“I Thought China was Paradise, until I Came to South Korea”
My illusion: North Korea as a human paradise.
I am finally enjoying true freedom now that I have come to South Korea. Until just a few years ago, I thought the whole world was the same as the North. There was a time when my family was still eating quite well every day and I thought we must be one of the most wealthy households in our country.
When I was young it wasn’t so hard in North Korea, not like the way it is now. In 1977 I received my first school uniform as a gift from the Party. While I was attending elementary school I even bought candy or snacks to eat if I had a little bit of money. Supplies were not abundant, but the circumstances were not dire and provisions from the government were not totally insufficient.
At the start of my junior high life our father was promoted to manage a factory in Hamheung, so our whole family followed him up there to start a new life. From that time we became comparatively affluent in our country. However by the mid-90’s when I had graduated from university, undertook a career and entered the security agency, I experienced what I call a long “march of suffering.” During this process I met several twists and turns and tasted both the bitterness and sweetness of life.
The greatest disappointment I experienced in my days living in North Korea was the realization that Kim Jong-il had no great plan to revive the country from its decline into poverty. There were no words to explain why we had to starve or live with such extreme destitution. No matter how hard our people struggled to survive, there simply was no hope.
Not only that, but the system acted as an obstacle that stifled all demand for freedom, ingenuity and creativity. If we knew that we were the only people that were experiencing such poverty and starvation, we would have opposed and tried to eliminate the system. But we couldn’t get information from the outside world so we just lived on as we were, without aim.
When I was doing business in North Korea I frequented both Hwaeryeong and Hyaesan, which border China. I thought I came to know everything there was to know about that country. As far as Chinese cities on the North Korean border go, China’s Dandong is the biggest and most representative, and I went there from time to time. But when I lived in North Hamgyeong Province I didn’t really go to Sinuiju, which is much bigger than Dadong, very much so I didn’t really understand what China was like. Of course, just by seeing China’s products, one could know how far China had come, but I had no idea its cities and farming communities would be so developed.
However, when I crossed the Duman River I learned all that and more. Still, it was not until I reached Incheon Airport in South Korea that I was so shocked I nearly fell backwards. Indeed, everything surpassed even my imagination. I didn’t have any idea what the outside world was like, so if I had just continued to eat sufficiently in North Korea I might not have defected. If I had not experienced the greatest trials of my life during my “march of suffering,” I would never have known about China, and I would never have realized how close to heaven South Korea is compared to North Korea.
“There were only three other students in our class”
The families in my neighborhood in Hamheung were quite well-off and received a lot of rations. There were even occasions when my affluent friends and I went on picnics by the Seongchon River. We would gather our money together and buy some meat, bread, and even a few bottles of alcohol. We played guitar and sang happily. It was a good childhood.
In North Korea there aren’t more than a few universities, so the kids who end up going to university are either those whose father can pay for it, or the brilliant ones who excel as students. My grades were good in high school, so I enrolled at Pyongyang’s Kim Chaek Industrial University in Myeongmun. From my graduate class only two others and I were recommended it was that hard to get into university. So, as you might expect, it was a happy occasion to be able to say I was able to enroll.
North Korea is a society where everything is decided based on your familial background. If your ancestry is not considered good then no matter how good your grades are, there is the likelihood you can’t go to Myeongmun University. If 30 people graduate from high school, around 20 will go the army and outside of that people in laboring families or handicapped people will be sent to work on a farm or in a factory. At the time I studied well and since my family was of good standing in North Korea I was able to enter the best university in North Korea.
In North Korea there are few university students. Most of the high school students enter the army after graduation. People say it is necessary for immature people to go to the army to develop. So it’s common to serve for 10 years.
This duty is a social rite described as the “youth’s sacred duty for their nation’s reunification.” It’s a period that every young person awaits eagerly; a coming of age after which one can enter the Worker’s Party and perhaps university. Of course, if youth in South Korea were told they had to enter the military for ten years there might be a riot.
