Click on the title to read the full story.

Jul 25 '15 - 'What Hanawon doesn’t teach North Korean defectors' By Ji-Min Kang

Editor’s note: NK News contacted the South Korean Ministry of Unification, which is authorized to speak on behalf of Hanawon, as to whether or not the program has been updated to reflect concerns such as those Ji-Min expresses here.

“Defectors are educated at Hanawon but the course does not include a lesson on whether they will face discrimination or not,” an MoU spokesperson said. “But we have Hanacenter, which is a nationwide government organization that provides help after they leave Hanawon. If they are having a problem they can contact Hanacenter any time of the day.”

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.

This week Mike from the U.S. asks:

Would you please tell me about your time at Hanawon?

Honestly, I don’t have good memories of Hanawon, the place where defectors have to go before they enter South Korean society.

Hanawon, which is located in Anseong, Gyeonggi province, is an up-to-date, modern facility. As Hanawon is located in a small rural village, it was quiet and away from the noise of the big city and I liked the atmosphere there. Hanawon is a facility under the South Korean Ministry of Unification, which exists to help newly arrived North Koreans settle in capitalist South Korean society.

When a North Korean newly arrives in South Korea, they spend their first three months at Hanawon, where they learn how capitalist South Korean society works. Of course, three months is such a short period of time and it is not long enough to develop an overall understanding of capitalism and South Korean society. But it is certain that these first three months are crucial for newly arrived North Koreans.

North Koreans have spent their entire lives in the so-called socialist state, which says it strives to provide equal opportunities for everyone. Capitalism is something totally new and unfamiliar to North Koreans. To North Koreans, capitalist society is full of mystery, opportunities as well as abundant obstacles. However, I learned almost nothing about capitalism from Hanawon.

Hanawon had been established only a few years prior to my arrival in South Korea. I would like to think that Hanawon provides better education now as it is likely to have gone through trial and error over the years.

The main thing Hanawon teaches is basically how to survive and get a job in South Korea. They taught us how to look for a job, interview skills and such, all of which I think are highly important and useful to North Koreans.

But I remember Hanawon missing out on one important thing it needs to provide North Korean refugees: It needs to teach North Koreans the problems and discrimination North Koreans will face, as well as how they can overcome them.


While at Hanawon, successful North Koreans came to give presentations and make speeches for us. They were North Koreans who went on to become successful businessmen, the branch manager of a major bank and famous human rights activists. We were all mesmerized by their success and we dreamed about our successful futures, too. Of course, there is no doubt that you can get what you want if you make enough efforts in the capitalist, democratic societies. But it would’ve been a lot more helpful if Hanawon gave us an insight into the failures and frustrations 99 percent of North Koreans experience rather than focusing on 1 percent of them who achieved success. I really wish Hanawon showed us the failures, obstacles and discrimination North Koreans most often face.

The reality that North Korean refugees face after those three months in Hanawon is harsh. Obviously, discrimination exists and there is very little we can do since we received very little knowledge and education in North Korea.

We are put under immense stress and fear while in China. But the only thing that kept me going was the will to survive. When I finally began to settle in South Korea, I noticed that South Korea was a highly individualistic society where you don’t know who lives next door and you shouldn’t try to find out, either. In South Korea, you should always be cautious of strangers who do you favors and you could be sued for swearing at someone else, all of which is inconceivable to North Koreans.

During my three months at Hanawon, we went on an excursion to numerous industrial complexes and I dreamt big about my future. But South Korean society turned out to be one harsh world to live in. It was where everyone was connected based on the education and hometown backgrounds. In other words, you get promoted not based on your accomplishments but just because you happen to have attended the same college with your boss or you happen to be from the same hometown as them.

I have nothing to complain about from my time at Hanawon. It was comfortable to stay there for three months and it wasn’t disappointing, either. I just wish that Hanawon let us know about the obstacles North Koreans face, as well as the successful stories of North Koreans. It would dramatically reduce the frustration and disappointment North Koreans feel later on. Having success in the capitalist society is important. But far more important is not being a failure. I hope that Hanawon provides more realistic and practical education and training for newly arrived North Koreans.

Got A Question?

Email it to with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.

Translation by Elizabeth Jae

Source: NKNews, 7.25.2015

Oct 29 '14 - Interview: Shin Dong-hyuk, human rights advocate

Momentum is gathering in the international community to demand human rights in North Korea. Seven months after the United Nations established the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea, the most recent United Nations report by Marzuki Darusman calls for the referral of the DPRK to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. North Korea, in response, is launching a diplomatic offensive through PR campaigns and proposing that the U.N. investigator Darusman may visit North Korea if the attempts to refer North Korea to the ICC are stopped.

It is in this context that New Focus International presents an interview with one of the most prominent proponents of human rights in North Korea: Shin Dong-hyuk. He is the recipient of the U.N. Watch award for human rights in 2013, and more recently, the Human Rights Watch award in September 2014. Shin was born in 1982 in a political prison camp in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, after his parents were granted an “Award Marriage” as a reward for obeying the rules of the camp. In 2005 he successfully escaped Camp 14 and escaped to South Korea; he gained international prominence as the main subject of Blaine Harden’s best-selling book Escape from Camp 14. Currently he is the founder and executive director of Inside NK, an organization for North Korean human rights based in Washington D.C.

The original New Focus interview, conducted and published in Korean, dates back to January 2014. Since then, the world has been seeing an unprecedented call to hold the North Korean regime accountable. The words Shin Dong-hyuk spoke nine months ago — of defiance against the regime and justice for those in dire need — are relevant, more than ever, to the current efforts for freedom and basic human dignity in North Korea.

Shin Dong-hyuk at the New Focus office in January 2014.

NF: How do you feel about receiving the Moral Courage Award from U.N. Watch [in June 2013]?
Shin: While I am grateful, I also feel uncomfortable because my father, relatives and friends are still suffering inside the camp. Also, there are countless North Korean defectors laboring for this cause in places that aren’t so visible — I am merely a representative of everyone else’s sweat and blood. Through this award, I hope to raise widespread awareness in the international community about the human rights problem in North Korea.

NF: Please tell us about your book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.
Shin: I worked together with Blaine Harden, the East Asia correspondent for the Washington Post. The book has been published in more than 20 languages.

NF: What was the purpose of your escape from North Korea?
Shin: When I was living in the concentration camp, I never knew the emotions “good” and “bad.” Nor did I ever think to report on the atrocities of the camp after escaping. All I wanted was to live just one day where I could eat until feeling full like those living outside. That was my only reason for escape, and I miraculously succeeded. I was lucky; there are many escape attempts among prisoners, but not too many are successful.

NF: What kind of work do you generally do?
Shin: I participate in seminars on North Korean human rights and testify to the cruelties happening in the political prison camps. I center my work on these testimonies, because I have personally experienced the abominable state of being denied the most basic human rights. Recently, I was invited to speak at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the Czech Embassy in D.C., as well as several universities in the United States, including Princeton University. In October [2013] I was also invited to speak with the former president George W. Bush.

NF: What did you talk about with Mr. Bush?
Shin: He invited me to the newly opened George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. Mr. Bush listened to my stories at Camp 14 and expressed concern that the cruelties against political criminals are still continuing today. He said he was personally interested in the human rights issue in North Korea and found my book very moving. He also emphasized that at this very moment, prisoners in North Korea are being subject to public executions, torture, abuse and hunger — the world should remember this, and continue to work on improving the current situation.

NF: Please give us an introduction of Inside NK.
Shin: Inside NK is a non-profit that was launched in December 2012. Our headquarters in Washington D.C. was established in October 2013; we became legally registered and certified as a non-profit in November 2013. Through a variety of means including internet broadcasts and documentary productions, Inside NK plans to raise awareness about the severity of the human rights situation in North Korea throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

NF: Any words of advice for the improvement of human rights in North Korea?
Shin: Recently, the former NBA star Dennis Rodman visited North Korea. Cultural interaction with outsiders is important; but what is more important is that Kim Jong-un listens to the cries of his people. I don’t want to interfere on the good times Kim had with Rodman. But this visit should not blur out the reality of how many people have starved, how many have lost their freedom, and how many are still suffering from the generational succession of power from Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, to Kim Jong-un. For real improvement of human rights in North Korea, it is much more effective to continue denouncing the regime, as opposed to supplying funds to the regime through ventures such as tourism.

NF: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Shin: I find it strange that Europe and North America are much more interested in the severity of the North Korean issue than South Korea is, which is supposed to be the land of our brothers. There is a problem with the particularly South Korean way of looking at “human rights” as a political issue, even though no political commentaries accompany the content. In South Korea, when I call myself a North Korean human rights advocate, many people label me as “a conservative” or “a reactionary idiot.” I say, pointing out human rights issues and fighting to improve them is not a “conservative” thing to do. It is not “conservative” to oppose the totalitarian regime and the imprisonment camps.


Recently, Shin wrote an opinion article for CNN, calling for continued international engagement and expressing his skepticism that six-party talks cannot fundamentally change the repressive regime. Despite the difficulties of fighting against a dictatorship that continues to haunt his present, Shin Dong-hyuk carries on his efforts. In the interview with New Focus, he said, “A lot of people know about the labor camps. But they don’t know precisely how the people are suffering inside. Sometimes I shudder at the thought that my testimonies can kill my father, relatives and friends still inside. But I can only be dignified in the face of their deaths if I continue the struggle and give everything I have.”

Reporting by Choi Dami.
Read in Korean.
Translated and edited by Haeryun Kang.
Featured image: U.S. Mission Geneva/ Eric Bridiers

Source: New Focus International, 10.29.2014

May 22 '14 - Voices from North Korea 2014

Jinhye Jo and Eunju Kim speak about their experiences living during famine in North Korea, on the run in China, and finally settled in the United States and South Korea.


Dec 17 '13 - 'How Dennis Rodman can help the North Korean people' By Shin Dong-hyuk

Dear Mr. Rodman:

I have never met you, and until you visited North Korea in February I had never heard of you. Now I know very well that you are a famous, retired American basketball player with many tattoos. I also understand that you are returning this week to North Korea to coach basketball and perhaps visit for the third time with the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, who has become your friend.

I want to tell you about myself. I was born in 1982 in Camp 14, a political prison in the mountains of North Korea. For more than 50 years, Kim Jong Un, his father and his grandfather have used prisons such as Camp 14 to punish, starve and work to death people who the regime decides are a threat. Prisoners are sent to places like Camp 14 without trial and in secret. A prisoner’s “crime” can be his relation by blood to someone the regime believes is a wrongdoer or wrong-thinker. My crime was to be born as the son of a man whose brother fled to South Korea in the 1950s.

You can see satellite pictures of Camp 14 and four other labor camps on your smartphone. At this very moment, people are starving in these camps. Others are being beaten, and someone soon will be publicly executed as a lesson to other prisoners to work hard and obey the rules. I grew up watching these executions, including the hanging of my mother.

On orders of the guards in Camp 14, inmates are forced to marry and create children to be raised by guards to be disposable slaves. Until I escaped in 2005, I was one of those slaves. My body is covered with scars from torture I endured in the camp.

Mr. Rodman, if you want to know more about me, I will send you a book about my life, “Escape From Camp 14.” Along with the stories of many other camp survivors, my story helped persuade the United Nations to create a commission of inquiry that is now investigating human rights atrocities in my country. I was “witness number one.” In the coming year, the commission’s findings may force the U.N. Security Council to decide whether to approve a trial in the International Criminal Court of the Kim family and other North Korean officials for crimes against humanity.

I happen to be about the same age as your friend Kim Jong Un. But if you ask him about me, he is likely to refer to me as “human scum.” That is how his state-controlled press refers to me and all other North Koreans who have risked death by fleeing the country. Your friend probably also will deny that Camp 14 exists, which is the official position of his government. If he does, you can show him pictures of it on your phone.

