“Longing for the day when I too will live properly as a human being”
I am currently a North Korean defector and I live in hiding in 00 City in Chilin Province of China. I escaped from North Korea during the most difficult year of 1998. Having been once repatriated to the North Korea, I now live in hiding in a Chinese farmland, away from the gaze of the police.
It seems just like yesterday when I crossed the Tumen River as a virgin in my twenties, but twelve years flew by, and now I am already in my forties. It has been a while since I gave up on lamenting about my life, since I gave up on my future altogether. At my age, my peers would be living in a happy family with their children, but as for me, I am alone, without family, without children.
When I first came to China, I thought about earning a lot of money and doing business in North Korea. However, as soon as I crossed the Tumen River, I was twice caught by the human traffickers and was sold into a forced marriage, later facing a painful separation. I am now afraid of having a family. Even now as I ponder upon my bed I can never forget the time when I crossed the River and stepped into China.
“I struggled to survive, but my entire family fell to pieces”
My home is the Myung-Cheon City of North Hamkyong. My father was a innovation efforts personnel working a machine factory, and my mother was a teacher of middle school and high school students. I had a younger brother. Even until the end of the 1980s, our family’s ration was provided when my father still worked at the factory.
However, as we merged into the 90s, the North Hamkyong was the first of many districts that stopped giving government rations. At first they took away about five days’ worth of rations out of two weeks, demanding that we reduce our daily portions, but starting in 1993, all rations stopped. Father could not work due to the lack of raw materials at the factory.
My mother quit her job at school and started a business in hopes of earning to feed the family. My brother and I chopped woods from the hills and sold them at the marketplace. A couple of years later, the hills became devoid of trees and we had to walk into the mountains for two hours in search of trees. We had to cut and bring a cart load of trees for a meager amount of 1kg (~2.2 lb) of rice.
What’s worse, the officers from the Forest Management Administration fined us for cutting and selling the trees and took away our cart. Within two years, our household became in want; we have already sold everything that could be sold in exchange for money, including our kitchen furniture, closets, desks, books, etc.
Even when we returned from participating in the National Condolence for Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, we starved, having nothing to cook. After two years my father passed away first at the beginning of 1996. My mother too passed away from malnutrition and multiple diseases by the time I left North Korea in 1998. My one and only brother left the house as a lost orphan.
I became alone and sought refuge at my aunt’s place at Hoeryong. I sustained myself by aiding my aunt, making and selling tofu at a marketplace. Starting from the year 1998 many North Koreans crossed the Tumen River to China. There was a rumor that if you work in China for a day, you will receive 20 Yuan in Chinese currency.
At the time, one Chinese Yuan was equivalent to 25 North Korean Won. One day’s wage in China that gives 20 Yuan was equivalent to 500 Won, and this was during when earning 50 Won per day in North Korea was considered making a fortune. After naively calculating the potential income from working in China, I explained to my aunt, “If I live and earn money in China for just one year, we would avoid this poverty altogether.”
But my aunt was anxious, saying, “it would be nice to earn that much, but though I hear that many women go to China for that reason, I never hear of any one of them ever coming back with such fortune.” But I managed to convince her that either way there will be hardship, and she finally consented to my going.
Thus, I searched for the people who could escort me to China. My guide who helped me cross the Tumen River for the first time was a middle-aged woman who frequently traveled back and forth from China to North Korea. She knew the frontier guards well enough to have us cross the border without cost; and thus we were able to sneak into Yongjeong of China.
I was deceived by the human traffickers who promised me a job
It was in March of 1998 when the woman, my “guide,” told me that she would find me a job in China.
I never realized that I was being sold until after I arrived in Yongjeong. When we arrived at a house in Yanji, she took me to a house, instructing me to pretend that I am her aunt’s daughter (thereby her cousin).
And I was to say that I came to China because my father (her “uncle”) passed away. Then she introduced me to her “relative,” who was the master of the house, and quietly disappeared after receiving two thousand Yuan from her “relative.” Only later I learned that the money she received was from “introducing” me.