It is impossible for me to even begin to describe how relieved I am now that I didn’t have to do military duty for 10 years. In North Korea university students are so few that they are treated very preciously and aren’t made to enter the army. So I graduated from Kim Chaek Industrial University and didn’t enter the army. While I was studying in university I would sometimes go down to Hamheung and while there my father’s and mother’s friends or other people who were just working all came to me and expressed their envy.
“A man of Hamheung must not marry a daughter of Pyongyang”
I worked hard to be assigned to Pyongyang. In the university period if you marry a child of a central government officer, you can go live in Pyongyang as you like. If not, you must be assigned there. If it were like it was some time ago, all one had to do was graduate from Kim Chaek Industrial University and he or she would automatically be assigned to the central party membership and the central organizational structure of the government. These days however, due to the high rate of competition, graduates must go to the regions outside of Pyongyang.
During university I started dating a beautiful girl who was in my grade. She was a daughter of parents who worked in the party’s central administration. I was already at the top of my class because I studied so well, but I focused my energy on successfully capturing her attention as well. Every Sunday we would take walks along the Daedong riverside or read books together in a library. But we went to another library outside our university because we wanted to avoid notice by all the people we knew at our school.
Though I was getting straight A’s, I was beginning to get anxious for graduation. No matter how good one’s grades are, without connections it is very difficult to get assigned to Pyongyang.
I asked the father of the girl I was dating to help me get up to Pyongyang. He told me not to worry and hinted that one of his pupils was an officer of the university’s executive management. Because the state is the force that allows us students to study, we must unconditionally go to where the university sends us.
However, one day the girl I was seeing came to me in tears. Her parents had suddenly told us to cut off all communication immediately. Her mother was very conservative and since she had already promised her daughter to a young man in the foreign affairs department she strongly opposed us meeting further.
My girlfriend said if she couldn’t marry me she would rather die. She ran away from home. Her parents threatened they would force me to withdraw from university if I didn’t give up my pursuit of their daughter; they were well-connected enough to do just that.
I was torn apart not just from the girl I loved, but also from the dreams I had of doing scientific research in Pyongyang. From that day forward I began to feel disillusionment about the system. I realized that it discriminated against people according to their social rank.
The person her parents were targeting for her daughter would be a foreign ambassador, while my future was likely to be a professor at a university. In South Korea university professors have a very prestigious position, but in North Korea intellectuals are looked down upon.
After splitting up with that girl, I eventually found out from my friends the true reason why my girlfriend’s mother disapproved of me. She was a manager of a foreign currency exchange centre and she dealt in a lot of American Dollars and Yen. A foreign ambassador as a husband for her daughter was particularly attractive because when ambassadors go to a foreign country, they are typically paid in dollars.
I found out that her mother made her daughter marry, despite her opposition, a foreign ambassador that she met through a high official in the government. If that man was successful he would be able to take her daughter abroad to live.
On the other hand, if I became a professor I would be buried in books and never be able to go abroad while earning a pittance of a salary. Furthermore because I wasn’t a man of Pyonyang, but of Hamheung, I would always be faced with obstacles restricting my career development.
An affluent but lonely period
I received rations until Kim Il-sung died and until that time I lived okay. My father was an executive officer so our family didn’t have any worries about eating.
Even after I graduated from university I was getting along well and taking my life step-by-step. I began to work in the electric power industry and I was treated and compensated well. My job was to monitor factories or family houses that were using electrical power without permission. At the time I worked hard for my country with a clear mind.
When 3 years passed I eventually entered the security sector. After that I naturally drifted apart from the friends of my earlier life. When working as a monitor it is hard to become close to other people. At the time the security agency was a target of fear and suspicion by regular citizens.
It was a period of affluence, but I was very lonely. I was ostracized by others and ties with my friends were severed. My colleagues and I drank alcohol together and met only with each other. But I didn’t have true friends. My colleagues were mutually suspicious of one another and became nothing more than competitive opponents.
My life carried on in this way despite my loneliness. Fenced into the very security organization I worked for, I interacted only with insiders and lived a life monitoring people outside this structure. I was extremely lonely, but had no choice.