Mr. Rodman, I cannot presume to tell you to cancel your trip to North Korea. It is your right as an American to travel wherever you wish and to say whatever you want. It is your right to drink fancy wines and enjoy yourself in luxurious parties, as you reportedly did in your previous trips to Pyongyang. But as you have a fun time with the dictator, please try to think about what he and his family have done and continue to do. Just last week, Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle. Recent satellite pictures show that some of the North’s labor camps, including Camp 14, may be expanding. The U.N. World Food Programme says four out of five North Koreans are hungry. Severe malnutrition has stunted and cognitively impaired hundreds of thousands of children. Young North Korean women fleeing the country in search of food are often sold into human-trafficking rings in China and beyond.

I am writing to you, Mr. Rodman, because, more than anything else, I want Kim Jong Un to hear the cries of his people. Maybe you could use your friendship and your time together to help him understand that he has the power to close the camps and rebuild the country’s economy so everyone can afford to eat.

No dictatorship lasts forever. Freedom will come to North Korea someday. When it does, my wish is that you will have, in some way, helped bring about change. I end this letter in the hope that you can use your friendship with the dictator to be a friend to the North Korean people.

Source: The Washington Post, 12.17.2013

Sept 11 '13 - 'Some thoughts on Christmas' By Esther Han

We had no idea. We had no idea what “Christmas” meant…

I still cannot forget the first Christmas our family experienced after resettling in America in 2007. I also have a memory from the days of living in hiding from Chinese public security agents in China after defecting from North Korea.

Even in the small village in China I was living in, signs of “Merry Christmas” were plastered all over the streets along with pictures of Santa Claus. Then, people said, “Santa Claus will come down quietly at night to give us our presents…” Others said, “Santa Claus will come down the chimney quietly at dawn to give us lots of presents…”

Each time we heard these stories, we too waited for Santa Claus. Also, in the evening, we saw many couples stroll across brightly lit streets as though in a daylight. They looked very happy, and we wondered when we would be able to laugh and enjoy ourselves as freely as they. This was the “Christmas” we had a glimpse of in China.

Then, finally, I was able to enjoy this “Christmas” in Alaska, USA, as a free woman.

“Ouch,” my nostrils were frozen with cold and damp air.

December in Alaska was so cold, and it was hard to see in front of us because of the icy fog. As soon as we opened the entrance door, the cold air made it difficult for us to breathe. Snow piled on the evergreen trees, bending and breaking their branches.

Cars, covered with snow, resembled small hills. Rabbits, deer, and moose scavenged underneath inches of snow in search for food. They blocked traffic even during the day. Moreover, in the winter, 23 hours out of 24 hours were pitch-dark night.

If the cars were not charged, the engines froze, causing them to sit idle for days. Such snow and cold characterized the northernmost and coldest region of America! The Christmas that we experienced there was filled with moments of joy and wonder.

Christmas was finally here. After placing potted plans with red leaves inside the church sanctuary and by the well-lit windows, we were busy decorating the Christmas tree with colorful lights and bells.

When we finished decorating the tree to our satisfaction, it was 9:00pm. I boarded on a minivan with other members of the church. The minivan sprayed snow around as it moved. We paid visits to nearby households to give them surprise gifts and sang, “Joy to the World.”

Time flew as we shared the joy of “Christmas,” grateful for the amazing grace that God has shown by coming down to this world to atone for our sins. When it was time for farewell, there were some people who were in tears, grateful for God’s presence with them.

The next day, after hearing the sermon of the pastor, I learnt the real meaning behind Christmas for the first time—the day baby Jesus came down to the Earth to save us from our sins.

Blessed with feelings of gratitude and eating well-prepared delicious food, I fully enjoyed “Christmas.” Even in the midst of severe cold of Alaska, our first Christmas in America was one full of joy and fun that our family could never forget.

Christmas was more special to me, a North Korean defector, because of my memories of the birthdays of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il. Different from their birthdays when I lifted up 2.2 lbs of candy and snacks that the Josun Workers’ Party distributed and said, “Thank you, Supreme Leader,” the birthday of Jesus was a day when I could experience joy and freedom of both the body and spirit.

Our parents, brothers, and sisters who are still in North Korea do not know the freedom and “inalienable rights” that we take for granted now. Nor do they know that “Christmas” is a special day to everyone and a privilege and blessing that surpass anyone’s imagination.

I wait for this year’s Christmas with a hope that someday the meaning behind “Christmas” is known all across North Korea, and my brothers and sisters there may enjoy the freedom and peace that I am enjoying right now.

Jesus, the Prince of peace!

Merry Christmas, and please remember to pray for North Korea!

By Esther Han
Resident of Virginia

Source: NK in USA, 09.11.2013

Sept 9 '13 - 'Confession of Faith by the 100th NK Refugee – Part 1' By Andrew Jo

I was born in Jagang Province, North Korea, and spent 30 years living as a common worker loyal to the party and the eternal leader, Kim Il-Sung.

In 2000, I was dispatched to a forest field in Russia where I defected. While wandering around with nowhere to go, I met God and eventually found refuge in the United States. I, Andrew Jo was allegedly the 100th North Korean refugee who entered the United States. It is hard to describe the difficulties we faced during the “March of Tribulation” that swept North Korea in the 90s. However, lives of North Korean laborers in the Russian forest fields were just as miserable as the life in North Korea.

We barely received $100 a month, and not all of even this went directly into our pocket, for loyalty funds, healthcare fees, and insurance fees had to be paid from this meager wage. In order to save up as much as possible, I ate and spent sparingly, even quitting smoking and drinking. North Korea had not developed any system for North Korean laborers at the Russian forestry fields to send their money. At the end of my first year, I asked my colleague, who was going back to North Korea for some time off, to deliver $150 I had saved up to my family in North Korea.

Accidents were frequent in the snowfields of Siberia, where even the most basic worker protection facilities were lacking. I saw a worker suffer a severe concussion from being hit by a falling branch. I also saw someone’s corpse lying trapped deep in the snow. Seeing these tragedies, I thought to myself in fear, “I too shall die homeless without having earned any money.”

Even though such accidents abounded, the North Korean government did not have any measures to respond to these incidents and provided no compensation, not even a token message of saying, “sorry.” After a year of working, disillusioned by such an inhumane and powerless regime, my colleagues and I ended up escaping from the forestry field.

After escaping, we started our runaway lives in the foreign and cold Khabarovsk. In 2002, following Kim Jong-Il’s order to arrest any North Korean laborers that defected from their working grounds, North Korean public security agents were living in the Khabarovsk area. Also, whenever Russian police saw an Asian person, they stopped and verified his or her ID. I had to hide from the Russian police, and I was forced into investigations multiple times, making it difficult for me to live there. I started to blame myself. I was cursing my own life, and I lamented the miserable reality of people who had to suffer because they were born in the wrong country.

Even in such dangerous situations, I had to keep looking for work while hiding and dodging the eyes of the police. Also, I had to avoid even other North Koreans. Many of my colleagues who had escaped from the forest fields like me were caught by the police and forcibly sent back to North Korea. I started looking for a shelter that I could entrust my life with. Then, a Korean-Chinese friend introduced me to a small Korean Church.

I met a Korean missionary for the first time who was operating a small church that did not even have a cross or a sign. This was October in 2001. My faith started from there. In fact, going to church for me meant risking my life. One day, the pastor suggested that I attend a service. To the members of the church, he introduced me as a Korean-Chinese. At my first service, I saw the members of the church worship, filled with joy. The worship songs that the congregation sang and the sermon by the pastor were rather pleasant.

The wife of the pastor gave me an old Bible as a present. I read the entire Bible as I worked at the church, and each night, I fell asleep after talking with the pastor about the stories from the Bible, about North and South Korea, and also about our childhood memories. Matthew Chapter 7, verses 1-5, struck me the most. After reading, “Do not judge lest you are judged,” I realized that the North Korean party’s policy of mutual “judgment” was wrong. I really hated the criticisms we had to direct at each other during “Party Life Reviews” and “Ideological Struggle Conferences.” Naturally, each meeting, I used to be criticized as a party member who lacks the spirit of the party.

I wanted to stay behind at church to pray and continue my spiritual life, which the pastor permitted. With a grateful and joyful heart, I cleaned the church, fixed the interior, and undertook many other tasks. Full of energy, I also attended Wednesday evening services and Friday night prayer meetings. I just loved the services and the praise songs as well as the Bible teachings. The pastor and his wife told me about Biblical figures, God, Jesus, and other stories about the Bible. I had to experience and know this living God because I wanted to verify if the Bible—God’s Word—was really a poison that paralyzes one’s mental state and revolutionary mind as the propaganda in North Korean claimed.

In general, North Koreans of my own generation know churches as places that look after the poor and feed them. What the Holy Spirit revealed to me eventually was that the Bible—that is, God’s Word—is not a poison as the North Korean propaganda claims, but a source of inspiration for a healthy mind and life and a guide that gives hope to the hopeless. (Continued in the next edition)

By Andrew Jo
Entered the U.S. in 2010
Resident of Georgia

Source: NK in USA, 09.09.2013

Sept 9 '13 - 'Confession of Faith by the 100th NK Refugee – Part 2' By Andrew Jo

The biggest problem while I lived in Russia over the past 10 years was my legal status. The legal status issue, i.e., that my illegal immigration status be legalized, was always on my prayer list every New Year.

The efforts of State Security Department of North Korea to repatriate people were relentless as well. On January 26, 2010, I was at the work site as usual with a wood cutter named Mr. Rowe. Suddenly, I heard the phone ring, and upon answering the call I heard a tense voice from Brother Lee. Around 8:15 in the morning, I heard the unexpected news that the Russian police who kept watching in front of the house arrested two people including Brother Lee.

I informed Yala Mission of this news. All the members of Yala Mission wrestled in intercessory prayers for these brothers and set up a plan to rescue them. However, they ended up falling at the hands of the North Korean representatives through the Russian police. Since they had the names and telephone numbers of missionaries from Yala Mission as well as name cards of South Korean missionaries, we were well aware of the fact that they would be executed at the political prisoner camps once they are repatriated to North Korea. So, all my brethren and I were very nervous.

From that day on, we eluded the capture by wandering from place to place, and experienced serious conflicts among us as we went on together. One brother broke down under the weight of fear, and ended up continuing to drink and to live a dissipated life. One brother, who came off the gambling as he accepted Jesus, went back to a casino and lost all his money there. Another brother, after drinking with three other brothers, packed his belongings, left home, and tried to go to the North Korean representatives to turn himself in, so we barely calmed him down.

Unable to bear the sight of my brethren falling into the pitfalls of the past, I strongly rebuked two of my brethren: “This isn’t a time for these. What are you doing now, when we may not have enough time to pray even if we stay awake and pray all days and nights? God delivered the Savior to us, but we do not know who will be truly saved among us. We should exercise self-control on everything, be awake, and pray in earnest.”

At that moment, I realized that a life that accepted Jesus but was not truly transformed is a life as transient as flowers of the field. Finally, Brother Park and I have decided to enter the consulate office of the Republic of Korea in Vladivostok. First of all, I reconnoitered the lay around the consulate office and how the police agents are arrayed throughout three times. Brother Park and I have decided to do it on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, and prayed days and nights as we offered worship services to God.

On March 8, Director Cho from Yala Mission informed the South Korean consuls that I would be entering the consulate office, and arranged a contact with the US Department of State. The next morning, I prayed to God earnestly, and sang hymns strongly. At 9 a.m., Brother Park and I called a taxi and headed towards the South Korean consulate office. The pulse seemed to be quickening as I felt anxious. My soul was calm; it was a feeling that I have never felt before — the peace of joy from deep inside of my heart.

