied that a train had not been readily available. Grandma gave us snacks and Chinese clothes, praising us for waiting patiently like good children would. They had also brought a black-and-white television packaged in a paper box. We had been wanting a television set for such a long time. At the time, only one of ten households had a television set. I was very excited. I jumped. I cheered.
Some of the goods they brought were given to our Uncle. Since Uncle had a difficult time finding work, all of us had to depend solely on whatever stability provided by the shoe repair business. Yet, whenever we found something to eat, Grandma gave some of it to Uncle, and he in turn was very grateful.
After our grandparents came back, we were able to have corn soup. Soon thereafter they began to sell household goods, such as blankets and bowls. One day I overheard their conversation. They were wondering about how they could manage to sell all of the wares they had, with so few demanding the goods. I overheard grandfather say that we must go to China, that lingering here any longer would mean sure death for all of us, that they had to sell everything that they had until they had the money that they needed.
Their schedule became erratic. The next day they left very early in the morning and did not return until very late the same day, and one day they brought to the home furniture dealers who gave Grandma a bit of cash for all of the furniture.
After they left, Grandma swept the spot where her wardrobe chest had stood, mourning the loss of the chest she had brought with her to this house upon marriage, mourning that it had been sold at so low a price. Our home became empty.
Sold off everything and left for China
A couple of days later, Grandpa said that somebody wanted to buy the television and he left with a now packed television. It was packed and sold. I, of course, could not protest.
We gathered some money. Grandma was very busy preparing to leave.
Before we left, we packed snacks and just what was necessary. Grandpa would carry several parcels, I would carry a small pack, and Grandma would carry Yunmi.
When I looked around to see if we had left anything behind, I found several pictures of Mom and her family. Unable to find space in the packs for the pictures, I thought I would stuff them into my pocket.
Finally the sun was about to rise and I could hear people speaking. Grandma hurried us and said if we were caught, we would be killed.
Uncle, Aunt and cousins came to bid us good-bye. Grandparents were in tears, saying that they wished that we would all survive and meet again some day. My heart grew heavy. After once again hugging Aunt and Uncle, we hurried to leave the house.
Grandma told us that she would leave a little later so that we would not be noticed leaving together. The three of us rushed to the place where Grandma was to join us, and waited for her to come.
While we were waiting for her, I looked back at the town that had become familiar to us. Once again, I remembered the difficult times we had overcome, and felt sad that we had to leave the place that we had begun to call home.
While I was staring blankly at the hillside, Grandma walked hurriedly toward us. Riding on her back was Yunmi. We headed for the train station, walking separately so that we would not cause any suspicion.
We waited for a while at the train station and boarded the train leaving for Sambong. Again, the train was too crowded so that we were not able to sit. Although the trip was supposed to last four to five hours, it lasted ten.