Wandering 6,000 km with my family
The desolate ‘90s, the ‘march of suffering’ I do not wish to think about
The great famine that swept North Korea in the mid-90s changed everything. Even our next door neighbor, Yong-nam’s family, said that they were going to Sinuiju or somewhere near the coast of Pyeongbuk province to catch some shellfish. Their house became empty and only the dust that seeped through the broken window panes remained.
On the streets near the market place, orphaned children in groups of twos and threes were engrossed in the search for rice grains stuck in mud. Not sure when they last got their hair cut, one petulant boy takes a young girl by the hand as they wander the streets together.
Last night, they say two people starved to death in the main boiler compartment at the Hamhung machine factory. In the street collection place, there is a middle aged-man in his 40’s, face as dark as night, crouched over cradling his hungry stomach.
I used to think that death was horrible and I cringed at the thought of myself being buried, but now, I am not the same person as then. I had witnessed so many deaths over the years that my fear of it had disappeared.
Whoever makes it out alive is the victor. This saying was, at the time, a common thought among the people of the North, and it reflected our will and determination to survive.
My mother went out to the marketplace this morning with a handful of books. These were the books my father used to read when he was an engineer at the technology preparatory division in the machine factory. In 1995, when the factory stopped giving out rations, my father tried selling coal in Sinuiju but eventually passed away from hunger on the streets.
The only possessions my father left us were his Level 3 Flag Medal and merit medals he earned at the factory for his work, and his old study books.
We sold the blankets and blanket cabinet, the dresser, aluminum bowls, and anything we could to make money, but it was not even enough to buy food, let alone make any money from. Now, the only things left were my father’s technical books.
However, in a situation where everyone was scrounging for something to eat, it was ridiculous to think that people would pay money for books. Even the most studious looking university students did not peek at those technical books. The people that were actually buying books were rice cake vendors who needed paper to wrap their rice cakes in. So the most we could get for a book was the price of a rice cake.
Even the ‘Chosun Language Dictionary’ that weighed 3kg and could only be found in the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang, was traded for 5kg of popped corn. My mother, who used to run a kindergarten refinement center, used to be so cheerful; but now, her footsteps coming back from the market place were always heavy and lonely.
‘Mother, please let me go earn some money in China just for a year’
After drinking a bowl of watered down porridge, my family lay in silence on the dark living room floor. “Oh~ how are we to live,” sighed my dejected mother. We did not have any rice to put in the kiln tomorrow, and it seemed as though our family would scatter and eventually starve to death like Young-nam’s family.
“Mom, you know Chang-nam’s family who lives behind us, they have relatives in China who are living quite well,” I whispered in my mother’s ear. She replied, “Quit that! Who cares if China is well off, it doesn’t help us any. Don’t talk like that or the security division will come and take you away,” and she cut me off mid-sentence.
“But mom, we can go to Hyesan and make some money doing chores at a Chinese person’s house,” I begged my mother time and time again. Listening to her then 16 year-old daughter, my mother finally relented and we headed for Hyesan half filled with expectation and half filled with disappointment.
That was March of 1997. We got off at Hyesan Station and looked around the station’s market place. There were more Chinese goods at cheaper prices in the markets of Hyesan than Hamhung; pork, rice, Chinese sausages, Chinese crackers, candy, shoes, etc. they had everything that I ever wanted. ‘When will we get a chance to dress and eat like proper human beings?’I wondered. My mother and I did not dare buy anything but we merely feasted with our eyes and tried to brush off our shabbiness.
From one corner of the market place, two young ladies whispered to one another and glanced in our direction. They must have noticed that we were not from around there; they looked at us and asked, “Hey ladies! Where are you from?”
When we said that we came from Hamhung, they replied, “To go over there?” and looked across the river. My mother and I did not catch what they meant by ‘there,’ so they clarified by saying, “to China.”
“No way! You’re talking gibberish…” we replied defensively and one of the strangers noted, “My, you’re quite pretty. Even if you worked at a restaurant in China you could earn 1,000 Yuen a month…”
This immediately caught my ear. 1,000 Yuen is about 25,000 Won in North Korea, equivalent to the price of 3 pigs. If I worked hard for a year that would be 30 pigs, and if we took the money to start a business, we could make a fortune in Hamhung and be quite wealthy as wealthy as the Zainichi Korean
My head was full of thoughts after parting ways with those ladies. Unplanned, I grabbed my mother and said, “Mom, I want to go to China. Let me go for just one year to make some money.” My mother was startled and retorted, “China is capitalistic so they sell girls to bars. As long as I’m alive, I can’t let you go there,” and she thus dismissed my request.
“But mom, isn’t it better than starving to death? Those ladies will introduce me to someone, and if something should happen to me you can hold them accountable,” my insistent demands finally won my mother’s consent.
I am the middle child of 3 and ever since I was young, my mother could not beat my stubbornness. I wandered back to the market corner to find those two ladies. After making an appointment with them, I crossed the Yalu River that night. I asked my mother to promise me not to move and wait for my return.