1996: plunging into poverty with no means of escape
My life, which had been comparatively well-off, began to change after 1994 and university. In the mid-90’s my father was caught in a plot generated by the secretary of the Party. In these days there was a lot of infighting between the secretary and factory managers. This was because there was a limitation of goods but there was a lot of activity involving stealing from factories and selling wares on the black market. People did this to survive. My father became wrongly implicated in such activity. A full-on power struggle erupted between the factory managers and the secretary’s office and my father was expelled from his position. He ended up having to stop working entirely.
That time was around 1996, when the quality of my life began to freefall. Money became very tight and I started to experience the pangs of real hunger for the first time. I continued working, but in an era where, even in the city, lights didn’t work due to electrical shortages, I was helpless to assist my father. From this time I lost the ability to think clearly.
After this, in 1998 I left my work and began to dabble in business. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to invest so I kept getting cheated and thrown aside in deals. I met many people who, like me, had a hard time doing this kind of work. I eventually became witness to many people dying of starvation.
The reality of the senseless of the world became apparent to me. The lower classes knew hunger as soon as they entered the world and were soon taken by death. I realized that I couldn’t continue to live in those conditions.
I began to doubt everything. There was once a time when eating was never a question. Suddenly I had to deal with the most basic issues of existence. I needed someone’s help. I needed change.
In 1999 our family ended up completely bankrupt. Things were continually getting worse, but I couldn’t have expected that final outcome. I intended to just start doing business on a small-scale, but eventually threw away all my money, down to the last penny. Perhaps you could say our family was a casualty of the first “long march of suffering” that took 3 million North Korean citizens.
In that same year my father caught a chill while going to the mountain to cut wood. He became bedridden and eventually passed away. He was so hungry and tired.
As the only son I took on the role of provider for the family. I was in anguish over what to do. Beginning in that time I was rocked with anxiety over our country’s system itself. In that time of suffering I couldn’t convince myself that the starvation would be a passing phase.
I began to have a vague understanding that, like this, our country had no hope. If the country collapsed I began to feel that there wouldn’t even be any point in success. I began to lose faith in continuing on at all.
The friend who paid my way out
As I sunk to the limits of despair a friend lifted me out. He was a friend who was also doing business at the time. His name was Yeong-su. We were longtime friends, having grown up in the same neighbourhood. As children we swam in the river together, played and attended the same school. We went to both junior high and high school together for six years. There were times when we fought each other and times we fought for each other, as good friends often do.
However, his family's social position wasn't that good. We were raised together from youth but after graduation we took different paths. He too, was very smart so he entered university to pursue an expertise, but after just one year he dropped out for lack of food because his family was having serious financial difficulties. He entered business to sustain his family. He sold used items, scrap metal and cement. He was what South Koreans call a scrap salesman.
I don’t know how Yeong-su found out I had fallen into such hard times. Actually, even when I was working in the security system we never really met. In spite of that, upon hearing I had been discharged from the security agency, he came and found me.
I was so thankful to see him, it brought me to tears, for I had met a true friend from the days of my youth after all these years being alone. I had never been so happy to see Yeong-su in my life. In a world where nobody could trust each other, the very act of him coming to me, who had been in the secret services, was indescribably touching.
Yeong-su listened to my every worry and accepted my situation unconditionally. He took care of me in my absurd state. The deep scars from the loneliness that had piled up during my time in the secret service were healed on that day. We stayed up all night talking of things we hadn’t for years.
Around that time I started hearing a lot about China, that it was a country where finding food to eat was never a concern and where hope still existed. When Yeong-su and I parted ways I told him I was going to travel to a place far away. I was beginning to piece together specific plans to defect. At that time it was, of course, very dangerous to tell anyone about those kinds of plans.
When I told him I was leaving he gave me 1000 won. It was a time when 100 won could buy 1kg of rice. Though he didn’t have much himself, my good friend had become my benefactor, providing me with the money I needed to take my journey. Planning to live by selling my labour along the way I made my way to China and finally crossed the Duman River in the beginning of winter, 1999.
