The Freedom Found Beyond the Life-and-Death-Crossing of the Tumen River
Dad must be alive somewhere
It has already been 5 years since my family and I arrived to South Korea, after having lived through bizarre times in North Korea. However, I still remember very clearly of the days spent with my father in North Korea, the days when we crossed the Tumen River and lived in China, and the time when we shouted a deeply felt “hooray!” when we stepped into the Inchon International Airport. Perhaps they cannot be forgotten because they were the times of much suffering and hardship.
Our family finally arrived to South Korean Inchon Airport on January 26th, 2003, after living a hundred days at the Korean Embassy stationed in China. When I felt the airplane descend, I burst into tears. The welled-up emotions of grief and the newfound gratitude must have burst together.
After one month of governmental investigation of our identities and three months of training in Hanawon (which purpose was to help us North Korean defectors adapt into the new South Korean society) we began our first step of life in this new land. At last, we have found a place we can finally call my and my family’s “home.”
During early summer of 2004 I indulged in happiness and peaceful way of life in South Korea, but I have never once forgotten my father. I never showed any sign of grief to my mother even when we first ate the luxurious white rice and when we remembered Father’s birthday, but I cried in bed every night at the thought of him.
These days our favorite TV channel is the program called, “The Broadcast.” We enjoy sitting in front of the TV together and even give a call on behalf of those who performed well. Then one day, my second older sister dared me to try out for the show with her, and made an official request.
So my sister and I got to show up in that TV program. The Lee Gum-Hee announcer asked us the reason why we wanted to appear on television. We talked about our father who may be lost somewhere in China, looking for us. We shared that we failed to meet with him in China and pleaded with our father (at the camera), “if you are watching this show, please come to South Korea.”
That day, we won first place for the program, and won second place the next week. Afterwards we won three more times, being on the verge of achieving the title, “King of the Kings.” About half a year later we finally heard the news concerning our father from our relatives in North Korea, with whom we have been corresponding.
Our father was in China when he saw us on TV and attempted to come to South Korea through the South Korean embassy. Just like we did, he went through a major physical struggle with the Chinese policemen at the entrance of the embassy, but was captured and repatriated to North Korea. In the prison, he suffered all kinds of torture, and constant beatings upon previous wounds that have not yet healed caused severe damages to his body that he finally passed away.
We felt hatred even towards our news-bearing relatives. We could not accept the news and blamed the heaven for its indifference. Our father was such a strong man; he even had the strength to knockout a huge cow in a single try, but how could he not stand the torture? We could not believe it.
I never had the chance to serve my father white rice or serve any decent meal. What I have served was the barely tangible noodle gruel with few pieces of pickled radish. What else could be more tragic than this?
Escaping to China in search of our big sister
Our escape from North Korea started in 1998. This is a story about my family’s escape, having gone through hardships in China to find freedom in South Korea.
On June of 1998, a stranger came to our house. He claimed that he was a companion to our oldest sister on her way to China, and handed us her letter.
“Dear mother, I am sorry. Are you well? I hope you are not ill from worrying too much about me. You have always struggled in hard labor to feed our family while I could do nothing more than attend my assigned position. I am sorry I could not do anything as the eldest daughter in the family.”
“My boyfriend wishes to marry me and seeks your support, but our family’s condition is obviously in want. So in an attempt to relieve you of further distress I decided, upon hearing the rumor, that if I work in China for just one week, I could earn a lot of money. And so through a female acquaintance, I was introduced to the man holding this letter, and sought to go to China with him.
However, as soon as we walked into the Tumen River, the border patrol caught us. The Korean who was waiting for us from the Chinese border came and bribed the guards with 400 won to release me. I arrived to China safely, but because I need to pay back the debt I owe, it might take longer than one week, as I’ve originally planned. Mother, please wait for me. I will definitely come back with the money. My dear sisters, I am sorry that I am such a useless sister. Please wait for me; I will bring you lots of delicious food. Please take care of Mother.”
The letter was dirty with stains all over. We were all very furious at the man, and Mother demanded to know where her daughter was. The man said that she is with his acquaintance beyond the Tumen River in Jilin. He said we can meet her only if we go there.
Truth be told, we stayed up 48 hours worrying about our sister. Mother was adamant in her decision to bring our sister back, saying, “We have already lost your father, and now with your sister away, our family members are about to be reduced from five to three; I refuse to just sit and watch.”