At no time, the taxi arrived in front of the South Korean consulate office. I asked the taxi driver to just pass, and we ran towards the wall of the consulate office. The straight-line distance between the duty officers were about 20 meters; the height of the wall was about 1.8 meters; the distance between the wall and the building was about 15 meters; and the distance between the office of the duty officers and the inside building of the consulate office was about 20 meters.

With little time to look around, we climbed over the wall. Upon detecting us, the agents on duty shouted at us, “stop!” They ran across the yard of the consulate office and dashed toward us. As soon as we fell off from the wall, we immediately ran to the entrance door with all our strength.
Indeed, it was like a 100-meter dash where every second counts. By the time I opened the entrance door and entered, the pursuing agents could almost grab Brother Park who was right behind me; it was a close call. The security officers could no longer follow us inside of the building, and we finally succeeded in entering the consulate office of the Republic of Korea.

During my first interview at that time, I suggested that I may go to the United States where the human rights are respected and the freedom of faith is protected. I did that because first, I wanted to study in the seminary in order to evangelize North Korea and second, I was curious about the United States. I wanted to have the right understanding of the United States which was perceived by North Koreans to be their adversary and enemy state.

From there, I was granted a refugee status after going through all the procedures and proceedings for 182 days. I left Vladivostok via the office of the United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) in Moscow, and safely entered the United States on September 9, 2010, becoming the 100th North Korean defector who settled in the United States. I confess that I came this far by the amazing love and grace of almighty God who oversees man’s life and death and protects and guides people in such an unfathomable way that people cannot even imagine.

Once again, I deeply appreciate the blessing of being able to meet dear Pastor Charles Hong, US government officers who took care of me until I came to the US, UNHCR personnel, and members of Yala Mission and their families.

Andrei Jo, First Missionary from Yala Mission
By Andrew Jo
Entered the U.S. in 2010
Resident of Georgia

Source: NK in USA, 09.09.2013

June 20 '13 - 'Dreams of My Hometown' By Sung-chul Kim

HRNK (Human Rights in North Korea) Intern Memoir
Dreams of My Hometown
By Sung-chul Kim
Edited by Rosa Park, Bomi Im and Megan Lee

In North Korea

Musan district in North Hamgyong province of North Korea, the coldest part of the Korean peninsula, is my birthplace. It was also my home for seventeen years and now, where all my childhood memories continue to reside. Notwithstanding its chilly temperature, I want to visit my hometown and native land at least once before I die. Every spring, apricot blossoms and azalea flowers still managed to bloom on the hill in front of my house. As a student, I would idyllically smoke with friends. Of course, if we were caught, our teacher forced us to chew those same cigarettes while still lit. On holidays, I could hear the sounds of rice-cake making—the wooden mallet pounding the rice paste—seemingly coming from around every house, and the smoke from chimneys wafted through the village. I would also go door to door, bowing to the village elders—it is customary in Korea to receive money from elders by presenting them with formal bows, especially on given holidays. Naturally, my mother was also diligent in taking all the money I received.

When confronted with the “Great Famine” of the 1990s, our family could no longer maintain our usual standard of living, but we weren’t the only ones. Many people died from starvation or disease. Some North Koreans managed to subsist by farming their small plots of land. In 1998, my father passed away and my mother, dismissed from her job, went to China to earn money. In the past, my mother had tirelessly tried to obtain a highly coveted “Workers’ Party membership card,” but my father’s political background ultimately barred her. According to my mother, my grandfather and uncle on my father’s side of the family disappeared—presumably sent to the gulag—after insulting the regime. As a result, my parents had maintained a tenuous relationship, and my mother always harbored some bitterness towards my father. After my mother left for China, my brother and I had no choice but to live in an orphanage where we did labor-intensive and difficult work. Using a saw, axe, and rope, we logged on a mountain for at least 5-6 hours, even on cold winter days.

In 2001, three years after my mother left for China, she was arrested by the Chinese and forcibly repatriated to North Korea. After her return, she again fled to China, but this time I followed her. When my stomach started to fill with food, I began missing my home and friends, and I finally made up my mind to go back, despite my mother’s protests. From the Chinese side, I waited patiently while a line of North Korean soldiers walked along the Tumen River and disappeared. After a few moments, I quickly crossed the river and hid behind some reeds. Wanting to scout out my path, I slowly looked over the reeds. To my surprise, I was staring straight at three North Korean soldiers, who also looked shocked to see me. The North Korean authorities arrested me for the first time, but it would not be the last. I would go to China again and be forcibly repatriated to North Korea two months later with my mother because my neighbors in China reported us. I was repatriated twice more after that.

The State Security Department (SSD) Bo-wi-bu “보위부”

As soon as my mother and I walked into the detention center (“State Political Security Department”), we were suddenly robbed of our identity as human beings. The sounds of tortured people came from many places. I heard an agonizing “I profusely apologize” exclaimed in formal Korean, an officer shouted, “[Curse], how many times have you gone?” “Kneel!,” “You like the Chinese [curse] that much? “You’re lying!” and “Tell me again, why did you go?” Needless to say, hearing all the shouting and sounds of pain stunned me; not surprisingly, I began to grow very afraid. I broke out in a cold sweat, dripping down my back, and the strength drained from my legs so I could barely stand. I did not dare look any officer in the eye. None of the prisoners wore shoes and all were forced to sit or kneel. To move, everyone, including the elderly, had to crawl on the floor. We were still standing at that point, but right at that moment, I heard a prison officer shout at us to “Kneel on the ground [curse]!” and we submissively kneeled. They then divided us into two groups, one group of adults and one group of children. The adults were taken to cells, and the children were taken to an office. My mother was among the adults to crawl towards the cell, and we were separated once more.

The officer interrogated me, demanding to know why I had gone to China, how and who had led me to China, and where my hometown was located. I was forced to answer these questions while kneeling on the ground. I told him that my father passed away, I was searching for my missing mother, I went to China in search of food, and probably mumbled something about my hometown. In fact, when my mother and I were in the Chinese prison, my mother had instructed me to say that I went looking for her because I was hungry, and she told me I would likely be released based on my young age. Police officers then tortured and beat me violently. Perhaps one officer grew tired of hitting me because he then ordered me to bang my own head against the wall. As I hit my head against the wall, he ordered me to slam it harder because the sound of the impact did not satisfy him. Obediently, I hit my head against the wall with a louder thump. He then asked me, “Do you know why I told you to hit your head against the wall?” and I answered, “I do not know.” “It is to absolve you of your betrayal of the Democratic People’s Republic [of Korea] by leaving and learning about capitalism in China.” After two hours of questioning, the officer finally dismissed me to the “guhoso” or medical relief station, reducing my penalty based on my young age.

I was able to eat two meals a day in the medical relief center. There were children the same age as me. The next day, I was instructed to log on a mountainside with others. I wanted to run away, but could not really figure out how. Eventually, in order to escape, I traded in my nicer Chinese clothing for cheaper clothing and for money to bribe the guard overseeing our logging. I promptly took the train, or rather, furtively hung from the bottom of one headed towards Musan. After arriving I really wanted to see my brother, but I did not search for him because I did want to appear as a beggar before him. I slept in the waiting room of the train station that night.

The next morning, a man slightly my senior suggested that we go to China together. In desperation, I convinced myself that he was trustworthy and followed him. We went to the outskirts of China in Helong, but I found myself sold as a laborer to a farm. I worked every single day. Ostensibly, a cow became my only constant friend. With this cow, I plowed the fields and carried the wood I had logged on a mountain. I slept in a small thatched cottage hidden in the hills.

Prior to my third repatriation, I was visiting an acquaintance who worked nearby when a public security officer burst into his home and we were arrested. It was my third repatriation to North Korea. After encountering the Chinese “byunbangdae” (upper-level border patrol), I was sent to three different hierarchies of police: political, security, and detention). I ran away from the detention police, and returned to Helong, but I was arrested while in Yongjun, based on accusations made by an informant of the Chinese authorities. By the fourth repatriation, I strangely felt familiar with the process, despite the increasingly brutal punishment I was receiving.

A Dream of Hope: South Korea

In December 2006, I arrived in South Korea after my fourth repatriation. After a month-long investigation at the South Korean National Intelligence Service, I studied at Hanawon—the training center for former North Koreans—for three months, graduating in April. Since then, I began having many dreams. I wanted to study and work for those in greater need than myself. It was the type of life my mother hoped I would lead. To accomplish this dream, I realized that education would be important. From early in the morning to late at night, I studied English.

My dream is to establish an NGO to help North Koreans while focusing on the following areas of great need: refugee children’s education, human rights, and welfare. When the two Koreas are reunified, the NGO would continue to aid in these areas. Thinking about and planning my dream keeps my morale high and helps me overcome my troubled memories of North Korea and China. Whenever I encounter hardship, I stand strong, emboldened by the power of my dreams.

Up until March 2008, I worked in order to pay back my debt to my broker. I worked three consecutive jobs, including selling books in a bookstore, working as an attendant in a parking lot, and delivering chicken. I had trouble adjusting to the cultural differences I faced in South Korea. However, I had no choice but to adapt because it was the only way I could have a future in South Korea.

In 2007, I received my first prize in a memoir contest in Hanawon, which is created for the purpose of educating defectors before they are integrated back into society in South Korea. In 2009, I was studying at the alternative school called ‘Yeomyeong’ when I won the grand prize in the poetry contest in Gyeongi province in South Korea. I was really happy when I got it. The following is an excerpt from the poem I won the prize for:

살길 찾아 험한 길 오릅니다.
배고픔을 달래기 위해 허고에다 꿈을 품고
눈물 머금은 주먹 불끈 쥐고
가야할 그 곳 향해 내 발길 향합니다.
I climb up a steep rock-strewn path to survive
Daydreaming to forget about hunger
Tears fill my eyes
Step after step, I journey to my destination

In March 2008, I began to study what I wanted. For one and a half years, from the beginning of 2008 until the end of 2009, I took tests certifying my elementary, middle, and high school “completion.” I then entered Handong University, which is located in Pohang, South Korea’s “Steel City.” At Handong University, I served for one year as president of a student club, which studies North Korea and prays for its people. We have focused on teaching students about North Korean life and defectors’ lives in China or other countries by showing them videos and movies based on defectors’ lives. We have also held events to share North Korean food and campaigned for a seminar, which is now held by my club. Scholars or witnesses are invited, and then I sometimes share my life story as well. My club goes beyond the school to let the people living in the area around my university join our project and help us prepare programs. Driven by my personal credo to study not only for myself, but also for the people who are not as well off as me, I continue to persevere.

After I came to South Korea I contacted my brother living in North Korea and I would always send him money via a Chinese broker. I finally brought him to South Korea in 2012. I met him after 11 years of separation. I thought I would cry with happiness, but I actually had mixed emotions when I met him. He has gotten married since and has been working in a warehouse in South Korea.

Working to Help Others in Cambodia and China

While studying at Handong University, I was committed to working for others in Cambodia and China. I volunteered to help the elderly in a hospital and went to China to work for an orphanage hosting dozens of Chinese children. We produced a video for publicity. I personally taught two orphans basic English grammar.

I then visited Cambodia to become acquainted with several organizations working towards the improvement of the human rights situation in that country. One such organization was the New International Builder`s Community (NIBC), set up for Christian faith and study. There was a preschool and a middle school for Cambodian children receiving an education at a small cost. We helped to clean the grounds and also learned about how the organization was run.

At the University of Battambang, which was founded by H.E. Sar Kheng, Deputy Prime Minister in 2007, the vision of providing opportunities to students living in rural areas, especially in northwestern Cambodia, was realized. These opportunities include access to higher education and services that contribute towards the development of their individual careers, as well as to their local communities. At the same time, these opportunities are reducing the knowledge gap between the rural and urban populations. We then met many students and learned about what they are studying and how the school is run.