Soon after, the woman’s so-called “relative” began searching for certain people and then introduced me to a Chinese man in the city called Donwha. That Donwha folk then placed me at his friend’s house and went to the city’s downtown, looking for an opportunity to sell me.
That was when he brought a Korean as an interpreter. That interpreter was saying that this Donwha folk is about to sell me at a price of seven to eight thousand Chinese Yuan.
I was terrified. How can a person and her entire future be sold for money? Even in North Korea such horrendous act was unheard of. Seeing my frightened expression, the interpreter told me to pretend to go to the bathroom and escape and that he would stealthily give me a hundred Yuan as a means for my escape.
The next day, the Korean interpreter came back. He told me to follow him to his house. Then the following happened: the Chinese police came to get me. The reason being, the Chinese man discovered that the interpreter took me and hence demanded with violence that he hand me over.
Then the Korean interpreter contacted his police friend to take me and got free from the Chinese man. I was briefly questioned at the police station and was introduced to a Korean woman who worked at the police cafeteria. Then I came out from the police station to her nephew’s residence in Banseokjin in Jilin City.
I lived there for two years with her nephew. I wasn’t much fond of my husband and his standard of living was very poor, but I couldn’t go anywhere, knowing that I couldn’t speak a lick of Chinese.
“Longing for the days when I ate white rice in China”
During my stay with my husband, I was once caught and repatriated to North Korea. Four Chinese policemen invaded our house in the middle of the night while I was sleeping. At the time North Korean government sought Chinese assistance to bring back the North Koreans.
It was September 2000 when my husband could not even object and believed the policemen’s words that they will soon release me back to his home. I could have been bailed out, but, as poor as he was, he did not have the money to rescue me.
I was caught in Banseokjin of Jilin City and was brought to Tumen Frontier. We were taken in a bus, each person individually shackled by the policemen.
When the six of us prisoners arrived at the Tumen Frontier Prison, nearly a hundred of North Korean defectors were committed in the small prison space. There were more women than men among them.
Men have relatively easier time hiding in the deep forest by themselves, but women tend to stay in one place and likely as a dependent, hence being more vulnerable to detection by the police than men.
Couple weeks later we were dragged into the Onsung Security Agency. The agency did not much hit women nor gave us disciplinary punishments. I couldn’t get out because I didn’t have the money, but those who did were individually called out, though all of their money was taken.
At the Onsung Security Agency I nearly died of illness. With a 39 centigrade fever and a severe headache, I had to lie down in the prison. When the guards found me in my condition, they ridiculed me, saying, “she married a shitty Manchurian and now she is dying with sickness.”
Fortunately, we were classified as a simple “subsistence border crosser” and were soon released. I was transferred to the Myeongcheon county’s safety division and several days later sent to the district where I lived. My former house was already occupied by someone else.
I had nowhere to stay. Subsequently, the factory I worked for put me in a dormitory to live with others. The tiresome community life, dormitory rules, and the desire for the freedom which I already tasted in China made me highly irritable at everything. The food was terrible as well. Eating dried radish leaf soup and corn meal made me earnestly long for the rice and meat which I ate in China.
I could not adapt to North Korean life at all. So I ran away at night to Hoeryeong, where my aunt lived. On my way to Hoeryeong, I met a woman at the subway who also escaped to China and was brought back for the first time.
I asked her if she knew the way to China, and she asked me if I would want to go to China. Because I was recently released from the prison, I didn’t have any money. I told her that if she would provide the means for my escape to China, then I will give her the money when I arrive in China.
No more lingering and on my way to another escape
She agreed to my conditions and that night we crossed the Tumen River once again. When I arrived in Yanji, China, I wrote a letter to my former husband. I asked him to come get me because I didn’t have the money to go to his place.
While we waited for two weeks for my husband, the North Korean woman told me to go back to North Korea. When I told her that I will never go back, even if it means death, the master of the house in which we stayed sought to sell me. So I pleaded him to sell me if money is needed, but to sell me to a Korean. I told him that otherwise, I would escape from his house.