If mother leaves by herself in search of our sister, it would be just two of us, and what if she doesn’t find our sister and cannot return? So mother asked us to accompany her, lest we three lose one another. My sister and I were afraid at the thought of being left behind, so we agreed to join her. In order to go we needed to discuss the routes and the necessities for the trip, but our residence was too thin-walled that you could hear everything that is said by your neighbor.
So we climbed up the hills, pretending to gather firewood. Even in the hills we were mindful of the people who may be watching, so we each put in dead branches in our backpacks, occasionally gathering together to discuss our plans, even drawing on the ground with a branch.
When we finally climbed down, we were tense with nervousness. Mother picked out several special photos from our album and carefully wrapped each with a plastic sheet. It was to prevent the photos from getting wet when we cross the river. (At the time none of us realized that we did not even have a single photo of our father.)
Bribing the Border Guards and Crossing the Tumen River
In the hills of Chilsungli, we waited for the night to come. I nearly fainted from the unbearable heat. The sun was already set over the hills and our surroundings finally became dark after 8pm. We have already paid one of the border guards and were waiting for him to come and pick us up. Soon after 9pm, the guard and the man who handed my sister’s letter returned. We quickly followed the guard out of the hills towards the river, being dead careful not to make noises with our footsteps.
The river current was pretty harsh. We tightly held onto each others’ hands as we walked towards China one step at a time. The noise from crossing through the waters seemed thunderous that my heart tightened with fear. At last, the land of China was before us. When we reached the shore we changed our clothes and followed the man who guided us from the beginning, heading towards the Chinese residence where our sister was supposed to be.
Then Mother and the man quarreled. He said our sister left the place the day before. We were handed her belongings, including her clothes from home and her cosmetics. It was too late to meet our sister, and Mother brought us out of that residence, her mind set on crossing the river again and returning to North Korea.
The owner of the house and the man who guided us pleaded her not to go, saying that at this time the Chinese police would be patrolling the Tumen River area. Mother said we must go back before sunrise, or else our neighbors would notice our disappearance and then we would be put in prison. As soon as she finished it, we heard the siren from the Chinese police car which stopped near our place. The owner of the house urged us to hide because the police will be inspecting the house.
So we went back into the house and hid in the attic as we were told. We were dead silent in the space beneath the roof, which was about 1 meter high. Soon we heard the knocking on the door and a number of people barged in, saying something in Chinese with loud voices, to which the owner of the house responded. The noise of footsteps and voices lasted for ten minutes and then silence fell. Without much air filtration, the attic was like a sauna.
How long has it been? We wondered by the time the owner of the house came to us with white rice and the squid which we brought as a gift, now all seasoned and cooked. He said the police are still outside so we would have to wait a little bit longer. And so we stayed all night in the attic, in fear, stealing some sleep here and there, though only briefly. After 10am, the owner of the house told us to come down. Our body was wet as if we bathed in our own sweat.
Mother inquired about the outside situation and the owner of the house answered that the police are still in the neighborhood. He informed us of what the police were saying, that they saw several defectors from afar and chased them to this neighborhood, but did not see to which house they went in. And so while we waited for the safer opportunity to leave, the owner of the house showed us South Korean movies on video. Immature as we were, my sister and I began to relax, eating all the food that was served and immersing ourselves in the movie.
When the sun set, we left through the backyard, climbed over the hills, and hid ourselves in a small thatched cottage at an apple orchard. When we looked down from above, we indeed saw three police cars that went about the neighborhood. It was fearsome. If we get caught by the police, then we would be put in prison in North Korea, especially because we were famous as a family of gifted artists. Furthermore, our relatives would also be facing harsh consequences. With such fear, we stayed up all night and when morning came, the owner of the house came up to us. He told us that due to the increased activities of the patrols, we can no longer stay here, lest he himself be put in danger. He said that we must go to Yanji and that he himself will guide us there.
We had no other choice but to agree, as we were also feeling sorry for the owner of the house for all the distress we incurred. That night we changed into the clothes and the sneakers which he brought us, and left the place. We climbed over the hills and walked on a seemingly endless road, immediately hiding in the nearby bushes whenever we saw the headlights of cars passing by. Having a phobia of snakes and insects, I preferred death to hiding in the bushes. Sometimes the bushes in which we barged in complete darkness turned out to be full of mud puddles that all our clothes were nearly covered in mud.
And thus we arrived to the downtown of Yanji, at a certain house that had connection to our guide. Mother, my sister, and I always went about together, even to bathrooms. We were terrified of being separated. The owner of the house went back to his place and we spent the afternoon at the new place, until 5pm when we were told that we needed to go to a place called Harbin.
