By Andrew H.
As I skidded in my dress shoes down the underground pathway between terminals at Chicago O’Hare Airport, my heart was leaping with expectation of seeing a “celebrity” whom I have watched only on T.V. countless times. I couldn’t believe she was actually here.
I knew I was looking for a young woman of a small frame. When I finally found her, there was no mistake. She looked just as she did on T.V., except with a different hairstyle.
Eunju is one of 25,000 North Korean defectors now living as South Korean citizens. She is one of a handful of young, attractive North Korean defector women who are featured on a South Korean talk show called “Meet Now.”
Eunju is from Eunduk, North Hamkyung Province, North Korea. She is from a-o-ji, an area which is well-known to South Koreans for its mining field, to which political dissidents and anyone discovered with any kind of “fault” by the North Korean regime are apparently sent/excommunicated to engage in brutal, dangerous forced labor. When I asked her about the truth behind this information amongst South Koreans, Eunju told me that nowadays, not as many people are sent to a-o-ji mining field, but to “other places”……
I don’t think it would be totally wrong to say that among the featured North Korean women, Eunju might be the one whose life was most difficult back in North Korea. Her mom appeared on the show with her one week, and she shared that when there came a point they had absolutely nothing but a cob of corn to eat (Eunju’s father had died of malnutrition), she left Eunju behind at home to look for food. Before she left, she gave Eunju the cob of corn and asked her to eat a certain number of kernels each meal so that Eunju can survive till she comes back with food. But Eunju’s mom couldn’t find much food. When she finally gave up searching and came back home, it was already well past the day that she had told Eunju that she would come back. Eunju’s mother found Eunju lying down with no energy to speak. Next to her was a letter written in Eunju’s handwriting,
“Mom, I am so sorry I can’t keep fighting anymore. I don’t think I can survive any more. I am so sorry.”
Eunju’s mom couldn’t help breaking down seeing her second daughter writing a letter of apology when she could have well cursed the world for making her be born to such a poor family.
What broke my heart was what she shared next. Their neighbors told Eunju’s mother, “Why do you keep your children by your side when it’s hard enough for you to take care of yourself? They are all grown up (they were still in grade school). They can take care of themselves.” Then, Eunju’s mother did something that she would regret to death and plead for forgiveness from her two daughters. She told them, “Go find your own way now.” Eunju and her older sister cried, “Why are you doing this?” Nonetheless, she left. Eunju’s mother walked for a couple of hours, but she couldn’t forget the fear in her daughters’ eyes. So she turned back and walked back to where she had left them, not knowing where they could be now. However, when she finally arrived where she had left them, they were still there. She was both thankful and heartbroken: “My little precious. They didn’t know where else to go. They just stayed where they had been left behind.”
Eunju shared, “But I always knew that my mom loved me. Although we were so poor, I had never really known cold because whenever there was anything, anything like plastic bag that one could use for warmth, she always covered me with it…”
I’m not very good gauging people’s height, but Eunju has a very small frame, and her mother complained that in South Korea, Eunju always goes out everywhere with flip-flops instead of stylish high heels. She complained if Eunju were tall like South Korean girls, it wouldn’t be so bad, but she, being short, should try to make up for her short height with high heels. This rang very dear to my heart for two reasons. First of all, I myself am a quite short person. And my mom often complains to me that I should try to be better dressed. And one time I asked her why she cares so much, and she said, “It’s because I don’t want tall, big Americans to belittle my son as one of those short Asian guys.” I was hurt when my mom said that. But listening to Eunju’s mother say a similar thing, I realized how heartbroken Eunju’s mother must feel seeing Eunju, who couldn’t even grow taller than her mother herself, because she couldn’t feed her. When I stood by Eunju while we were marching across Chicago downtown to be the voice that our North Korean brothers and sisters couldn’t make themselves, I was more than proud to be short just like her although the reason I was short wasn’t because I wasn’t well-fed like her. On “Meet Now,” I have seen Eunju cry, laugh, dance, and make jokes. It amazes me how someone with such a difficult and unfair past and painful memories, could retain hope, her capacity for compassion, and a sense of humor. That in itself seems enough for me to call her a “hero,” a living witness of humanity… She might be small in her physical frame, but her heart must be as great as the Lake Michigan that I am looking at as I write.
“Uh huh,” says Eunju on her phone. Her fluid conversation with her new American friends (btw, whom she had been taught to consider as enemies in North Korea) is more than shocking to a 1.5 generation Korean-American who has had 12 years to work on my English. She came to South Korea not many years ago, and she started learning English even later. It is my hope that there will be many more to follow Eunju’s footsteps and become the same inspiration that Eunju is to me to many other struggling people in the world.
I cannot express how much I appreciated her coming to participate in the protest against forced repatriation of North Korean defectors caught in China, which leads to imprisonment, torture, forced labor, and occasionally public executions. It is most difficult for North Korean defectors to revisit their painful past, not to mention speak about it in public. I thank her so much for her courage and compassion for those who are in the same situation as she was before, and for trusting me.
“You know I still can’t believe you are here. It’s like seeing a celebrity!” I said.
“No, don’t say that. I am not a celebrity.”
Well, to me Eunju was someone I would have chosen to have the honor to meet over any other celebrities I know of.