With that, the master of the house could not sell me and so we both waited for my former husband, who arrived after two weeks. From then on I lived with him for five more years.
And then a misfortune came back. After one month of my return, my husband went to Uruguay for work. While I waited for him for two years, his older brother died of illness.
His brother had two children. And his death occurred during the time when my husband and I tried but could not conceive a child. When my husband returned, my mother-in-law told me to just raise her deceased son’s children and not conceive any child of my own. So I said that I will not do, that nephews are nephews and not the same as my own sons, and that I must have my own baby.
And then I told my husband that his brother’s sons have no relation to me, that I don’t have a family in North Korea and it’s just myself that’s left of my life, though he has his nephews to depend on. Then I had a drink and could not express my exasperations anymore.
Then my mother-in-law and the whole family gathered together to discuss the matter, then decided to have the children’s mother marry my husband and told me to leave the house.
So I demanded that I can’t just leave, that no one can survive without money in China, and that if I must leave, then he should give me money. My husband then gave me two thousand Chinese Yuan and led me out of his house.
Even if I want to, I don’t have the money to go to South Korea
My banishment from my husband’s house was during the year 2003. I went out to Liaoning Shenyang with the two thousand Yuan. Shenyang belongs to the northeastern province of China. Many Koreans reside at that place, especially in the West Tower area. Many North Koreans lived there in hiding as well.
I first paid 300 Won for a monthly rent. Then I took on multiple jobs to earn money, determined never to be sold.
I vigorously saved up money from working as a family caregiver, restaurant personnel, etc, though it was difficult to obtain a decent job due to my poor ability to speak Chinese. Even if I deny being a North Korean, people could easily tell after making several conversations with me. And restaurants tend to be reluctant to hire people like me because they must pay a fine when they get caught hiring North Korean workers.
The primary reason why North Korean women get trafficked is also because they do not know how to speak Chinese. Whether they like it or not, nearly all border-crossing North Korean women get trafficked at least once when it is their first time entering China. When we first experienced traffickers, we did not harbor malaise. After all, we came into a foreigner’s country for subsistence and we thought that the human traffickers were merely guiding us.
Just as we invaded the country to survive, the human traffickers sold people for their own survival. In the end, the human traffickers came about because their nation itself was also destitute.
The most distressing aspect of living in China was having no citizenship. There is not a moment of mind’s peace because I am no citizen of China. The fear of being caught haunts me everyday, even though it’s a bit of a relief these days that Chinese policemen no longer solely focus on catching North Korean defectors.
We don’t feel much discomfort even when we marry without love or affection, if we marry fellow Koreans, but when we do, we experience financial hardships. When I was in a farm village, I raised pigs and was able to drink alcohol, but I couldn’t make money. Because I am frequently in debt I hardly have much to save, let alone manage to pay all the debts.
At first, I thought about going back to North Korea after I earn a lot of money. But even such thought would be difficult to realize. I have been away, missing from the country for more than ten years, and now what have I to tell them when I return? The North Korean security guards and the CIA will probably put me in prison and kill me if I tell them that I lived in China for ten years. Furthermore, I do not even have a family in North Korea who will greet me. In China I get to eat well at least, so one way or another I choose to live here despite the distress and hardships.
Even so, I am afraid to start a new family, having lost my youthfulness from being sold several times. Even now when I lay still on my back, the thought of having a happy family comes earnestly.
Even if I want to go to South Korea, I still get afraid when I watch the news on TV. Besides not being able to afford the travel, fear takes hold of me and I become indecisive when I hear that in South Korea I wouldn’t be able to survive if I don’t work very hard, unlike in China.
Even when I decide to go to South Korea, it’s difficult to meet a proper guide, and if caught I would be repatriated to North Korea, which is why I often give up the notion altogether. I can’t guess how many North Korean women live in China like me, without aspirations or hopes. When will it be, when I too will be able to live a proper life of a human being?
North Korean Defector Kim Jeong-Soon, Resident of 00 City, China
Translated by Christal S. Yim