Sold after being torn away from Mother
There were already two taxis waiting for us right outside of the house. A woman who accompanied one of the taxis said that Mother has to take the latter taxi and my sister and I the front one. Even though we told them that we can never separate, they warned us that if we ride all together and get caught in the inspection by the police, the taxi driver would not be able to interpret for us. So my mother was practically forced to take the latter taxi.
At a large crossroads we were waiting for the green light when my sister and I subconsciously turned our heads to make sure that Mother’s taxi was following behind us. And, much to our horror, we saw the taxi making a sudden U-turn and speeding away from us. We desperately cried out, “What’s going on?!” and that was when their threat began: “If you don’t keep quite, we’re going to turn you in to the police.”
And since we were thus torn away from our mother at the crossroads, we couldn’t take even a spoonful of meal that was offered, and we were transferred to a bus that took us to Harbin. We arrived in Harbin at eleven in the morning on June 28th, 1998. From then on we took a train, traveled for four more hours to a destination called Cheolryeo. My sister and I were taken to a local house in Cheolryeo.
The house was crowded with two Chinese men along with a family-like people, and my sister and I were just staring at those people exchanging money, uncomprehending what was going on. Back then, “People trafficking” was a term we have never even heard of, and never knew what it meant.
One of the two men was 32-years old, the other 28-years old. The 28-year old looked like a gangster, with a height barely reaching 170cm, most likely weighing around 100 kg. To put it shortly, he looked like a foolish pig. The two men took us to a big mall, bought us clothes and made us take pictures at a local photo studio.
And then we were told that my sister must go to a different place. Thus my sister was sold to the 32-year old man and I to the 28-year old, gangster-looking man. I cried desperately, clinging to my sister. The 32-year old man assured us that we will see each other and hang out together occasionally so not to worry. At the time my sister was 21 years old, and I was 18 years old.
Since our separation, my sister and I have been corresponding through phone calls and it was during this time when one day on August 1998 she called me. My sister said she had been pleading to the 32-year old man for several days with tears to find our mother and he finally did. But the fat woman who took our mother demanded 2000 Chinese Yuan for her. The ill-natured man who bought me refused to contribute, so my sister’s side paid for all of it. It was tragic to go through this ridiculous situation of a daughter buying her own mother.
On the day of Mother’s expected arrival, we went to the first house we arrived in Cheolryeo. At around 1 o’clock, a van arrived. As the door opened, the woman who sold us came out as my mother followed her out. During the two months’ separation, Mother’s front hair turned completely white and her eyes looked saggy. Then another woman followed Mother and it was…our big sister!
The four of us embraced one another and cried for a while. We went into a quiet room, and our eldest sister told us how she met Mother and what had happened. Mother told us what happened since our last separation.
Mother was taken back to the residential area in Yanji where we briefly stayed. Mother had wailed and pleaded to be taken to where we were, but it was to of no avail. These traffickers were seeking to sell me and my sister, but since our old mother would lower the price significantly, they had to take her away.
Upon separation, my mother could not eat and just cried. Mother quoted a description from a novel, “over one night the hair behind the ears turned white,” and thought that it was just fictitious, but in her case, her forelock indeed became suddenly white in just two days.
And after three days of her mourning, the door to her place suddenly opened and came in her eldest daughter, crying. And thus the mother and her daughter met and since then they clung together the whole time, and for two months they took turns sleeping and looking out for each other all night long, out of fear that they would be separated and sold.
The eldest sister’s story since crossing the Tumen River
Our big sister’s story was completely different from that we have heard in North Korea. Upon crossing the border, the people who helped her demanded money because they bribed the guards. She hid in the same place where we did (the attic) and the next day (the day before when we three came into China) she was sold to a man in a town where there were no Korean but only the Chinese people lived.
The man gave my sister delicious bread and a soft drink which she saw for the first time in her life. At the thought of her younger sister and her mother, she saved in her paper bag every little tasty-looking treats from the man, including cakes, candies, and banana. She wanted to give them to Mother and us (her sisters) upon her return to the North Korea.
After about 10 hours of driving, she finally arrived to the man’s residence. He gave her a separate room to live in. In the room, she shivered the whole time with fear. 10 hours of drive meant that she must be very far from North Korea, and she couldn’t think of any way of returning. After about 10pm, the man came to her room. When he approached her, she kneeled and begged with tears, saying, “Please don’t come near me!”
With a kind-looking face and heart, he couldn’t approach her. He hesitated, saying, “Don’t be so afraid. No one’s going to touch you,” and left the room. Then he returned with a portable table filled with food and left the room. My sister let out a sign of relief and, as she looked around her room, she saw a cross hanging on the wall. Not even knowing how to pray, she started begging before the cross all night long.
