Confessions Of A North Korean Defector

May 23, 2018 | No Comments » | Topics: Life Experiences

interview with a North Korean defector

What is North Korea like? Is it anything like the news stories we see on the television? Is it better or worse? 

There is so much focus in the western media about North Korea’s military and nuclear weapons. There is rarely any stories about average North Koreans, especially those that live outside the capital Pyongyang. Most North Koreans are ordinary people that want to live peaceful lives but the media makes it look like every North Korean wants to destroy America or South Korea.

Aall the news of North Korea is almost inconceivably dreadful. While I’m sure there is much misery in the country, can you tell us a story of a time when you or your family were genuinely happy? What sort of things bring joy to the average North Korean?

My fondest memories from North Korea revolve around my family. Everyday when my mom would come home she would give me a big hug and I loved that. I also have great memories of family talent shows where we would sign karaoke late into the night!

What was the part of the day you looked forward to most when you lived in North Korea?

Whenever I had something delicious to eat! I really looked forward to preparing the food and enjoying it with my family.

How many people would you say actually believe all the propaganda by the government, how many think Kim Il Sung is a God?

Most people that live by the Chinese border know that the propaganda is fake. They have a lot of exposure to foreign media that is smuggled in through China. The people that believe the propaganda usually live in secluded areas with little access to outside media.

What is the most outrageous piece of propaganda that you heard regarding the Kim family in North Korea?

I remember that a textbook once said that Kim Il-song turned a pinecone in a bomb during the Korean War and killed many Americans with it. As a child I thought it was totally true. Now I laugh at how impossible that is!

How many people would you say actually believe all the propaganda by the government, how many think Kim Il Sung is a God?

What kind of stuff do they teach in North Korean schools about western civilization?

I did not spend much time in school because of how difficult life was for us. The Great Famine left us without food and we needed to work on the farms instead of going to school. I remember textbooks always portrayed America as a terrible place and Americans as evil. We were told that the South and North could not reunite because America wanted to keep our countries separated to weaken us.

I’ve seen photos of average people in N. Korea. Only the children seem to ever smile. Is this cultural? Or us it due to the awful life adults must face each day?

It is not cultural, I think young North Korean children are not really aware how difficult life is. But I know plenty of adults that smile too!

Did you live in Pyongyang or elsewhere?

Only people that are deemed loyal by the regime are allowed to live in Pyongyang. I live in the northern part of the country which made it easier to cross into China.

Did anyone that you know get sent to one of the gulags/prison camps?

I knew many people that disappeared and it was rumored they were taken to prison camps. There was never a way to confirm it, they just vanished one day.

Was there a certain event that happened in your life in North Korea that made you decide you wanted to escape?

My step-mother wanted me to get married and I wasn’t ready. I was only 18 and needed to find a way to make money to provide for myself. I thought I could go to China and find a well-paying job.

How was your original escape to China orchestrated?

My step-mother wanted me to marry so I would not be her responsibility anymore. I heard rumors that I could escape to China and be adopted by an older Chinese couple and live a happy life there.

I found a broker who gave money to the border guards so they didn’t patrol when I was supposed to cross the Tumen river. When I got to the middle of the river I felt that the ice was quite thin so I had to crawl to cross the rest of the river that was covered by snow. I didn’t realize that moment but later after I arrived I realized that my feet got so swollen because they got frozen from crawling the river in the snow. I couldn’t feel my feet for a while.

After I finally got picked up by the broker, we got onto a bus. The bus got stopped by Chinese police twice and every time the police came aboard I pretended to be asleep. I was ready to take the opium pill I had stashed in the collar of my shirt and end my life if I got caught, but thankfully I didn’t have to. I got some rest for a couple of hours after I arrived at the house and then I was connected with the second broker. The second broker was a North Korean defector. I told her that I wanted to live with an old Chinese couple as their foster granddaughter. She shook her head and told me my only option was to be sold into marriage to a Chinese man so all the brokers who helped me escape could take my bridal cost as payment.

I couldn’t even think of refusing because I was afraid the brokers would do something bad to me or drop me off somewhere alone to get caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea. I had also heard that if North Korean women refused to get married in China, then they could be sold to brothels or sex websites so that the brokers could receive payment. At that point, I realized that I was trapped and I didn’t have any other choice but to be trafficked. The second broker told me that I could escape after living with my Chinese husband for at least six months. If I escape in less than 6 months, the brokers that sold me would return my bridal money to the Chinese husband.

The second broker took me to different small towns to sell me. Every time I went to a town, many old Chinese men gathered around me to bargain my bridal cost. I felt so ashamed. I was being treated as an animal and not as a human being. The North Korean broker finally found a man who was willing to pay the amount the broker wanted for me as a bride. I couldn’t even communicate with him because I didn’t speak the language. I remembered looking at the broker’s face. She seemed to pity me. My whole being at the moment was filled with so much bitterness, hopelessness, and sorrow toward everything in the world. I felt like I was losing everything including my own body to someone I didn’t even know. I was only 18.

What was life like with your Chinese husband?

