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What a Young North Korean Has To Go Through
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2016-01-21 18:08:46
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What a Young North Korean Has To Go Through

Won Chul 
Teenage North Korean Defector 
Arrived in South Korea in December 2005 

The following three accounts are from a conversation with one of the program officers of Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), after the defectors safely arrived in a third country via China in 2005.

I was born in Poong-in, Onsong in North Hamkyong province. It was said that before I was born, that is before 1990, people ate well and lived well. My family was fortunate enough to have one of my mother's family members in a high rank within the military. This enabled my grandmother to send us some food from time to time. However, when the food crisis struck North Korea, and the economy aggravated, it became more difficult for us to live with no additional food being sent from my mother's family. 

I did go to school, but I do not remember much about my school days. The teacher would scold us and there was physical punishment but I used to just hang around with village friends during the day. 

My father had no specific work. He used to drink nearly everyday and would abuse my mother physically. He was an alcoholic - he would sell things in the house to get some money to buy drinks and the situation went overboard when he even sold the house to drink. He eventually passed away in 2003 but I still remember bitterly pouring water over my father who was beating my mother and poking him with a knife at my age of five. One day, my mother suggested that we go to China, for it was just so painful to live with father. 

It was Wangqing, Jilin province in China that my mother had found a place to settle in first in 1998 after fleeing from North Korea. The reason I remember the exact address is because I had received a letter from my mother. I had tried to swim across the Tumen river with my aunt, sometime during July in 1999, but the water level was too high. So we hired a man, for 200 yuan, who could help us cross the river. Having crossed the Tumen, my aunt made a phone call to someone. Then a stranger came to pick me up while my aunt went back to North Korea. Having followed him, I was led to my mother. The stranger was an ethnic Korean who was living with my mother. Since he knew a Chinese policeman of a high rank, I was able to attend a school for ethnic Koreans. 

My school friends knew that I was from North Korea because I didn't hide the fact. I would have fights with the kids in school at first, but because I was a year older than most of them and because I had a bigger posture we didn't fight that much. At first, it was difficult for me to follow the school work, but after about a year, I got very interested in a Chinese language class. I came second of all the students in school for the language class and received a score of 98 out of 100 in an exam. I also played football in school. I liked football the most and I would score goals most of the time. I also had the opportunity to learn table tennis. Then in 2000, we moved to LiangWang village, but I was still able to attend the same school. 

I was in year five in the elementary school when on November 14, 2003, a Chinese policeman came in the middle of our class to call me out to take me to where my mother was - at the police station. I followed him and my mother was really at the police station. After lunch, we were sent to the Wangqing prison. After three to four days, we were sent to the Tumen detention center and were interrogated on with whom we defected, when we came, who had helped us and where we had lived. So I told them everything that I had gone through - that I lived in Wangqing, that I first crossed the river with my aunt and that we received help from a stranger who we had paid some money. Then there were no more questions for me. A meal I had there was a very small amount of rice and some salty soup which was just too salty to be eaten. I became very weak from the place. 

After two or three days, we were transferred to the safety agency of the Onsong in North Korea. There my mother and I were separately interrogated. At the agency in Onsong, they interrogate women and men separately. My mother was interrogated by a woman aged about 24. The detained women would have to take their clothes off and repeatedly sit and stand with their hands high up. 

The men would also have to take their clothes off except for the underwear. The clothes would be closely examined and the investigators would put their rubber gloved hands into the underwear to look for any hidden money. Then, we are made to sit with our legs crossed and our hands put out to the front, confined in the cells from five in the morning to ten at night. One by one, people are called out for more interrogation. After two days upon arrival, it was me and my mother's turn to answer some questions. I had been too malnourished and weak to understand any of the questions, so I couldn't answer them. Then the interrogator slapped my face three times so hard that I just fell and blacked out. He checked if I was dead and shouted at me to turn around. I moved a little and felt that my senses were coming back. My mother was beaten more than me. Then we were sent back to our prison cells. Since then, I was not questioned any more but after a couple of days my mother was called out again. 

Inside the prison cells we were forced to sit with our legs crossed. If anyone laid out their legs or lied down and got caught by the guards, the person would have to thrust their hands out of the bars of the cells and would be severely hit with a stick or a torch until the finger nails got all bruised. I had once sat at the same posture for a fortnight. The meals would be a porridge and it would only take a couple of sips for us to finish a bowl. 

When we want to go to the toilet we would stand to ask the guard out loud, "Cell No.3, Prisoner No.3, May I go to the toilet, sir?" If the guard answered back with a yes, we were able to go but if he didn't, we had to wait endlessly. In the confinement cell there were more than ten men seated and crammed up. The toilet was inside the cell, and when sleeping there was not enough room for everyone to stretch and barely anyone lied down properly. The floor was a wooden floor without any blankets to lay out. Everyone just had to crunch their bodies to sleep. My feet were also frost-bitten there. 

There were lavatories within the cells but to excrete men had to go use the toilets in the women's cell. Even then we would have to inform the guards whether we were done or not, and the guards would answer back for us to make the next move in and out of the cells. Taking a proper shower was unthinkable so we had to live with lice all over our bodies. Fortunately I had toothpaste, soap and some tissues which I used until I was released. Inside the prison cells, there would be disputes and some fights among the people imprisoned. 

On November 29, I was called out, put into a car with my mother and was sent to my aunt's neighborhood, Dongpo district. We arrived at the Dongpo security agency. Unlike at the safety agency they just told us to take our coats off and examined us by going through our body. I was sent to my aunt's place after a night but my mother was left behind. 

When I told my aunt that mother was still detained in the agency, my aunt went to meet my mom and she was able to come home together. After three, four days the security agency called us back in and my mother was sent to the labor training camp, sentenced for six months. Because I was young, I was allowed to stay with my aunt. 

Having been malnourished and too weak, my mother was allowed to take a leave in three months' time. That was March of 2004. Mother tells me that there were people who died of malnutrition and eventual starvation as soon as they came into the camp. 

After looking after our health for a while at my aunt's, my mother fled to China first in May 2004, earned some money and came to take me. We hid from the Chinese police and moved to different places, went back to Wangqing, but being afraid of being caught again, I had not been able to go to school let alone leave the room. I was fortunate enough to be helped by Citizens' Alliance to safely make my way to Korea.