|A Life Sold for 2 Million Yuan|
A Life Sold for 2 Million Yuan
Born in 1992,
Escaped from North Korea 2009,
Entered South Korea 2011
Poverty and Disease
I was born in 1992 in Hyesan City. I was the first child of my father, who works at the 516 construction company, and my mother from South Hamgyong Province. I have one younger sister, and my family still remains in the North.
Our family was very poor, so I never received proper education nor do I have any memories of a full stomach. Since I was young, instead of going to school, I would go to the mountains to gather firewood or sell fruit and herbs with my mother.
In 2005, when I was ten, one of the homes, including ours, of the “harmonica house” caught fire. After losing our home, matters became even worse for my family. Until our family rebuilt our house, collecting every brick ourselves, we were what the South calls “No suk Ja, the homeless.” We stayed with our relatives, but we were often ridiculed and verbally attacked for not having a home. My younger sibling and I went out in the streets to gather bricks, and my mother sold alcohol and meals to the construction company workers to earn money or receive bricks.
When my father fell into debt, our family’s situation worsened. To further complicate matters, my father was hospitalized after collapsing from a gastric hemorrhage, and my mother had a problem with her ovaries. Fortunately, thanks to the help of my father’s co-workers at the construction company, we were able to prepare the money for the medical bills. I could endure my own pain but could not stand to see my parents in pain; those days were truly the most difficult times.
Crossing the River with a Needle in my Mouth
Just across the Yalu River from Hyesan, where I lived, is China. There were many people going to China from Hyesan and coming back in with the money that they earned. I also wanted to go to China and work to pay off our debt and help my parents.
On three occasions, I went to the riverbank and paced back and forth, trying to decide whether I should go to China. I finally made up my mind and told my mother I would set off for China. My mother grabbed my hands and tried to stop me with tear-filled eyes: “You can’t; please don’t leave your mother.” That night, I overheard my distressed parents saying, “Yonglim is trying to go to China because of us. What can we do?”At the thought of leaving my parents behind, my eyes welled up with tears.
The day before leaving for China, my mother led me to a Chinese restaurant. For the first time in my life, I could eat to my heart’s content. I can still see the image of my mother, gazing at me, as I hungrily ate the food. I miss her so.
In March 2009, on the day that I crossed over to China, the Yalu River was frozen. The distance across the river to China was short, but I knew that if I were caught by the authorities I would lose my life. So I placed a needle in my mouth, prepared to swallow the needle whole if caught, and ran across the frozen Yalu River. I don’t know where I got the strength, but I went over the riverbank and crossed the river. The only thought in my mind was to escape North Korea.
At Age Eighteen, my Price Tag is 2 Million Yuan
Once I had crossed the Yalu River, a black vehicle was waiting for me on the other side. A middle-aged man in his forties came out of the car and spoke to me in Korean. He said that he would take me somewhere safe because I could get caught by the Public Security. I was suspicious of him, but in the hopes of getting as far away from North Korea as possible, I got in the car. The man gave me a pill that he said would alleviate my exhaustion, but I only pretended to swallow it, putting it in between my teeth. Then, I instinctively sensed danger.
The car was taking me deeper and deeper into the unknown. It felt like we were taking the same roads. After a few hours, the man dropped me off at a shabby house, much like an old warehouse, in the countryside. This place was in the middle of nowhere, deep into the country, so I couldn’t even think of escaping. There were hardly any people. Back in North Korea, though we were not very well-off, we still lived downtown, and such a shabby, rural Chinese house like this surprised me. In this Chinese home, there was a family consisting of a grandmother, an aunt, a 30-year-old son and his wife, and a two-year-old. For the price of 2 million yuan, I had been sold to this family to work as their housekeeper.
The worst thing about being a housekeeper was that I was not allowed to go outside the house for eight months. In North Korea, I was physically tired, but at least there was something for me to do outside, but it was not so in China. People can’t stay imprisoned inside, watching TV all day. Watching TV for two consecutive days gave me a headache and it made me feel like I was losing myself.