Sold to a man in his 40’s
Three others crossed the Yalu River with me, one lady from Kangwon province and 2 others from Bukcheong. Between the 4 of us, I was the youngest and the rest were women in their 20-30s. We waded across the turbulent river and made it to XXX.
The night was pitch black and it was difficult to tell where we were, but our guide soon found the blinking flashlight on the other side. We were met by 2 middle aged men in their 30’s. The two men spoke to the guide in Chinese for a bit, welcomed us in Korean, and then we went on our way.
Our guide told us that the men would lead us to the restaurant and she crossed back the Yalu River that night. We followed the Chinese men into a Chinese person’s house. The men seemed extremely happy as they made calls to a number of places.
Our party had been waiting at the house for 3 nights and 4 days now. With the lack of news, we asked when they would take us to the restaurant. The Chinese men told us, “If we stay here, the Chinese police are going to come and take you away, so we have to hide somewhere safe.”
The men only spoke in Chinese so none of us could understand what was going on. On the fifth day, the moment of our fate finally arrived. Robust Chinese young men came in two by two to take each of us away somewhere. I did not hear from the other women again.
I rode the car, the train, and followed the men wherever they went. I did not know a single word in Chinese and I had no choice but to be dragged along by these men. Some days later, I found out I ended up in China’s Shandong province.
They led me to what was supposedly my “new home” and inside there was a 40-something year old man with a dark mustache. The man spoke with my guides for some time and then the guides left; this is when I realized I was not meant to work at a restaurant but to be delivered as a bride. I was outraged.
As a mere teenager, I had experience with men and to think that my marriage partner was a man in his 40’s was befuddling. Even if I came from a poor country, I still wanted to maintain my chastity.
I wept and thrashed, asking the Chinese man to please send me back to my mother.
The man did not understand me and kept talking as if something was the matter; he opened his arms and expressed some sort of regret. Looking back, I suppose the man’s position was that he paid money to buy me and therefore I was his property, he was gesturing that if I wanted to leave I had to at least pay him back.
I fasted for three nights, and on the fourth morning I was crouched in the corner of a room crying my eyes out. My eyes were swollen and my body was completely listless. When the Chinese man left for work, he locked the house from the outside and when he returned, he prepared me some thin rice porridge and went off to smoke by himself.
Judging by appearance, the man did not seem violent. I gathered my thoughts and made up my mind to first live, and then I can figure out an escape plan or make money to go back to my mother. Foremost, I had to learn some Chinese. This was how I would find opportunities.
I tried talking to the man and started eating my meals. In the process I picked up some Chinese words and after 2 years in China, I gave birth to a daughter. No matter how well the Chinese man cooked for me and despite how well he treated me, I still could not accept him and I could not erase the thought of seeing my mother again.
To South Korea in search of freedom, even if it means death
Perhaps it is because my daughter bore my resemblance, she grew up fast and prettily. A part of me always felt sorry for her. She had met the wrong mother; I could not promise to watch over her forever and I knew that I would have to leave her at some point.
She was listed under her father’s family register, but I could not be listed there. Because I was not a Chinese citizen, the public security division would not count me in the census.
In the summer of 2003, I started preparing to leave for South Korea. While I was studying Chinese and listening to South Korean Broadcasts, I came to the conclusion that North Koreans like me had to go to South Korea to live like human beings and there I could meet my mother again.
I told my Chinese husband, “I must go to South Korea. There, I’ll find a way to meet my mother and I can make money.” At first my husband pleaded with me, but when he realized he could not break my resolve, he relented and asked me to leave behind our daughter and keep him updated wherever I am.
Although he could not marry and had to buy me at a late age, my husband was a good man and he is someone whom I am genuinely grateful for.
I arrived in Shenyang and immediately got a job to find a route to South Korea. I worked several odd jobs at a beauty salon in Sitaje, Shenyang, and started attending a Korean Church there. The pastor told me there was a way to get to Thailand and I decided to wait for my opportunity. It seemed that the path to South Korea was coming to me quite easily.
Only after two months of leaving my home in China, I and 5 other North Korean escapees left for Kunming, China with the hope of reaching South Korea. We carried fake passports and transferred from train to bus to avoid the Chinese police; we eventually arrived in the southern region of China.
We then left Kunming for the Laotian border, sleeping at private homes during the day and traveling only at night. We went around security checkpoints and made our way through jungles to head south. This place, known as the “golden river delta,” was infamous for transporting narcotics into China and hence was especially closely monitored by the police.
There were ambush sentry boxes in every district, and if one was not careful, anyone could be arrested on the suspicion of possession of drugs. Luckily, we safely arrived at the Mekong River and we made our way to the Republic of Korea’s Embassy in Thailand.
After a long journey of 6 years since separating from my mother, I arrived at the unfamiliar fatherland of South Korea. The South Korean government spared nothing to help North Korean escapees settle comfortably in communities. I attended vocational school, church, and even took on some part-time jobs.