My childhood friend Yeong-su saves me from death
I was caught in China and forced back into North Korea in August, 2002. Half dead, I was recuperating in my home when Yeong-su found me. Yeong-su was making no small amount of money selling scrap iron and cement. Not five years ago when I was in the security service our relationship had become distant. Now he was sympathetic to me. People can never predict how their life will turn out.
He took 1000 won from his pocket and told my mother how to nurse me back to good health. “Use this money to make chicken soup. You need to strengthen his body. If you leave him like this he will die of severe diarrhea.” He also told me not to eat very much at first.
He knew how to help me because he too had been to prison. He was doing business with foreign currencies and got caught. After he helped me the second time I realized what a true friend was. I used to think friends inevitably became estranged by differences in social position, but Yeong-su was still able to meet me even though I had blood on my hands as a former member of the security agency and been in and out of prison.
Slowly but surely, I was able to recover parts of myself that I had lost in prison. I recovered a friend of youth who I had lost when I was at the bottom of the hole which my life had become. My mind released memories of the past that I had locked away. The long scars left from the ways of North Korea would no longer be a part of my life.
After July 1st 2002 and the implementation of what was called the 7.1 Economic Recovery Plan, market prices rose and people were busy trying to do business. The 7.1 Economic Recovery Plan legalized basic market activities.
At the beginning, expectations were very high. I too had thoughts that something was sure to change, and had hope that even North Korea would improve. After having experienced hardship in China and having returned safely I allowed myself to believe there might not be any reason to go back again.
However, the economic plan didn’t alleviate my suffering. It couldn’t really change North Korea. I learned this for certain when, after recovering from my illness, I found work again. My first month’s pay was 3000 Won, but the market price for rice was about 500 Won per kilogram.
Disappointment was inevitable. Inflation soared further by the day. People who had money could make more and live well, but people without it were helpless to the rising inflation and left hungry. Nothing changed. My job was also a terrible mess. I was hired to put up telephone poles. We had no machines and only used shovels to dig the earth. Whenever it rained the holes just ended up being naturally covered up again. It was a terrible waste of time; we felt useless.
Disappointing economic reform, the loss of hope in North Korea
Having lost hope, I defected to China once more. In China, I roamed about Yanji, attempting to find missionaries. But the crackdown on missionary groups was so severe that I couldn’t find anybody. All of my personal connections that I had from before were cut.
I wondered whether I should just continue going like this, hoping to find somebody I once knew. Eventually I met a Korean who showed me how to use the internet. Through the Hanmail email service, I was able to make some contacts. In October, 2002 I came to know about a missionary group. With the help of the church I’m still attending I was finally able to enter South Korea, where I was able to live with the freedom I had longed for all those years.
I am still in South Korea to this day. North Korea was my home but the system stifled me and the door to a better life never opened. In China, life was better but I was constantly hounded by my status as an illegal alien.
It took a very long time for me to be reborn into a new life. I realize now how hard it is for humans to escape from the environment that surrounds them. The reason why North Korea still stands firm is because of the long-term thought training the people have gone through.
But I was able to hatch from that hard shell. So many North Korean citizens are going through, and will continue to go through, tough times just like I did. As the situation continues to decay until it can decay no further, it is only a matter of time before people realize that change can occur. My hope is that these people can gather together and force reform.
As a North Korean defector, I sincerely hope that human rights in my former country can improve. I hope North Korea can have the same freedom as South Korea enjoys. I await and continue to prepare for that time.
For that to occur, I sincerely hope the dictatorial regime collapses and this absurd situation goes down with it. When that day comes, I will be able to find my good friend Yeong-su, who helped me so much. He is the first person I will seek out when I’m able to reenter North Korea. With Yeong-su’s help and financing, I was able to go all the way to South Korea. He will not have imagined how much of a help he had been to me. I really want to meet him again and help him. It’s my turn to help my friend in return for all he has done for me.
Park Seong-jae/ Entrance to South Korea -- 2003
Translated by Stuart Smallwood