The next day, she looked out the window. The house was two stories and she could tell that it was a wealthy house. There was a small gate to the right of the fence. The fence and the gate was chained, but the space in between was wide. That night, she once again knelt before the cross and begged for help.
At 6 in the morning when the sun began to rise, my sister sneaked out, down the stairs, and went out through the gate by the fence. Even at that time she was still holding the paper bag that contained the cake, milk, and fruits.
She got out through the gate, but there was no more way to go. There seemed to be no one who looked Korean, and because it was yet dawn, there weren’t many people outside. As she ran towards the big road, waiting for people to pass by, she burst into tears. Tears flowing, she was stomping her feet, not knowing what to do. Then suddenly she heard, “Madam~,” in a Korean language. When she turned around, she saw a Korean lady standing before her.
My sister wailed before her, held on to the lady’s foot, bowing and pleading, “please help me, please save me!” The lady held up my sister and walked with her to an alley, away from the people who may be watching. The lady asked her, “Where did you come from?” to which my sister briefly told the truth, and pleaded that she take her by taxi to the house in Jilin, where she first arrived. She told her that upon their arrival, she will definitely pay the Taxi fee.
And so she was able to return to the house in Jilin, near the Tumen River. When she arrived, she told the owner of the house that she is going to return to North Korea. Then the owner of the house handed her Mother’s and our clothes, telling her that they went to Yanji. At the news, my sister slapped the owner of the house on the face.
“You wretched thieves and money slaves! Why do you think I came here? Why do you think that I even brought these cakes and candies? It was to return to North Korea and to them give to my sisters!” Then she threw away the bag, sank down, and wailed, “You cannot come here, not in China. Didn’t I tell you I’d come back? I told you to wait for me!”
That was the day when my mother, sister, and I spent our second day in Yanji. And thus we were being toyed by fate, having missed each other in one or two days’ time.
We held tightly to one another and cried, our faces now covered with tears. My eldest sister held me and cried, “I am sorry, little sister. Because of me, you’ve been sold in this kind of place, and you’ve never even experienced a proper social life.” Then my tears renewed as I recalled all the humiliations that I went through. And thus we spent four years in China, fully experiencing the pain and grief of being the outcasts who no longer belonged to any nation.
Choosing to go to South Korea after 4 years in China
On October 2002, the KBS satellite broadcast news reported some North Korean defectors running into the Mongolian Embassy in order to go to South Korea. We pleaded with our mother that we also go to South Korea, saying, “We don’t even have a nationality here, and it’s hard to live in fear of being caught. Mom, let us go to South Korea.” At our eldest sister’s insistence we pondered about it for several days and finally decided to go.
We took the train from Cheolryeo to Beijing. When we arrived, we saw many Koreans standing with bulletin boards on which were written Korean advertisements such as “Inn near the Korean Embassy,” and “Cheap inn, 50 won per day.” Among those, we chose the inn that was nearest to the Korean Embassy. We unpacked our belongings at the inn and asked the innkeeper regarding the location of the Embassy. We left our essential belongings at the inn in order to avoid suspicion from the innkeeper.
As we arrived in front of the Embassy and kept our watch on the surroundings, we got nervous. The gate to the Embassy building was very small, only one person at a time could go through it. The outer metal gate was guarded by two Chinese policemen (guards) from the outside, and the metal gate was slightly ajar so as to prevent entrance of more than one person at a time.
There were a total of four policemen and two police cars stationed at about 100 meters away from the gate. At the outer gate the documents would be checked, and if passed, there would be another check at the building gate.
We continued observing those guards, feigning disinterest, but those Chinese policemen never left their positions. The security was much stricter than we expected and planned for. On the second day past 9am we returned to the Embassy, but that day was unsuccessful either. We were also running out of money from the costs of inn and food, and we barely had enough to last another day.
Mother suggested that we give up the whole plan. If we ever get caught from trying, we would all be repatriated, and since we were trying to go to South Korean Embassy, we would surely be shot to death in North Korea. On the third day, my second elder sister woke up and told us that she had a strange dream. In her dream, she saw a huge horse slowly going through that small gate. For the first time in a long time, we laughed quietly. The reason was because she was born in the Year of the Horse.
The four of us held each others’ hands and begged to any god who may exist somewhere in this world. We even stole a handful of salt from the inn and sprayed it as we came out of the residence. Even with all those rituals, the security at the Embassy was still tough. To go through the main gate, we would need documents. At that time I had a false ID and was able to purchase a random document from the stores nearby the Embassy that sold different types of documents. I put the document in a brown envelope.