However, a part of my heart longed for home; the thought of my mother waiting endlessly for me pained me greatly and prevented me from sleeping peacefully at night.
I was also troubled by memories of my daughter left behind in China. Thinking about her babbling and doing cute baby things kept me up at night. If I wanted to bring my daughter to South Korea, the only way would be through adoption since she is listed in the Chinese census register.
Even if she was my daughter, on paper she and I were strangers; because of this barrier, I would only be able to bring her under my care by applying as a foster parent.
I struggled for a year. I drank and cried because I was unhappy, I sent for news of my mother and all I could do was wait for their reply.
In September 2005, I heard a happy news that my mother, younger brother, and older sister had crossed the Yalu River. I wanted to fly to China in a heartbeat. Now that they had crossed the border, I was determined to bring my mother and siblings to South Korea, the land of the free.
Four family members traveling through China and Laos, arriving safely in Bangkok
The South Korean government, at the time, significantly reduced settlement funding to cutoff the middlemen who were helping North Koreans escape. Looking into bringing my family to South Korea, I realized that the number of brokers helping escapees had largely decreased due to stringent enforcement of escapees in China and the toughening up of North Korea’s borders. There was no one I could entrust my family with.
The brokers I managed to find with great difficulty asked for 4 million Korean Won per person just to Thailand; 3,500,000 Korean Won per person to Mongolia. Helping 3 family members escape was going to cost me about 15 million Korean Won. There was no possibly way I could afford this bill.
I figured I would worry about the cost later, and just with the thought of meeting my family, I put everything aside and left for China. Back in 1997, I was tempted with the thought of earning good money working at a restaurant in China; 8 years since leaving my mother and crossing over the border, we were reunited. We hugged and cried our eyes out at an inn in Yanji.
I could not send my family back to the hellhole. I told my family the whole truth. “Mother, I don’t live in China anymore, I live in South Korea. Let’s all go to the South and live there together.” My mom quickly replied, “So, you went to the South… Oh my… I’m not going,” and she cut me off.
It was the “fear” of living in a place swarming with American blokes and gangsters that worried my mother.
My sister also begged to “send her back to the North.” What is worse, she reproached me saying, “After living apart for a few years, you’ve changed.” It was difficult to connect with the brokers, but it was doubly hard to make my family understand.
My sister, who had never even seen China, was so out of touch with the realities of the outside world. But of course, there was no way for my sister to know. I was the same when I first came to China.
My sister started to change when we entered a large city. While staying in the city of Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, my sister was so impressed by China’s modernized look and material abundance that she eventually reconsidered.
I continued to look for brokers that would lead us to a third country, but it was not easy to make a link. The brokers I knew in Korea had already quit the business, and the ones in China were hiding their whereabouts so we had no choice but to stay in China for a while.
We had to be on alert at all times in China. Because none of us had Chinese identity cards and we could not speak Chinese, we were constantly afraid of getting caught; we were sitting on pins and needles every day. As there seemed to be no other way, I decided to lead my family along the route that I escaped through.
Of all the border crossings, the most dangerous zone is the China-Laos border. If you get caught by the Chinese garrison there, they send you back to North Korea in most cases. This is because different from Laos and Thailand, China has signed an extradition treaty (조중범죄자 인도조약) with North Korea.
Arriving at Kunming, a city in Southern China, I looked for brokers who knew the local geography well and I mapped out a route for crossing the border myself. After a careful plan was made, on June 20, we successfully crossed the China-Laos border with our stomachs in knots.
“Looking arpound, North Korea is indeed the poorest”
Growing up in the dark world of North Korea, my sister was mesmerized by the blinking neon signs and the lit up streets of Shenyang, China. After seeing Laos and Thailand, she squeezed my hand and confessed, “The more I see, the more I realize that North Korea is the poorest place in the whole world.”
Crossing the Mekong River, avoiding the Thai police, and finally arriving at the South Korean Embassy in Bangkok, I shared all the joys and sorrows with my family and I realized yet again how difficult the road to freedom was. During the process, my family shared close bonds with one another.
From China to Laos to Thailand, the distance I led my North Korean family was 6 thousand km.
My mother and sister have now graduated from the Hanawon and are working hard to adjust to a new society and life. My mother still tells me, “Thank you, my daughter. You have kept the promise you made me 8 years ago.” This is my mother’s sincere statement of gratitude to her daughter who has contributed to establishing a happy family.
When my friends who come over to my house hear my mother tell the story of us crossing the border, they look at me and say things like, “You are better than a man, you are a real hero,” and they spare me no compliments.
It’s true. If you are prepared to die, there isn’t much you can’t do. From now on, I am determined to work hard to find my place in South Korean society. In the past, the thought of my family left behind in North Korea took away my peace, but now that I am relieved of that burden, I can finally breathe again.
Geum-soon, Suh (alias, 27 years old)
From Hamhung, escaped in 1997, entered in October, 2003
Translated by Sooyeon Kang