I cried a lot while I was in China. Tears came to my eyes at the sight of a leaf falling in the autumn wind or whenever I looked up into the sky. The emotional agony was greater than my physical burdens. I prayed up to the sky and to the moon to please send me away from the house. I prayed to spend just a single day with someone who spoke Korean.
When I could no longer endure it, I ran away while on the way to the marketplace and contacted a North Korean woman I knew. It had not been long since she had brought her son into China from North Korea, and I spent two months with them, taking care of her son.
After those two months, the woman and her son were caught downtown by the Public Security. Her son had been playing in front of the public restroom and had gotten into a fight with some Chinese kids. He hit a Chinese child and the child’s father spoke to him in Chinese. When her son could not answer, they called the Public Security. Luckily, I wasn’t caught. I had been following the child, watching over his actions, and saw him being taken away. At that moment, to keep my North Korean identity a secret, I knew I needed to leave. I ended up staying in the toilet all day and came out only when the situation quieted down.
I had nowhere to go. I thought of the mother of the aunt in the Chinese family that I was sold to. She was living below the family’s home, and I called her for help. She told me to go somewhere, and with my poor Chinese, I followed her directions. The location was close to the Chinese family’s house, and I saw the 30-year-old son waiting for me there. I tried to defend myself, making excuses that some bad guys had kidnapped me, but the Chinese family just looked at me pathetically.
Back to the Chinese Family’s House
After returning to the Chinese house, I asked myself the reason for living. I had lost the will to live. For a human being to live like a human, one needs hope, but I didn’t even have that. It was agonizing for me to think that I had nothing to live for.
Looking into the mirror, there were many times when I asked myself, “Oh, I’m alive. How are you still alive?” I was losing my mind, my memories. There were many times when I had to wipe my tears at the thought of my friends and my mother in North Korea. But at this point, I didn’t have any feelings at all. I didn’t think about the mother who I missed and the only thing I recalled was that I was from Ryanggang Province.
“Is this place reality? Am I dead? Is there still a world after death?”
These were my thoughts. Some days, I didn’t even sleep and woke up at two or three in the morning. If I didn’t want to work, I threw my work aside. So then the daughter-in-law of the Chinese family started saying that I had gone crazy from being beaten up by bad people. The grandmother, the one that cared for me the most in the family, would pat me sympathetically, saying, “Bad people have made you like this.” When I swatted her hand away, she would mumble, “Bad people have made you like this.” But the son still harassed me.
On May 5(lunar Calendar), which was a Chinese holiday, the son came back to the house after earning money downtown, which was about two hours away by car.3) When I didn’t greet him, he would say sarcastically, “Why are you like this? Are you trying to escape again, after escaping once before?” He had not been so blunt with the harassment before, but now he did not bother to even slightly conceal his tormenting. He would provoke me, saying, “Why don’t you leave again?” I avoided him, thinking, “How would anyone know how I feel?” Even when he shouted at me to stand up, I didn’t. Then the son started shoving and hitting me. This was nothing. There was never a day when I did not want to die.
Thinking it better to die rather than to live like this, I swallowed a handful of medicine. I had the medicine in my possession due to a cold. After about 20 minutes, I did not feel a thing and collapsed. Shocked, the grandmother called the aunt and soon took me to the hospital to pump out the medicine.
After two days of hospitalization, the son, perhaps feeling sorry, started up a conversation.
“Younger sister, why are you like this? Am I such a bad person?”
“Please send me away from this home!”
Despite the fact that I had starved for two days, I rose up my sick body and got down on my knees, begging for my release.
“Where would you go if I released you?”
“I will go to South Korea.” At these words, the son snorted.
“You are so shrewd. Who will take you in if you go to South Korea? Do you think your parents can take you in?”
“If you let me go, I can go to South Korea.”
“You are kidding yourself. People are fooling with you. Go if you can. Take a couple of steps out and the police will take you away.”
“I will shrivel up and die if I stay here any longer. Please let me go.”
“Who is making you wither away? Are we harassing you? We make you whatever you want to eat, give you whatever you want to wear.”
“I will repay you for the money I spent staying in your home, so please just let me go,” I begged.