When I started living with the Chinese man I was sold to, I thought of escaping after six months. I just did what the Chinese man wanted without thinking about birth-control—I never had proper sex education. Two months later, he and his family took me to a hospital for a pregnancy test. I was pregnant. I am so sorry to my daughter for this, but after I got pregnant was so miserable and I felt like I was stuck in this situation because of the baby. I knew that I couldn’t escape until I gave birth to my daughter and raised her for a while. I was not happy, but the Chinese man and his family were. I am very sorry to my daughter for how I felt about having her back then, but the pregnancy was not what I wanted and I didn’t love the Chinese man. I actually tried to abort the baby by jumping down from a high tree many times but it didn’t happen. I ended up having a daughter and raised her for two years before I escaped.

Was your relationship with the Chinese man abusive in any way?

The man was not abusive to me. I was lucky in that sense. But it was still so hard to be forced to be with someone that bought me.

When do you escape China?

When I was still raising my daughter and living with the Chinese man and I was losing hope about my life, the North Korean broker who sold me into marriage got back to me and introduced me to some people who later connected me to LiNK’s network. She told me that she felt really bad for selling me to the Chinese man but she had to do it to survive in China as a North Korean herself. When she told me about going to South Korea and life there, I felt like that was my last chance to have my life back again. At that point, I was no longer breastfeeding and my baby had started to talk, so I thought the Chinese man’s parents could take care of her. I decided to leave for South Korea.

I was so sad to leave my two-year-old daughter in China. Before I left, I thought of taking her with me, but she was still very young and I was not sure if I was going to make it to South Korea safely so I didn’t want to risk her life. To this day I feel guilty and sorry about having left her so I could have freedom and better life. I know my daughter has been hurt a lot by my leaving.

Before I started moving to get out of China I stayed with some other defectors before I got connected to LiNK’s network. At the time, I cried every day thinking of my daughter. Even when I was sleeping in the house, I kept waking up to see if my little daughter was sleeping well on my arm and realized that she was not with me anymore. I didn’t want to cry in front of other defectors, so I cried behind a curtain and I found another North Korean woman crying there because she also left her child. We ended up hugging each other and crying together.

What culture shocks did you face when you came to South Korea?

The first big cultural shock was when I saw South Korean women is very short skirts! North Korean culture is more socially conservative so I was very surprised to see couples in the South holding hands and kissing in public.

How difficult/easy is it for a North Korean to adapt to South Korean society?

Korean society is very family oriented. It was very hard at first to adapt in the South when I didn’t have a family to see or talk to anymore. On holidays I didn’t know what to do because I had no family.

It was also difficult to decide on what to study and what career to pursue. In North Korea, I didn’t get to choose what my future would look like. It was kind of overwhelming to choose a path to take when there were so many choices.

What kind of stigmas do you face in South Korea as a North Korean? How difficult is it for you to “come out” as a North Korean?

I face the most discrimination when I apply for jobs in South Korea. When I have an interview, the South Korean employer can usually tell I have a North Korean accent. They will then tell me they do not hire North Koreans and end the interview right then. That happens about 7 out of 10 interviews.

How’s your diet compare to what you ate in North Korea?

The food in North Korea is similar to South Korean food. The food is spicier and saltier in the North.

How does the Korean spoken in the South differ from the North?

Because the North Korean government is so militaristic, the language is very direct and authoritative. South Korean’s are more passive in the way they use Korean.

Also, in South Korea they borrow so many English words and it was hard to learn all these new “Korean” words.

Do you plan to stay in South Korea or do you plan to go somewhere else? 

Unless there is a reason for me to stay in South Korea, I am open to living anywhere after I finish university. I like South Korea but don’t feel the need to stay.

Do you expect to see the current regime in North Korea fall within your lifetime?

I am not sure. If I am lucky, I have another 60 years of life so maybe by the end of my life I will have the chance to go back to see my hometown.

Do you still keep in touch with your daughter?

Since I resettled to South Korea a few years ago, I have been talking with my daughter through online video calls as often as possible. She is doing well and is now in elementary school, but I can tell she has been so hurt by my absence in her life. It breaks my heart when she asks me why I am not with her. Whenever there is homework about family or whenever her teacher asks her to bring her mom, she gets so sad and I feel so helpless and remorseful. I plan to visit her in China on one of my summer breaks from college.

It is so ironic because I was so hurt a lot by my mom for leaving me and my family when I was a little kid and I did the same thing to my own daughter. Now I understand why my mom had to make such a decision…Hopefully there will be a day my daughter can understand and forgive me.

What action can be taken to help stop human sex trafficking?

Everything in the underground broker networks revolves around money. North Korean women that cannot afford to cross the border are told it is free to cross and then when they cannot pay on the other side they are sold instead. That was my experience. If you want to get involved in helping North Korean women avoid sex trafficking you should fund rescues through organizations like LiNK. The safest way a woman can avoid being trafficked is to have her rescue paid for before she leaves the country. Then when she crosses she can enter a safe network that can move her out of China before she is exploited.