Cambodian Children’s Dream Organization (CCDO) has a vision to create healthy, educated, thriving, and sustainable villages in the rural areas of Siem Reap. We learned about how the organization is run. It was very interesting because they are building over five hundreds wells in poor villages in Cambodia at a very low cost.

We then visited some orphanages to help clean up, to teach the orphans, and to pray for them as well. After my experience in Cambodia, I decided to financially support a young girl in Cambodia. Her name is Toma, and she lives with her parents in Cambodia, but they are originally from Bangladesh. Her father is working as a daily worker and her mother does housework. Toma helps her parents do housework. She attends Bible study, which is one of the program missions of Compassion, the Christian organization through which I donate to her. She likes the subject of language and her education level is average. She also likes reading, painting and listening to music. We are frequent pen pals and I hope that she will grow up to be a beneficial contributor to her community.

The Present

Part of the Work English Study Travel (WEST) program, I am now working at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) as an intern in Washington D.C. I am learning about human rights under international law. I am also learning about the North Korean political system, which I was not aware of living in North Korea, by reading HRNK’s publications.

Working at HRNK, I have had the pleasure of attending various conferences on North Korean human rights as well as on transitional justice for a reunified Korea. Learning more about human rights for North Korea and planning for a reunified Korea is very important. In Washington D.C., I have been able to network with other North Korean defectors and Korea experts. The people I have met and the things I have learned will play an important role in my future.

A Dream of the Future

Parting is often sad. To leave without having a chance to say goodbye is even worse. Nobody hates their hometown or their friends. When defectors depart from their hometowns, they believe they will return soon, but in reality, it is nearly impossible. In China, defectors who leave home will continue to miss home, while also fearing repatriation to North Korea. My hometown in North Korea is not geographically far from South Korea but it seems very, very far away, worlds apart. I want to go there to help my friends, but I cannot do that right now. Longing for my hometown comes in waves. Longing for my hometown in North Korea, this nostalgia often makes me melancholy. North Korea is shrouded in darkness. I can only hope for the advent of freedom in North Korea. While ceaselessly hoping and praying for freedom in North Korea, I often find myself moved to tears. I saw many terrible things when I was repatriated from China to North Korea. The absence of human rights means that human beings are not treated as they should be. I cannot understand why innocent defectors seeking freedom are tortured and killed.

Many defectors cross the Tumen River between China and North Korea to fill our empty stomachs and live. Many of them also look for freedom and the most fortunate ones—such as myself—continue to seek it at the end of a perilous road, in South Korea or other countries. If we go to China, not only the Chinese, but also the North Koreans point their guns at us for betraying our country. Where can refugees call home? All North Koreans long to be buried in their hometown with their families, but where are refugees who flee the country to be buried? How is it possible for parents and children separated by the China-North Korea border to be reunited? Most defectors go to South Korea to live freely by overcoming extraordinary obstacles. However, there are many cultural differences, and they suffer from a constant feeling of inferiority in a completely new world. How can we help the defectors to adjust to their new world?

I am trying to find solutions to these many questions. I searched for hope, but I found much misery embedded even within the hope I found. I never dreamed about discovering new goals, especially for future generations of North Koreans. Despite not having concrete plans, I now have a desire to overcome my circumstances and past memories. Some time in the future, I would like to write a book about my life and include my poetry. I want to create dreams for those who are living without a dream, especially North Korean youth, and be a part of their healing process. A small seed can bear much fruit. Perhaps even the help of one as insignificant as myself could be valuable. To be able to dream is a wonderful thing.

Source: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 06.20.2013

April 18 '13 - Esther Choe: 'I Had No Hope to Continue Living'

(North Korean workers ride in the back of a truck in Pyongyang, April 12, 2012.)

Esther Choe is a North Korean defector who recently became an American citizen after resettling in the U.S. through the United Nations refugee agency. A poor seamstress, she had left her family behind in North Korea to seek out work in China after arranging passage with a handler. But dreams of making extra income to help feed her loved ones were shattered when she realized that she had been sold into marriage across the border by a human trafficker.

On April 18, 2013 she testified before the global human rights subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, saying that ‘countless North Korean refugee women’ had been through similar experiences and worse:

I naturally thought that I was being taken to a place [in China] where the contacts would introduce me to a new job, but once we arrived at our destination, I realized that I was getting involved in a human trafficking situation, and I started to cry and plead with the people who had taken me in. I begged and pleaded with them that I was a married woman with a child and a husband, and that I needed to go back to my home, but they were cold and detached in their response. The human traffickers said that they invested money and 14 hours of their own time to bring me to my destination, so they needed to at least break even financially, and though they could not help me right at the moment, after I was sold, depending on the situation they would try to send me back home.

The place where I was sold to, in tears, for 16,000 yuan (U.S. $2,600) was to a Chinese man in his 50s who was still not married because he was so poor and had no money, and this man was living with his 80-year-old mother, in a very poor and destitute situation. Because they were afraid I would run away, I was followed everywhere, even to the bathroom, to the stream near the house—wherever I went; when they needed to leave the house, I was locked inside the house and could not leave.

For two months I spent the time just crying, thinking about my child and my husband and how to get back to them, and looking for the right moment to escape, and when I did barely escape, I went to look for and sought out the broker who had sold me. I cried and begged with the broker again to send me back home to my family, but this broker, who had no humanity in him, instead of showing compassion and kindness, looked at me as a way to make a profit, and instead sold me to another old, unmarried farmer in the countryside.

I really had no hope to continue living, and wanted to die, but I thought of my child back home and just barely survived, and succeeded in escaping again, and knowing that I had a distant relative who lived in China, I made inquiries in looking for my aunt and found her.

Other North Korean defector women have been caught trying to escape from the trafficking, and have been beaten mercilessly, and some women are locked up for months and mistreated and some are even forced to become pregnant so they cannot escape; there are countless stories like these, but I believe that God protected me and I was able to escape successfully.

The last place I escaped from, there were four other North Korean refugee women who had been sold and were trafficked into that location; among the four, the most pitiful one was a 15-year-old girl who was intentionally, falsely announced as 19 years old, and then sold. She was sold to a 35-year-old single man, and one day escaped successfully and she too sought out her broker who had sold her in order to try to go back home, but I heard that she too was sold again to another human trafficking situation.

‘Countless women’

I was sold twice by human traffickers, and in that time, I found God, and also found my relative, and through this relative’s help, was able to meet [Korean-American missionary] Pastor [Phillip] Buck, and then was able to find help from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees); I truly believe myself to be a woman who found great fortune and luck in finding help.

Even now, there are so many North Korean refugee women who are going through extreme difficulties and hardships and being sold in these human trafficking situations. My experience is nothing compared to what North Korean refugee women are still going through right now.

There are countless North Korean refugee women who are sold into Internet, online sex sites and into karaoke bars, and because they want to keep their chastity and virginity, some try to commit suicide. If caught, they are beaten and abused until literally bones break, and then handed over to Chinese police who then repatriate them.

In North Korea, at the hands of the bo-wi-bu (National Security Agency) agents, these women are then tortured and beaten as dirty women and prostitutes who sold their bodies, and many die silent deaths like this. Some women are forced to have babies with the men they are sold to, and when they are arrested and forcibly separated by the Chinese police, the North Korean refugee mother will cry out in broken Chinese, ‘I will come back for my baby’…

I really did not want to come here and testify today. Because, I too want to live a happy life, and because I also fear that harm may come to my husband and child whom I am separated for life, because I cannot return now to North Korea. However, I am here today because I want to tell the world about what is going on, and appeal to the world, and be a voice for the countless North Korean women, and the mothers of the North Korean children, who died and were killed in trying to keep their honor.

Source: RFA, 04.19.2013

April 11 '13 - Interview with Defectors Chanyang Joo and Yu-sung Kim

Oct 30 '12 - Crossing the Tumen River Fifteen Times, Part 1

1st time defecting: I went to China because I was hungry

I first came to know about China through my friends. They were one or two years older than me. They didn’t have parents, so they wandered by themselves. At that time, they’d already been to China several times.

We were in the midst of the “March of Suffering” then, so my family was also having a very hard time. At our home, there were four of us – Dad, Mom, my older brother and me. My brother was out in the army and my parents, being advanced in age, had received their pensions.

There were no rations from the state and we were not allowed to do business. Barely surviving from one meal to another, this was hell itself. I was so hungry from eating only the boiled radish leaves that we had harvested in autumn. My father was a diehard party member, and a factory overseer. My mother was a clerk. So we could not trade, or even steal. Even if they went to work every day, they could not obtain rations and it was difficult to feed even the three of us.

The first time my friends suggested to me that we should go and visit China, I was afraid, but I was too hungry to resist the temptation. “Let’s go. Even if I die, it’s better to die after eating as much as I want,” I thought. I made up my mind to cross the river. From my house, China was about an hour’s walk away.

For our crossing point, we chose a spot at Idori, Saebyeol county, North Hamkyong province. Noontime. The four of us hid in the orchard next to the Tumen River and waited for a suitable opportunity. After about an hour of hiding in the snow, my body was starting to freeze. It felt as if my hands and feet were becoming paralyzed.

Finally, two guards finished their patrol and walked slowly away, carrying their guns. As soon as they were gone, we crossed the riverbank, scattering salt. We’d heard that if we scattered salt, we wouldn’t get caught. Pushing shrubs aside, we arrived at the Tumen River. Shouting “one, two, three” in unison, we ran toward China.

After having safely crossed the river, it felt strange to look over at North Korea. The thought that I had betrayed my country came into my mind. But we were already here and I couldn’t do anything about it. We went into town. This place was called Pal Il Chon, in Hunchun, China. We met some Korean Chinese on the way and went inside their house.

For a moment, I couldn’t think. I had heard that people in China lived well but I didn’t know they lived this well. They had everything in that house. A refrigerator, TV, and recording machine – everything I saw was fascinating. They lit a fire and made us rice. It filled a big washbowl-type thing.

In North Korea, this would have been unimaginable. Anyway, for a moment I put aside my dignity and ate like mad. Perhaps, even when I’m hungry now, I wouldn’t be able to eat like that. The host stares, surprised. Once I was full, I thought of home. We stayed at that house until evening and went back to the Tumen River. We each carried a pair of shoes that the people in that house used to wear. It’s a small thing now, but at that time, I was really happy. It was the first time in my life that I got to have nice shoes.

“Traitors like you cannot be forgiven”

We went back the way we came. When I went inside the house, my father asked where I’d been. I answered truthfully. I said that I went to China, and that people live well over there. After hearing those two things, father pulls out a switch without saying anything. He hit me with it until my legs had red lines on them. Mom just cries. Perhaps, out of guilt that as a mother, she couldn’t keep her child from going hungry?

“You are the only traitor in this house. No matter how hungry you were, you should have tolerated it. You dare betray your country? If you were caught, what do you think would happen to your brother in the army?” I could understand my father’s perspective. If I got caught, our whole family was done for, including my brother. I was only allowed to sleep after I promised not to go back.

My first crossing, which had changed my life, ended in this bland way. Using the same route, my friends and I visited China another three times without getting caught. When we were hungry, we ate in China and even brought back clothes to sell. Anyway, we crossed over four times without getting caught.

The first time I was caught while going to China was in 1999. One day, my friends came over to our house to play. They said that if we went to Tumen city, we could make some money. The way to earn money was to go to Tumen, and beg off of the South Korean tourists. Even now, when I see beggars in places like the subway, I think of that time.

Until then, I had only been to Hunchun. It was my first time going to Tumen, so I was afraid. Still, I was going with my friends, and I didn’t believe that anything would happen. The crossing point was at Namyang, Onseong county. We took a train to Namyang and looked for a place to cross the river but there wasn’t a suitable location. Only after waiting until late in the evening did my oldest friend come up with a way.