When it was nearing lunch time, two of the four guards went in to have lunch. We were at an alley that was quite far from the main gate. There my eldest sister said, “Mom, Jung-sook and I will try to go in first with the document, so follow me in with the second (sister). We cannot delay any longer; now is the chance.” Then she walked toward the main gate with big strides.
The fierce struggle with the four guards, and entering the South Korean Embassy!
I followed my eldest sister who carried the fake document, and I my fake ID. My second sister and mother, their faces pallid, cautiously followed with a bit of distance from us. As we approached nearer to the front gate, I could hear the sound of my heart beat. My legs shook. My eldest sister approached the guards. The two guards asked her for her ID.
At that moment, she casually told the guards, “My sister has all the documents,” as she walked through the gate. It all happened in a split second. The guards started to look nervous as they saw me. I handed the documents and walked in, ignoring the guards’ words, “You may go in after you are verified.”
The two guards shouted, “Stop, you two!” as they chased after us. My sister and I ran towards the building. The distance between the main gate and the building was merely 20 meters far, but at the time I felt like it was 10 li (~5000 meters).
The two guards almost caught up with us when the two other guards from the building gate (they were both about six feet tall) nervously stared at our coming. When my sister approached first, they asked in Chinese, “What business do you have here?” My sister mumbled, “To apply for a visit to South Korea…” and pushed the guards aside as she tried to go in.
I also pushed the two guards at the same time, but was caught. By the time the guards from the main gate arrived, my sister and I were caught, each by two guards, and that’s when our physical struggle began. We shouted, “Save us!” at the Embassy and poured all our strengths to be released from their grasps. I’m not sure where the strength came from, but the two men couldn’t firmly suppress me.
As we struggled, I glimpsed my eldest sister successfully freeing herself from the guards and running into the Embassy. Then I realized that during the commotion my second sister and mother were able to sneak into the Embassy as well. Being the only one remaining outside, the four guards came after me. I was holding onto the entrance, and would have been able to go in right away if it weren’t for the strengths of four men pulling me. I found myself soon being furthered from the entrance.
When I shouted, “Help me!” my mother and my two sisters came to their senses and discovered my absence. They ran out towards the guards; my mother pulled one of the guards’ hair and my sisters viciously bit the other guards. At that moment I felt my body becoming lighter.
In that instant, the guards have released me. I took this opportunity and ran into the building, my face forward and my body near falling to the ground. And then I saw the South Korean man. He had whiter complexion than the Chinese people and wore a clean, neat suit. This handsome man was watching us from the lobby.
(We later learned that the South Korean Embassy cannot help due to the South Korean/China diplomatic relationship, but if people enter the building successfully, then they would be protected by the Embassy.)
In my head, I knew that if we reach him, we would be able to live. We ran toward him with all our strengths. We four have succeeded. We held on to one another and burst into tears, weeping our heart out. Then we heard the sound of sirens from outside and saw the Chinese police cars parked outside. The police could not enter the building, but they held on to the remaining people who were waiting outside, thoroughly inspecting each and every one of them.
The consulate pat my back and gently told me to calm down and asked where we came from. We all said at once, “from North Korea,” our voices trembling and our tears remaining. We were led to an investigation room. It was during lunch time and we were offered 4 bowls of cold noodles; though they looked delicious and cool with ices floating, we couldn’t eat them. Everything felt like a dream.
As I now think about the distance between the front gate and the gate to the building, our dramatic entrance would have taken only about 3 minutes. However, to me it was the longest duration I’ve felt in my whole my life. As an aftereffect, I couldn’t remember at all how I came into the lobby, though I do remember how I came from the main gate to the building.
It was a terrifying event. It was an experience where we risked the horror of hell if we failed. Our “invasion” to the Embassy took place on October 25th 2002 during lunch time, and we heard that the Embassy closed down soon after the event.
It took us so much hardships and sufferings to obtain this freedom which we now have. In this 21st century in the era of worldwide civilization and enlightenment, we four have bravely risked our own lives to enter such era. If we think about it now, we don’t think we would be able to conjure up that same courage and desperation. But having lived through such hardships, it is evident that North Korean defectors have very strong will to live and do not fear living in South Korea.
Until the reunification is achieved, and until we meet our father, we will earnestly live each day and not waste this path to freedom which we have walked so bravely, and we habitually remind ourselves so.
Translated by Christal S. Yim