|BURYING MY PARENTS IN MY HEART|
BURYING MY PARENTS IN MY HEART
BONG HEE HAN
NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR
I was born in 1976 in the North Hankyung Province. My father was an engineer for Gilju Factory and my mother was a physician at the Gilju Railroad Hospital. After completing 11 years of compulsory education, I entered Chungjin Junja Ja-Dong-Hwa College in 1993.
MY FATHER’S SECRET
Since both my parents were college graduates and had professional jobs, everyone was envious of me when I had to write about my family history.
But my parents had sad experiences that they could not tell anyone. Even though my father was one of the best engineers in the factory, he could not join the Labor party, even in his late 40s, due to his father defecting to South Korea during the Korean War. In Gilju Factory, there are still many creations of my father. To overcome this “black mark” in the North Korean society, my father worked harder than anyone else to alleviate the reputation that his children would inherit.
In his late 40s, he was finally allowed to enter the Labor Party. His admission to the Labor Party meant a great deal of honor to him- it made him feel like he was born again into a completely new person. He became a very famous engineer and a respected intellectual in the North Hamkyung Province. Following his admission to the Labor Party, he received gifts and medals from Kim Jong-Il for his hard work in the science arena. With that, our family thought that our secret family history regarding our grandfather would not bother us much longer.
However, as I completed middle school, I began to understand that my grandfather’s past had an effect on his grandchildren. At the moment I discovered this, I knew that I could not achieve my dream in that society. The embarrassment that my father had to experience in society during that time is indescribable. My father’s last essay, “In Search of the Light” details his testimony.
COLLEGE LIFE IN NORTH KOREA AND DISAPPOINTMENT
In September of 1993, I entered Chungjin Junja Ja-Dong-Hwa College. From the very first day, college life proved to be a disappointment. I realized that the college life that I saw on TV was just a mere advertisement. I saw the reality of that society; I saw a hopeless society. The idolization of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung was paralyzing the education while severely limiting the thoughts of the future leaders.
With such disappointment, I returned home from college after graduation. But the reality was a lot worse. The factory that I was supposed to work in already stopped operating a few years before. And the employees of the factory, who did not get rations, sold the factory machinery for survival. In that process, some people were caught and were persecuted. It was a struggle for survival. Day by day, the political persecution and the family financial situation grew worse. Everyone was getting stressed out.
TO CHINA, IN SEARCH OF MY MOTHER
As the family financial situation grew worse, my mother looked for extra work in addition to her work at the hospital. When it didn’t work out, she said that she would leave to go to China in hopes of receiving help from the relatives who lived in China. She said that she would be back in a month - and she did not let anyone know about this but me.
It turned out that she could not receive any help from our relatives in China. She later told me that she was working in China to earn money before she returned to North Korea. When she did not return for two months, I was very worried. I could not tell anyone else that she went to China, so I decided to search for her there and left home.
In the vain hope that I could meet my mother in China, I left for China without knowing where my mother was. I crossed the Tumen River with the hope that I would hold my mother’s hands when I returned. In April of 1998, I crossed the chilly water.
Several days after I crossed the river to China, my mother came near the border to return to North Korea. Coincidentally, she discovered that I was in China from one of the Korean-Chinese people we knew. She could not return to North Korea without me, so she decided to stay in China and look for me.
LIFE IN CHINA
My mother and I could not return to North Korea even during the Election Season in July. Back at home, the remaining family members were constantly under close surveillance because we had not returned from China.
With the discomfort resulting from such strict surveillance (by the North Korean intelligence), everyone in the family felt that perhaps it was better for everyone to go to China.
Even my father, who was the hardest to convince, felt that it was impossible to get away from the surveillance. But he finally succumbed. So in August of 1998, the remaining family members crossed the Tumen River.
My father decided to part with the society that taunted him with the past, even when he gave that society everything he had. In July, I met my mother again at my relative’s house. In August, everyone in the family got together again and promised each other that we would not be separated again.
For some time at first, I was mesmerized with the world in China. But soon, I began to be worried about my survival in China.
In a rural town near Yongil, our family got some work raising cows. Although we were paid very little for five people, we were satisfied because we did not have to worry about the North Korean Intelligence officers constantly bothering us. However, we felt threatened for our lives as time passed. We were constantly worried.
SEPARATION AND REUNIFICATION
In 1999, after just a year since arriving in China, the Chinese police caught my father, my sister, and me. With the help of a relative I escaped. However, my father and sister had to return to North Korea.
I can still remember what my father whispered to me in the car, “If I get out of China now, I will certainly die by starvation. So you girls have to survive and live happily together.”
I think he knew that he would not be safe in North Korea due to his title in the factory. Fortunately, my sister escaped several days later and returned to China. On the other hand, my father had to go through the military trial process when he returned to North Korea. But after three days of investigation, he escaped. It is simply amazing how he escaped, let alone stayed alive. After three months of separation, our family reunited again. Afterwards, we understood that we could not live in China, and decided to leave for South Korea.
TO SOUTH KOREA
We were worried that we would be caught again during our departure for South Korea. So we decided to separate into three groups. My sisters left first. Then my father and mother went to Dailin, leaving me behind in Yon-gil.
In September of 2000, the four members of my family were caught in Dailin.
My parents were worried that everyone would be sent back to North Korea, so my parents and my siblings pretended not to know one another. After a long investigation, my parents were sent to North Korea while my siblings remained in the police station in Dailin. That was the last time we heard from our parents – much less heard anything about them. Currently we still don’t know their whereabouts. Not even my relatives in North Korea know where they are.
My siblings then escaped from the police station and fled for South Korea. They arrived in South Korea before I did. On the other hand, I stayed in China for six months, and then was in Cambodia for three months, before finally arriving in South Korea in August of 2001.
Although I am now studying at a university in South Korea, there is not a day that goes by without my father and my mother crossing my mind. Tears come first whenever someone asks about my parents.
Why must we live in such pain? It has been four years since I began worrying about how my parents are doing. I still worry about their suffering and living condition. And I cannot eat good food without crying, because my thoughts are still with my parents.