The idea was to go over a bridge. The bridge was about 200 meters long and 5 meters wide. It would be hard enough to climb onto it, how would we proceed afterwards?

Guards were patrolling the top of the bridge, with lights on. It was the same on the Chinese shore. It was getting dark and we crawled toward the foot of the bridge. How would we climb up? We thought about thus, and decided to make piles of corn stalk and climb over them. Since it was very windy, they couldn’t hear us. We piled up corn stalks to about 3 meters, then one of us climbed on top. Stepping over him, we went up one by one.

We Beg from South Korean Tourists

Grasping the railing, the four of us inched over bit by bit. After taking a step, we waited, then took a step again, waited, and took another step. Eventually we came to the middle of the bridge. I was at the very front and something poked into my face. It was barbed wire separating China and North Korean. I took off my clothes and wrapped it around the wire, broke it, and went through. After I crossed over safely, my friend followed. While waiting, I hear a bang. It’s too dark to see anything. In time with the noise, I held out a hand while holding the railing with the other. Luckily my friend caught my hand as he fell.

The wire had broken through, unable to bear the weight of a person. Below it, the Tumen River was roaring along. Falling meant immediate death. My other friends helped pull up the one who fell. Moving along step by step again, we arrived on the Chinese side. We went inside Tumen city and wandered around.

There is no one we know and no place to go. If it was day, there would at least be something to eat, but it’s still a long time before daybreak. First, we had to find a place to sleep. Going to an apartment building, we lay down in front of a door.

Our clothes were all ripped from the crossing and in October, it was chilly at night. Shivering, the four of us held each other tight and slept. In the morning, someone woke us. The owner of the apartment unit told us to leave. We left the apartment and went to a park in Tumen.

From then on, we lived as what they call in North Korea, kkotjaebis. With my three close friends, I went out to the bridge and received small amounts of money from South Korean tourists. Still, kind-hearted people gave us 100-200 won. Some people mocked us, giving us 50 won.

During the day, we earned money and at night, we slept in the movie theater. It hurt my pride and it was humiliating, but it was still better than living in North Korea. After ten weeks of living like this, something bad happened. My friends were caught. I had separated from my friends and gone to the bridge, then to the park.

I arrived at the park, but there was a strange feeling. At a distance, a Chinese person was gesturing at us. We went toward him, thinking he was motioning for us to come closer, but he was motioning for us to go away. Three of my friends were already caught. We fled to the bridge.

After ten weeks, the friends who were caught came back. I used up all my money to buy them clothes and things to eat. We lived as we did before.

Source: NKinUSA, 10.30.2012

Translated by ENoK

Oct 31 '12 - Crossing the Tumen River Fifteen Times, Part 2

The Korean-Chinese Lady who Saved Me

It was about two months since I had come to Tumen. I went out to the bridge to play and was coming back during the evening to sleep, when I saw two policemen on motorcycles coming out of the entrance. I was in front; behind me were Sun-cheol and Seong-jun. We walked casually forward.

The policeman in front threw himself onto me. Then he grabbed my shoulders from behind. I thought that if I were caught this time, it would be the end. Even in that little moment, it was horrible to think of the beatings, and the starvation, that I would face in North Korea.

I turned my body and hit the policeman’s face with my elbow. He screamed, “Ack!” and fell off, and seizing the chance, I fled. I crossed the road and ran toward the mountains.

The policeman who was chasing Sun-cheol comes to get me. I was so out of breath, there was a bad smell coming out of my throat. But with the thought that if I stopped, I would be caught, I kept running forward. The policeman was incredibly fast. The distance between us shrank to about 10m. I thought that perhaps, this time, I would be caught.

At this time, something grazed past and stopped in front of me. I heard, “Hey, get on.” For some reason, in front of me, there was a person on a bicycle. I got on immediately. We were going downhill, so the distance between us and the policeman grew farther and farther.

Behind us, the policeman looks at us, blankly. Having gone some ten li, the bicycle stopped. Only then did I see the person’s face. It was a thin face, with a dimple, a Korean-Chinese woman. She looked a year or two older than me.

“You came from North Korea, didn’t you?”
“I thought so. If you cross this mountain, there’s a village, so cross the mountain. It would be nice if we could go together but I have to go somewhere else. The policeman might be coming after you, so go quickly.”

She finished talking and went away on the bicycle. I couldn’t even say “thank you.” I just stood, staring blankly after her. Blank, as if I didn’t even know what had happened…

Without having expressed my gratitude, I went up the mountain. Through sheer luck, I had survived. If it hadn’t been for that woman, I would have been caught and beaten, maybe to death. Since I’d hit a policeman and all.

Even now, I don’t know why she helped me. If she’d been caught while helping me, she wouldn’t have been safe, either. This summer, I went to China for vacation. I went to Tumen and went to that location. On that wide road, there were only cars. I didn’t see her.

Of course, I didn’t expect to meet her, but I couldn’t help thinking, “what if.” I still regret to this day that I couldn’t even thank her. If we ever do meet in the future, I will definitely tell her: I was so grateful at the time, and to this day, I’ve never forgotten. As for now, I express my gratitude and guilt by writing this down.

The first time I was forcibly repatriated: incarcerated in the Onsong Security Detention center

This happened the next December. I went to the bridge in the morning, with my friends. I was warming my body inside of a store, when a border guard came after me. We scattered and looked for places to hide in. One of my friends and I hid in the basement of a hotel. Thinking they wouldn’t be able to find us there, we hide behind a door.

While hiding there, nervously, we hear the tapping of boots. A border guard sticks his head into the room and looks around, and seeing us, smiles broadly, and goes away. We thought this was odd, but then he came back with four border guards. There were two for each of us; they stuck on and handcuffed us.

It was the first time in my life I had worn handcuffs. The cold feeling and fear swarm in at the same time. It was still strange to me. How did they know we were here?

Later, I found out that a friend who was caught outside had told them. We were taken to the prison in the Tumen border barracks. Now, there was only the possibility of going back to North Korea. We stayed there for 15 and were deported through Namyang. At that time, since it was winter, I had been wearing thick jeans. At Namyang, they took them away and gave me thin summer pants instead.

At the Namyang security center, we waited for the car to come, locked in the same place as with the women, tied in a row. When I had to go to the bathroom, I had to do it while tied up with everybody else. Men or women, they were forced to go to the bathroom in front of each other. It was humiliating but I didn’t have any choice other than to piss in my pants.

In a short while, the car came, and we were taken to Onsong security center, which was guarded by solders that were armed to the teeth.

“Keep your head down. Don’t raise your head. Look at this lowly traitor bastard!”

At the investigation room, they divided the men and the women. An officer who looked about 40 entered the room. “Everybody strip.” We didn’t understand. Then, without warning, boots fly at us. We hurriedly stripped. They examined our clothes one by one. In the case they found money, we could only expect a hard beating. After the search was over, we were put in holding.

The room I was locked in was a cell in the middle. After memorizing the rules, I was assigned a position. I wasn’t allowed to lower my head and I wasn’t allowed to move. If I talked, a stick came at me. In the evening, they distributed food among us. In an aluminum container, there were about three spoonfuls of noodle porridge. Having eaten about a mouthful of porridge, I was so hungry. After dinner, I was again forced to sit upright.

After his shift was over, a guard called Yongsam came in. Each fist was the size of a boxing glove. “All the bastards who came in today, come forward.” Four of us went in front of the prison bars and stood in line.

He stuck his hands in between the bars, grabbed our heads, and slammed them against the bars. Even though it hurt, we couldn’t scream. He stopped only after we had bar-shaped imprints on our foreheads. After that, he went in front of the female cell. Then he called out the new inmates one by one and left after interrogating them.

The next day, the investigations began. The person in charge of me was a lieutenant; he seemed kind.

“You have no parents?”
“You must have gone to China because you were hungry,” he said, in a very friendly voice.
I thought, “Ah, there is a person like this even in a security center.”
I was tied in a chair and this person was in front of me, asking questions.

“You have no parents?”
At the same time I said “yes,” he took a lighter out of his pocket and beat my head with it mercilessly.

“Bastards like you all need to die. Do you understand?” It was a moment where a lamb transformed into a wolf.

Unable to utter a sound, I sat, getting hit. Four days after the investigation ended, while I was being transferred, I escaped and went home.

I cross the Tumen river for the fifth time

The fifth time I crossed the border was in January 9th, 2000. After crossing near Hunchun, I went to Tumen. In the evening, while I was going to the movie theater to see my friends, we met some friends who had arrived there before us. We had dinner together and slept there. The next day, we decided to catch a morning program and the five us were watching a film.

From the direction of the hallway, we heard several people coming. I had a strange feeling. I went toward the window. I was thinking that I might open the window and jump. The door banged open suddenly and the border guards swarmed in and pounced on us after turning on the light. I tried to open the window, but I didn’t know that they sealed all the windows in the winter. The five of us were questioned while surrounded by security guards.

First they asked my friends. “You’re North Korean, aren’t you?” the border guard asked in Chinese.

“No. I’m not North Korean.” He answered in Korean, to the border guard’s Chinese. He was handcuffed immediately. The next friend knew Chinese, but he’d been caught before, so he couldn’t deny it.

Next it was my turn. “You’re North Korean, aren’t you?” I knew a little bit of Chinese, so I answered no.

Then they asked my friends. If they answered “no,” after being asked, “He’s North Korean, isn’t he?” then I would be free. My heart beat wildly. My fate depended on what answer came out of my friend’s mouth.

He answered, “I don’t know.” I despaired. It was because he didn’t know the word for “no.” “Let’s go.” I was handcuffed, too. After being dragged to the border barracks, only I was taken to a different place.

The place I was taken to was an indoor training arena where soldiers trained. The training equipment stood in a row. Ten guards surrounded me. The one who looked like the leader said, “If you can beat these ten guys, then you can go into the cell. If not, get beaten.”

At that time I was 15, and I was about 140cm tall. The border guards had muscular physiques and were over 170cm. I couldn’t even beat one of them, let alone ten.

“Why did you lie?” The leader asked, at the same time that he kicked me in the stomach. Unable to beat the pain, I fell to my knees. Another guy, wearing a thick boot, kicked my face from the front. At one blow, I fell back and collapsed. The ten of them kicked at me all at once with their booted feet.

It hurt so badly that I couldn’t cry or scream. My face was all mashed from the boots. Inwardly, I kept calling for mom. I was like a rag when two of them dragged me to the cell and threw me in. I couldn’t even eat because the inside of my mouth was split open.

Source: NKinUSA, 10.31.2012

Translated by ENoK

Oct 31 '12 - Crossing the Tumen River Fifteen Times, Part 3

Burning plastic

We were held at the barracks for about a week and then sent back to the Onsong security center. Thankfully, because I was still in really bad shape, I wasn’t tortured. At night, that jerk Yongsam came in again.

“Hey you, long time no see.” He was talking to one of my friends, who was from Hamhung. “You’re dead. Come here.” Looking scared, my friend stepped forward.

“Put out your hands.”

My friend extended his hands. The guard handcuffed him so that his hands were stuck outside the prison bars. The guard went out and came in again. He wrapped a plastic bag around the end of a stick. Then he took out a lighter from his pocket and lit the plastic. With a blue flame, the liquid plastic fell in droplets. Then he held the melting plastic over the back of my friend’s hands.

With the flames still attached to them, the liquid plastic fell mercilessly onto his hands. The smell of burning plastic, the smell of burning flesh, and my friend screaming like an animal. The people observing this shook without saying anything. No one could defend him. From the women’s cell, I could hear crying. Yongsam, after all of the plastic was melted and on my friend’s hands, laughed and left the room. My friend fainted.

When you lift the plastic from his hands, skin falls off. There isn’t any medicine in the cell. We can’t even show sympathy. Over on the other side, Yongsam takes the shirt off another of my friend and burns his belly with a red-hot iron, or so I heard. I didn’t see it happen but the scar remained. Back then I thought it was a lie but it was true.

We stayed at Onsong security center for about five days and were moved again to a police department to be investigated. There was an officer in charge, and of course, he was evil. Since it was winter, our cheeks froze and became like red apples.

That officer took one of us at a time, grabbed his head, and repeatedly smacked him on the face and nowhere else. Since the skin was frozen, as he kept hitting, the skin split. Cuts appeared all over the skin and blood seeped out. After the second guy, it was my turn. I couldn’t escape it either.

Until then, I’d been hit countless times, but this hurt the most. It hurt more than getting hit with a stick or poked at with an electric rod. After he stopped hitting, I started to walk away but he called me back.

“Hey you, bastard, do you know what your jacket says?” At that time I was wearing a winter jacket, and it said “MBA” on the back. I said I didn’t know.

“Brat, that’s the name of an American basketball association. I will confiscate it.” He took my jacket and gave me thin summer clothes instead. My pants were black, and he said they looked good and took them. He gave me pants with one leg long and the other short. These were also summer pants, and pathetic like they’d been mended repeatedly by a cobbler.

From there, we were transferred to a shelter in Onsong. It was place that took care of children like us, and after a couple days, they were going to send us to a camp in Cheongjin. If we went in there, we might come back out as corpses. At the shelter, we planned our escape.

An officer was taking the five of us to Cheongjin. It was getting dark. According to our plan, three of us were going to escape first. As soon as the three escaped, the officer went after them. Then my friend and I ran away, not wanting to miss our chance.

The five of us all succeeded and met at the place we’d agreed on. To go back home, there were over 80 li left. Since it was dark, we couldn’t go any further. We went to a place that sold food. Out of the clothes we were wearing, we traded everything that could be traded and ate and sought shelter. The next morning, we went home, trying to avoid stares. In the wintertime, we were wearing summer clothes, not even wearing underwear. We walked for ten hours. One of my friends got frostbite on his ears and liquid kept seeping out.

“I’ve been reporting defectors since ’86.”

February 14, 2000. I decided to cross the river again. I planned to go to Hunchun with two of my friends, who had never defected before. In full daylight, we safely crossed the river. We crossed with a piece of broken bridge and went into a town. Looking to fill our hungry bellies first, we went to any house.

“We came from North Korea, please give us some food…”

The owner of the house told us to come in. The house looked meager. There were only three daughters and the owner looked to be around 45 years old. The wife prepared food and we ate like mad. After we ate, she looked at us and told us not to visit this house again. We didn’t pay much attention, thinking, “Ah, she doesn’t like us.”

The host asked us where we were going and we told him we were going to the city. He said he had business there, too, and that he’d give us a ride. I thought, since it was about 30 li to the city, this was a lucky thing and I said to my friends that we should go to the city by car.

But my friends insisted we should just walk. Thinking it was just because “it was their first time here,” I ignored their thoughts. We went out to the road and got a taxi. The host sat next to the driver and the three of us sat at the back.

To enter the city, we had to cross a traffic checkpoint and a security checkpoint. But during this time, security wouldn’t be as tight, so I wasn’t worried. Nearing the security checkpoint, the host said to us that the guards might see us, so we should get down on the floor. We thought he said this out of consideration, so we got down on the floor. But strangely, we felt the car turning. I was thinking, “this road goes straight…” and the car stopped.

“We’re here. Get off.”

“It’s still a long way to the city… does he have to go the bathroom?” I raised my head and looked outside. But what’s this?

Guards surrounded the car. The host got out of the car. The guards, the host, and the driver looked at us in the car and laughed heartily, like hunters who’d caught a tiger. I realized what had happened but it was too late. I felt regret, wishing I’d listened to my friends.

My friends were fit and fast, but the three of us couldn’t do anything in this situation. We were taken to the Hunchun barracks. They dragged us in. In the hearing room, the trial began and the host was there, too.

I was so angry, my hands shook. I thought I knew then why the woman had told us not to visit that house again.

“You’re Korean, too. How could you do this to us? You animal!”
I yelled at him, enraged. The guards next to us laughed, like it was funny.

Then that man said to me, “Hey, brat, do you know how long I’ve been doing this for? I’ve been doing this since ’86. Brat.”

“I’ll cross the river again and kill you. You dirty bastard. You wait. In a couple days, I’ll be back,” I yelled.

“Then I’ll just report you again,” he retorted.

Just two hours since we’d crossed from North Korea, we were caught, and were sent to the Hunchun prison without having had a chance to change our clothes. We stayed overnight at the Hunchung prison and the next day we were sent to a prison in Saebyeol, in North Korea. Then they transferred us to a security center. At the time, the Saebyeol security center didn’t take in minors, so they sent us to a shelter.

At the shelter, after pulverizing us with sticks, they took our clothes, leaving only our underwear, and even our shoes, and gave us chores to do. We made an escape plan and when the security slackened, we ran. It was about half an hour from home. Thankfully our feet didn’t freeze.

Source: NKinUSA, 10.31.2012

Translated by ENoK

Oct 4 '12 - Cho Myung-chul: the first ever North Korean defector to enter the South Korean Assembly

Earlier this year, the South Korean National Assembly saw North Korean defector Cho Myung-chul elected as a Member for the first time in its constitutional history. The event had an added emotional significance for many defectors as it coincided with the promotion of Kim Jong-un to First Secretary of the Worker’s Party.

Cho’s first public interview since his election was with New Focus. We talked about what it is like to be a North Korean defector working to improve the lives of North Koreans both inside and outside the country.

New Focus: First of all, congratulations. How do you feel?

Cho: Actually, I’m very nervous about it; I feel have been charged with the reponsibility of advocating for 24,000 North Korean defectors and the rights of those still living under the North Korean regime.

NF: This is the first time a North Korean defector has been elected to the Assembly. In this context, do you have specific legislative aspirations?

Cho: The 24,000 North Korean defectors currently residing in South Korea have endured oppression and abuse from the North Korean regime. They do not arrive with qualifications, they bring no possessions, and have been separated from their loved ones. Even basic technological concepts have to be learnt from scratch. And despite sharing a language, the culture in South Korea is effectively foreign to them. Unless South Korean society makes a special effort to help them settle in, it is almost impossible to integrate successfully.

Yet North Korean defectors are ambassadors of the future: their successful settlement and integration into the world is a present microcosm of the eventuality that will come when the rest of North Korea integrates into the world. In practical terms, North Korea cannot integrate with South Korea as long as North Korean exiles cannot integrate into South Korean society. For this reason, I would like to actively focus on reforming the legal, financial, political, cultural and social conditions for North Korean defectors’ successful integration into society.

I want to foster an environment in which defectors can work together. Currently defector-run organisations receive no funding or official support, and instead, there are obstacles that inhibit their activities. It is the same situation as with New Focus. Willpower alone is not enough; the South Korea government needs to pass a North Korean Human Rights Policy and show support for these kinds of organisations.

In addition, I want to devote my efforts to creating educational, rehabilitation and medical opportunities for defectors. The latter is especially important not only due to the fact that defectors have had poor healthcare and nutrition, but also because this is not only about those who have escaped: it pertains to the wider integration of North Koreans into the society of the world.

NF: Even recently, the North Korean regime has issued accusations and insults against you. Do you have a message for them?

Cho: The North Korean regime considers the entire world to be their enemy. This is because their actions are inherently incompatible with the principles agreed to by the rest of the world. Accordingly, we see the North Korean regime as a problem because they flagrantly disregard the very basic rights that the world has agreed to safeguard.

Moreover, any well-meaning request to improve their human rights record is interpreted only as a direct threat to the regime – this underlies what is wrong with the system. This is a regime that celebrated the new dictatorship with a missile display designed to send a message of hostility to the world.
There are many paths we could take to improve the North Korean problem. Yet one of the most important steps is also one of the most neglected: to let the world know what goes inside North Korea, what actually happens to the people who live inside the system. In this way, when another bombastic statement or display is issued by the regime, the world won’t continue reporting it at face value. We need to work on establishing an environment where we can urge for an improvement on human rights in international solidarity.

NF: You were highly educated in North Korea. How will you use this background to your advantage?

Cho: I want to create a space of discussion in which different kinds of knowledge can be contributed by specialists in each field, all working towards a reasoned solution to the North Korean problem. Even if a government comes up with a good policy, it won’t succeed in a democracy if the citizens are not part of it. In this regard, I admire your work because instead of responding to partisan fighting you focus on education first by getting the North Koreas story out. Finally, I want to take the lead in proposing policies whereby the North Korean people will benefit from it, instead of the North Korean regime.

NF: If you continue to support defectors’ rights and propose a bill of North Korean human rights, the North Korea regime will increase the pressure against you. You may even be attacked by political groups in South Korea who are very much opposed to any criticism of the North Korean regime, for fear of them suspending engagement. Are you worried?

Cho: I am not worried. I wish only to do what is right, having lived in North Korea. Any Member of the Assembly who turns a blind eye to the abuses of the North Korean regime does not represent Koreans. We point out their wrongdoing not to attack the North Korean regime, but because what is at stake are the very basic human rights of my countrymen. What better thing can a Member do than speaking the truth on behalf of the most vulnerable and oppressed?

NF: There are many more female defectors at present than male, at around 68%. Do you have specific proposals for them?

Cho: It certainly indicates the direction in which we must go. I have met with many female defectors and learnt that they have more obstacles than male defectors to finding work. Determination is of course important, but there are less obvious barriers such as childcare, sexual discrimination, lower wages and so on. If female defectors can successfully integrate into society, male defectors will have benefited too.

NF: You graduated from Kim Il-sung University, whose alumni have gone on, and still go on, to fill the ranks of the North Korean political elite. Do you have a message for the students?

Cho: The North Korean regime effectively uses its people as human shields as the prime method of prolonging power. The educated elite must take a lead in bring change to this diseased system.

NF: Finally, do you have a message for fellow North Korean defectors?

Cho: There are only a few of us, but I know that we did not choose to defect in search of a better life; each of us were exiled by dire and forceful circumstances. Having escaped from the regime, we must to our utmost to enjoy our human rights and exercise them: this will be the ultimate victory over a regime whose goal was to stamp our humanity out.

Source: New Focus International, 10.04.2012

Oct 1 '12 - A Defector's First Encounter with Human Rights, Part 1

Parting with Mother

This year is almost gone and a new one is approaching. Everyone has memories about New Year’s Day. I’m no exception; I greet and say farewell to this day every year. But whenever this day comes, I am reminded of so many memories, happy yet sad. Now in a few days, this will be the second New Year’s Day I will be spending in South Korea. My mother in the North, likewise, will spend the day in tears, thinking of her son.

In the process of entering and settling in South Korea, I was forced to leave behind my dear parents and siblings. I feel strongly that in doing so, I was not betraying my family or committing treason against my country, but rather, I acted out of patriotism and love. It is true that while living in the North, I admired and envied the South Koreans. At the same time, I wondered if I could survive in a society of cutthroat capitalism competition, and I was very afraid.

December 10th of 2007 is a day in my life that I can never forget. This is the day that I put my back to North Korea and defected. In the middle of the night, guided by a North Korean border security officer, I jumped into the blue-black Tumen River with my 12-year-old son on my shoulders. Since that day, it’s been two years already.

Thinking back to the days when, with my family, I passed through China and crossed the Vietnamese, Lao, and Thai borders on that adventure we staked our lives on, I still feel nervous, so much so that I sweat and feel shivers down my spine. To summarize my psychological suffering prior to deciding on leaving for South Korea, defecting from North Korea was the most difficult decision in my life, and the most difficult adventure.

I was raised in a military family, and I went to trade school, military service, college, and worked toward a doctoral degree. Thus, in North Korean society, I led a privileged life. Not only this, at the age of 23 I entered the Workers’ Party and, until my defection in 2007, I lived a Party member’s life for 15 years. I am often asked, why, with this kind of power and learning at my disposal, I wanted to leave North Korea. I will say that during the mid to late 1990s, the majority of North Korean defectors left because of harsh economic conditions, but in recent times, defections are sparked by disillusionment with the North Korean government combined with admiration for the South.

I started to change my opinion of the South beginning in 1988. At the time I was in the military, I heard that the Olympic Games were being held in South Korea. The “Korean People’s Army” newspaper wrote, “the hosting of the Olympics by the South Korean puppets is a treasonous act that promotes further division.” Afterwards, there was a meeting to discuss the article, but I was too impressed by the word “Olympics” to hear anything else. It is not an exaggeration to say that for North Koreans, the ‘88 Olympics was the turning point that caused a decisive change in South Korea’s national image.

The fact that South Korea, which, as a colony of the US, used to be an almost uninhabitable wasteland crowded with hordes of beggars, was now hosting a major international festival was enough to change my attitude toward South Korea. Of course, before then, I had had several strange thoughts about the street-protesting South Korean people, regarding things like their clothing style and high-rise buildings. But this was the real trigger. In 1992, I finished military service and entered college. Civilian society, compared to the military, was thicker with admiration and fantasies about the South.

Among North Koreans, the ’88 Olympics sparked the “know the truth about South Korea” movement and I, too, tuned into the Korean Wave and began to watch South Korean dramas and movies. In this way, I was able to get a glimpse into a South Korea that was radically different from North Korea, and completely different from what North Korean society had described to me. But North Korea was where my parents lived and the bones of my ancestors lay buried. It was going to take more than admiration and envy to cause me to abandon my homeland, and take on a completely new life.

Even as we noted the dramatic progress achieved by South Korea, our envy regarding the South Koreans’ lifestyle was also mixed with judgment. It was a capitalist society full of conflict and inequality. Of course, this was a habit cemented by North Korea’s brainwashing, which taught us that capitalist societies were unfair and founded on class inequality. Also, we were fixated on the socialist philosophy that everyone can live equally.

The time I realized that this socialist philosophy was false and I started to feel disillusioned with the North Korean government was during the “March of Suffering” of the ‘90s, following the death of Kim Il Sung and the rise of Kim Jong Il to power.

Anyone of the generation that lived through the March of Suffering would have felt and experienced this. I, too, lived through the intense agony of fear and want.

When the government put on a show of concern for human rights and instituted new goals based on the leadership’s lust for power, so many things were burdensome and difficult. For their entire lives, my parents had been loyal to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and consistently defended socialist philosophy. I felt that I had fallen short of their example, and together with thoughts about our family’s future, I felt increasingly burdened.

I Plan My Escape

December 3rd, 2007, I had made up my mind to leave North Korea but I knew that I could not guarantee success. Thinking that this could be the last time, my wife and I traveled to my hometown to visit my mother, who lived alone. I had seen her often but on this day, she looked unusually tired and tears blocked my eyes. I felt guilty that I could not take care of my mother until the end. When my mother asked why I kept crying, I lied and said I was thinking of my dead father. That moment is forever engraved into my heart.

“Mother! I will bring my wife and son on New Year’s Day. Until then, be well,” is what I said out loud. But my heart was crying, “Mother! I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. Please bless the path that I take.”

On December 7th, 2007, we arrived at the border city of Hoeryong. From the beginning, defection was heart-stopping fear and danger at every corner. On December 10th, I entered the ice-cold river with my son. I thought, for a moment, “Maybe our hearts will stop and we won’t be able to cross the river?”

Fortunately, my wife, son, and I crossed the river with our hearts still beating. But we couldn’t see the Chinese broker who was supposed to be on the riverbank. Hiding in the woods, I felt we might freeze to death if we stayed there a little longer. I held onto my son and wife’s wrists and crossed the woods, determined to find a Chinese settlement. I walked faster.

Our hands and feet were freezing, our hands were shaking and we could not speak. We could not even walk properly. The place we had arrived in after wandering for about two hours was a Chinese border town called Sanhe, in Longjing city. The Chinese people’s behavior toward defectors was cold. They say that there were many residents harmed by protecting and helping defectors, which was illegal.

After going from house to house, we fortunately found a kindly household that let us borrow a cellphone. We warmed our bodies and after about two hours at that house, the broker appeared. On account of the topography, he hadn’t found the right spot across from where we left North Korea. This is how our family first arrived on Chinese soil.

Source: NKinUSA, 10.01.2012

Translated by ENoK

Oct 1 '12 - A Defector's First Encounter with Human Rights, Part 2

Carrying Poison

We arrived at Yanji. The broker told us that we had to leave for Thailand the next day, so we prepared for travel by going to the market, and buying new clothes and fixing our hair. Our broker, who guided us from the border to Yanji, was a Korean Chinese man in his mid-forties surnamed Choi.

I called him “brother Choi” and he called me “Au” in the Chinese way. While talking to him, I heard that many defectors failed to get to South Korea and were sent back to North Korea, and I felt suddenly that I could not guarantee our safety.

In particular, while I was in North Korea, I had heard many rumors of families that had tried to go to South Korea being sent to political prison camps. So I could not help but feel uneasy. At the market in Yanji, we bought supplies for the journey. Afterward, I quietly called brother Choi over and made this request.

“Brother Choi, you know about ssaina (potassium cyanide), right? I really need it. Please, just get me one packet.” Potassium cyanide is a chemical substance used in gold mining and separating out gold particles. As it is highly poisonous, North Koreans sometimes obtain it illegally and use it to hunt wild animals such as pheasants.

In North Korean markets, it is sold secretly under-the-counter. If you are caught dealing in it, you are imprisoned no matter what the circumstances. It is brought into the country by way of Chinese merchants and sold in containers about the size of pencil lead cases. Each sells for 70,000 won (in South Korea, 25,000 won). This is about 200 yuan in China.

People in North Korea sometimes use potassium cyanide to hunt wild animals. After chewing gum, you spread it thin and put in a pea-size amount of potassium cyanide. Then, if you hide it inside meat or fish and feed it to a dog or pig, it will froth at the mouth and collapse as soon as it enters the mouth. It’s that toxic.

Also, people dissolve solid potassium cyanide in water and soak beans in that water. Afterwards, they dry the beans, spread them on the field and catch pheasants and pigeons that way. Mr. Choi looked as if he clearly knew why I asked for the poison. “Do you really have to do this?” he asked. I replied, “Brother Choi, aren’t you familiar with North Korea as well?” At the market in Yanji, packets of potassium cyanide sold for 60 yuan each. In this way, I succeeded in obtaining potassium cyanide, and I decided that if I were caught and sent back to North Korea, I would use it to commit suicide.

My wife agreed with my decision, but absolutely refused to let our son carry it. She persuaded me on this, saying that it was too cruel a thing to ask of ones offspring and that even if we were caught and sent back to North Korea, he could escape harsh punishment by the fact that he was following his parents. So, my wife and I put potassium cyanide inside our clothes, and sewed it up with a needle. But we didn’t know then what kind of calamity this poison would bring us.

The poison inside our clothes becomes poisonous

We spent the night in a shelter that the broker picked for us and the next night, we started the long journey to South Korea. We traveled by bus and train to the Vietnamese border. In about ten days, a succession of brokers took us over the Chinese border, through Vietnam and Laos, and then to Thailand.

On the buses and trains, passing through various obstacles and close calls, we arrived at the Thai border city of Chiang Mai. A South Korean broker told us that even in Thailand, there were people who cooperated with North Korea and kidnapped defectors, so we should stay alert. Following his instructions to go to Bangkok and to hand ourselves over to the police, we took a taxi to Bangkok. After about five hours a checkpoint appeared. We handed ourselves over to the police and had our bodies and baggage searched. After they searched our bags, the police made us remove our clothes and started to search our clothes. At once, I regretted that I hadn’t gotten rid of the poison. One policeman discovered the potassium cyanide hidden in my outer clothes. It was wrapped in chewed gum and then packaged in cloth.

The policeman carefully took apart the cloth patched with garlic and unwrapped the gum. Without thinking, I shouted in Korean, “it’s poison!” and went toward the policeman. The policeman next to him took out his gun, pulled the trigger and made a gesture for me to stay back. As soon as I saw the gun pointed at me, I couldn’t move. Since it was a solid powder, they must have thought it was a drug. But the policeman who was holding it brought it to his nose, smelled it, and brought it to his mouth.

Thinking that if I missed this chance, he might die, I lunged forward. The potassium cyanide fell from his hands but the policemen next to him ran in and started to beat me. In 15 years of being married and 12 years of being a father, this was the first time I was beaten up so badly in front of my wife and son. It was unforgettable.

Rolling around on the concrete floor and being kicked by boots, I kept yelling. My body was a mess. My wife and son struggled and tried to stop them but the policemen just kept going. Two of my front teeth were broken and my eyes were so swollen I almost couldn’t see.

Two policemen hit me and yelled something. Policemen were looking for the potassium cyanide that fell under a desk. Taking my last chances, I yelled in English, “Don’t it, you’ll lie.” Then a policeman said, “OK,” and spoke to me in English, thinking I could speak it.

I could manage a simple conversation in English but I didn’t have the ability to explain about potassium cyanide. The policemen talked amongst themselves and made a phone call. About an hour later a person wearing a suit came in and said “Hello,” in Korean.

He said he was a South Korean pastor working in Thailand. Having been framed and beaten up because of a language barrier, I held onto the pastor’s wrist and wept and wept. With the pastor interpreting, the interview began and the substance’s identity was revealed. By the time it was over, it was two in the morning. We were taken to a police car and I was sent to a hospital, and my wife and son to a holding camp in the provinces.

The first time I heard about human rights

In this way, against my expectations, I spent two weeks in a hospital in Thailand. The broken teeth were extracted and fake ones put in. Even now, when I’m brushing my teeth, occasionally I think of that incident and my body goes weak. But staying at the camp, I heard that in Thailand, drug selling was prevalent, that there were many drug addicts, and thus, more on anything, the law is heavily enforced against drug traders. They say that police have the authority to kill a drug trader on the spot, if he/she acts out.

So at that moment, to the Thai police, I was a drug trader and a “belligerent” trying to harm a policeman. Thankfully, the policeman with the gun didn’t shoot me and the misunderstanding was cleared up. I try hard to think of it in this light. At that time, I got many visits from the police station and received many apologies.

Pastor Im, who interpreted for me, also came to visit. According to the pastor, my nationality at the time was unclear and since it happened before I got to a refugee camp, human rights laws were not considered. Pastor Im was the first person to ever mention “human rights” to me. In North Korea, politicians occasionally use the phrase. Realizing that now, I had become someone to whom it actually applied, I asked the pastor,

“What would have happened if I were a South Korean citizen?”

The pastor answered, “Then the government wouldn’t have stayed put. Regardless of whether you’re in the country or outside it, they have an obligation and duty to protect you.”

At that time, listening to the pastor, I couldn’t understand what meaningful words they were. I thought only, “What would the North Korean government have done if I had traveled abroad with official documents and this happened to me?”

Now, if I think of it, it’s such a ridiculous thing, thinking of the North Korean government that abandoned its people. But I was feeling the sorrow of an uprooted people with no nationality. I first didn’t believe what the pastor said, but after having entered South Korea and lived there, I now feel that he spoke the truth.

In North Korea, I heard almost nothing of North Koreans staying abroad, but I can see how the South Korean government takes responsibility for the rights of its citizens.

Seeing the way the North Korean government treats defectors, I can see how barbaric it is. If there’s a principle that defectors should be forcibly sent back to North Korea and re-educated, then they should take responsibility for the rights of defectors as well. Pastor Im was correct. In Bangkok, among other defectors, I met many people who had faced worse troubles and injustices than I had. In China, Laos, all over the world, North Koreans are subject to human rights abuses. Listening to their heart-breaking stories, I hardened my emotions and disciplined my thoughts.

This human rights situation arose because we had the wrong dictator. Whoever it is, someone must take responsibility and solve it. It is a self-evident truth that the person behind the devastation on the North Korean people’s rights, and the lack of rights for defectors, is Kim Jong Il, but the problem doesn’t go away just because we assign responsibility to him.

With the thought that this issue can be solved when all North Korean defectors become pioneers for human rights activism and take responsibility for ourselves and do all that we can, I end my account of my journey to Thailand here.

Source: NKinUSA, 10.01.2012

Translated by ENoK

Mar 5 '12 - Testimony of Ms. Songhwa Han

Hello, my name is Song Hwa Han and I came to the United States with my two daughters in 2008 as refugees, following the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act in the United States Congress in 2004. The lowest class of people in North Korea have a most desperate and earnest plea. That plea is to be freed and liberated to freedom of human rights from the worst suffering and pain of starvation. I want to thank God and the United States Government for hearing our plea for hope and giving us freedom. I want to just describe very briefly my reasons for leaving North Korea. I escaped with my two daughters from North Korea for the first time in 1998. Before defection from North Korea, my family consisted of eight people. My mother and my two month old new-born baby son died from starvation. My oldest daughter, who was 18 years old at that time, left home to find food, and never came back; to this day I do not know of her whereabouts, or what happened to her. I had another five year old son, who I had to leave at an acquaintance’s home before I escaped to China. I promised my son, “If you just sleep for five nights, I will be back with rice and candy, and I will come back to get you.” Afterwards, my five year old son, who was suffering from malnutrition, was kicked out of the house I had put him in, and died while waiting and crying out, ‘Mommy, sister! When are you coming back…” He cried and cried and died in a grass field; this news was delivered to me by someone I had hired to go and bring my son to China.

My husband was arrested and sent to jail for the crime of crossing the Tumen River and going to China and bringing back a sack of rice, when what he had done was simply to go to China to find food for his children and save them, who had slowly over time grown weaker and weaker from starvation. He died while incarcerated in prison, from the severe punishment he received. Afterwards, my family was labeled as ‘anti-state’ traitors, for having crossed over to China, and the North Korean police and the ‘bowibu’ (National Security Agency) agents came to look for us in our countryside village home. They came to kick us out of the village, for me to take the remaining family members and move away to another place. Our family had devoted ourselves to the Party and to the Dear Leader, but contrary to the police in the United States, instead of protecting the citizens, the North Korean police threatened to burn down our house if we did not move out. I could no longer beg for help or for mercy. I decided right then and there. Rather than staying put and starving to death, even if we die trying to go find our way to freedom, I decided to seek out freedom! My one sole wish was to feed my children just one meal of while rice, and decided that I would never suffer from starvation or be unfairly mistreated and therefore took my seven year old daughter who was malnourished and was not growing up properly, put her in a sack and carried her, and held my older daughter’s hand and leaned on one another and crossed the waist-high currents of the Tumen River and safely escaped from North Korea.

After escaping to China and living in fear for almost ten years, during that period we were forcibly repatriated four times. During one of those forced repatriations, I would just like to share about my experience from the time I was forcibly repatriated during the summer of 2003.

First of all, once a North Korean defector was handed over by the Chinese police to the North Korean ‘bowibu’, one had to become an animal, and secondly, the defectors who are repatriated are ordered by the North Korea guards that “You are all dogs from now on, so therefore lower your head and move around by only looking at the ground.” The prisoners are handcuffed and chained to one another, and if the slightest noise is made, the prisoners are beaten with rifle butts. After the interrogation is finished at the ‘bowibu’, the prisoners are taken to a reform labor camp. Where I was sent, we were forced to work from 5 in the morning until late at night, and after dragging our deadtired bodies back from work we were given only a fist-size corn-riceball to eat, and until 11pm in the evening we were required to participate in self-reflection and self-criticism group meetings. We would then spend the rest of the night sitting in front of one another and picking off the ticks and lice from our clothes and our hair, and then sleep for a few hours, and then wake up early in the morning to the wakeup call and then get dragged out for more labor.

These punishments are repeated for as long as six months, and like my husband who died from malnutrition and starvation and the women prisoners who collapsed from fatigue and could not get up again, women and men alike had to carry heavy logs up to the mountainside and if a prisoner became injured there was no recourse for medicine or medical care. In the wintertime, there were no proper footwear, so pieces of cloth and strings would be used to cover up the feet and while working in the snow many would come down with frostbite, but we could not stop work and had to continue working, and also continue to work the following day. Sometimes the men had to shovel human waste with their own bare hands. The women prisoners would then carry the human waste mixed with dirt on their back and carry the load onto the fields. So for the crime of going to China for only wanting to live and not die from starvation, North Korean refugees who are repatriated by China become prisoners and end up suffering under crushing labor doing construction work or coal mining work, and become sick or injured, or worse, suffer in misery and pain and die while working under horrendous conditions; the wretched and poor North Korean refugees continue to suffer like this and the misery is never-ending.

For the crime of betraying the nation, in the ‘bowibu’ prisons the North Korean refugee men who were forcibly repatriated were beaten with steel pipes, and countless people died from the beatings inflicted on them where arms and legs were broken. I myself was beaten in the head for the crime of having gone over to China, and I was beaten so severely that my skull still has pieces of bone embedded in my head. Besides this injury, because I was beaten so severely and punched around so much my eyes became swollen, and one of my ear drums ruptured, and to his day, I am hard of hearing in one ear. While we were suffering from thirst there was no water to drink, and the prisoners would end up drinking foul water from water tanks or wells, and contract dysentery and die without any care or treatment given to them.

North Korean refugees, if they are miraculously able to survive and released from prison or from the reform labor camps, will attempt to escape from North Korea even if it means death if caught again. Through this Hearing today I earnestly plead and beg of you. Refugees of other countries have been accepted in the U.S. numbering in the tens of thousands of people, but after the North Korean Human Rights Act passed in 2004, only about 130 North Korean refugees have been granted asylum in the United States.

These defectors, who have been separated from their parents, separated from their children – these defectors who have no place to go – these North Korean refugees who are shuddering in fear in China right now, are desiring freedom in the free world, whether it be South Korea or the United States, and desire to be rescued and accepted into freedom. Please help us North Korean refugees.

Thank you.

Song Hwa Han
March 5, 2012

Source: Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 03.05.2012

July 11 '11 - LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE: A North Korean’s Account of Life in South Korea

By Lee Hyeon-seo

There are people who are destined to embrace endless pain and suffering, and there are people who desire to dream. Everybody dreams, of course. But does anybody desperately want to dream more than the people of North Korea? Their lives are spent inside a virtual prison, without knowing whether they will be subject to oppression, and without even knowing what human rights are.

I defected to South Korea in search of freedom of speech and movement. I had longed to put my feet on this soil, even in my dreams. After a long time in China, in January 2008 I finally arrived at Incheon International Airport in South Korea. My heart was pounding violently as I went inside the immigration office at the airport. I struggled to gather enough courage, wondering how I would start my speech and how weird I would look in their eyes.

I declared that I was a North Korean seeking asylum and was quickly ushered into another room. Then two men suddenly appeared who seemed to be senior officials. They closely checked my documents and began to ask me if I was actually Chinese. They informed me that I would be incarcerated for an unspecified period of time and then deported back to China if I was in violation of Korean law. Moreover, if the Chinese government learned that I was not actually a Chinese citizen, I would be jailed, heavily fined and then deported again: back to North Korea. I resisted the pressure and asked the officials to call the National Intelligence Service. After three hours, I left the airport in an NIS car and traveled to downtown Seoul.

Four months later, after I had been through my orientation for life in South Korea, I entered the house where I would be living. I found nothing; no TV set, no furniture, not even a spoon, I felt empty. I started out with mixed feelings of fear and excitement, but settling down turned out to be far more challenging than I had expected. I realized there was a wide gap between North and South, ranging from educational background to cultural and linguistic differences. We are a racially homogeneous people on the outside, but inside we have become very different as a result of the 63 years of division.

Among the difficulties I encountered, economic problems were the worst. I found that financial hardships could limit one’s ability to realize one’s dream, no matter how desperate and earnest you are. I am grateful for all the help the South Korean government offered through various welfare programs, but it fell far short of what was needed since we defectors have to start from scratch. Prejudice against North Koreans and icy stares were other obstacles that were hard to cope with. There were times when I felt alienated, thinking that I would eventually die as a stranger in a country where people share the same ancestry. I even went through an identity crisis: Am I South Korean? North Korean? Or Chinese? There was no country I could proudly call my own. Sometimes I thought it would be so much easier to return to China.

After a year of confusion and disorder, I finally managed to find meaning in my new life. Then one day, I heard that my mom and brother in North Korea had been targeted by the authorities and were to be forcibly moved to a remote area. I agonized over the issue for a while and decided to go back for them.

I sneaked in through the Chinese border and managed to help them escape. We traveled to the border with Laos and met a broker who I paid to take them to the South Korean Embassy in Vientiane, the capital of the country. But on my way to the airport to return to South Korea I received a call that my family had been caught as they crossed the border. When I heard this, I felt shattered.

I entered Laos without any knowledge about the country; I spoke no English and had no clue where my family had been taken. Again, I felt powerless and frustrated, facing the reality that there was no one to help me. After nearly 50 days of going back and forth between the Immigration Office and the National Police Agency and after paying fines, I was able to meet my family again. Eventually we got to the South Korean Embassy.

I consider myself lucky because while I was in Laos, I received a lot of help from various people. That gave me the strength to keep going. Once I asked an Australian why he was helping me. He said he wasn’t particularly helping me but helping North Koreans—the poor and helpless. That’s when my view of the world changed and I realized there were many good people on this planet. I also realized how precious life is.

Here in South Korea, I’m continuing to learn English in order to boost my prospects. When North Korean defectors try to get a job to stabilize their lives, their lack of English is a handicap. It was the same story while I was living in China. It took an enormous amount of time and enthusiasm to learn Chinese. I never thought I would be under this much stress about language in South Korea.

I also took accounting classes at different institutes and obtained the certifications needed for work. Doing all this, including working part-time jobs, exhausted me but I knew I had to keep going. In 2011, my hard work paid off when I was admitted to the Chinese language department of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (by special admission). I chose the language as my major hoping that I would be able to take part in ever increasing trade with China.

I’ve also been working at South Korea’s Ministry of Unification as a student journalist alongside South Korean college students. I write articles about the relationship between North and South Korea as well as the possibility for reunification. The issue of reunification of South and North Korea has always interested me and
I can’t really believe I’ve had the opportunity to work at the ministry. Furthermore, I was chosen among 50 college students who had escaped from North Korea for the “English for the Future” program sponsored by the British Embassy in Seoul, which helps me keep up my English studies.

I also continue to do some volunteer work, which I started out of gratitude for all the aid I have received since I came here and of hope to return the favor to other people in need.

Occasionally, I am surprised that I have changed so much and so quickly. I know that this didn’t come easily and I feel that there’s much more to be done to realize my dream. That makes me scared and depressed at times but I do believe when there’s a dream, there’s a future. In reality, Koreans’ long-cherished desire of unification seems more distant, with the prospects getting bleaker as the economic gap between the two Koreas gets evermore wider.

Still, I will do my best in my position to prepare for the day when the two Koreas become one. And I hope, with more hard work, I can serve as an example for others to come to this land to follow their dream.

Source: Wall Street Journal, 07.11.2011