North Korea may be a secretive nation, but it is no secret that it is one of the most volatile and dangerous corners of the planet, with some of the most controversial and oppressive laws around. The state is so heavily controlled by propaganda that citizens have very little knowledge of the outside world and are born and raised under the assumption that they live in the world’s most privileged and glorious nation.
This deeply totalitarian society holds their past leaders under such reverence that many of its citizens have been severely punished for failing to show “proper respect” during significant events in the North Korean calendar. The world was given a glimpse into these absurd laws following the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011, when it was revealed that “insincere mourners” and citizens who didn’t participate in the organized gatherings were sent to labour camps for up to six months – joining the 200,000 North Koreans already estimated to be held prisoner in them.
In light of this, it’s no wonder that many North Koreans have taken the bold step to escape their unrelenting dictatorship in search of a better life across the border. Heartbreakingly, many of the defectors that manage to forge a new life are separated from their families for years at a time and are often met with hostility and abuse in their attempt to seek solace across the border.
The following accounts may be hard to read at times, let alone imagine. Here are some truly shocking and disturbing stories from 15 North Korean defectors.
15. Ji-hyun Park
Human trafficking, violence, prostitution – for Ji-hyun Park and many other female North Korean defectors, this can be the reality of fleeing to China to escape their former dictatorship. Park began her escape in 1998 after her brother was wanted by military police. Together, they left behind their dying father to cross the Tumen River into China.
Once across the border, Park was sold as a slave to a Chinese man and for six years endured frequent sexual abuse and poor living conditions – during which time, she fell pregnant. She was later discovered by Chinese authorities and sent to a North Korean labour camp. It wasn’t until 2005 that Park would be reunited with her son thanks to an American-Korean pastor who helped her seek asylum in the UK. Park still lives in the UK and works to raise awareness in hopes of ending the cruel treatment of women entering the China border.
14. Kim Ryen-hi
Kim Ryen-hi is that rare kind of North Korean defector – in that she wishes she could go back. An innocent trip to China in 2011 to visit her relatives ended up costing Ms Kim everything she held dear and left her trapped in the South with no hope of returning home.
Kim Ryen-hi lived with her husband in Pyongyang and lived very comfortably by North Korean standards when she made the trip to China. Ms Kim was reportedly there to get treatment for a liver ailment and met a broker who promised to smuggle her into South Korea where she could make a lot of money. Viewing the opportunity as a way of paying her medical bills, Ms Kim accepted, but quickly had her passport confiscated – forcing her to make her way permanently in the South for fear of deportation.
13. Son Jung-hun
For many thousands of defectors, their escape from a cruel dictatorship into a liberal life across the border can be bittersweet, since their loved ones are often left behind in the North. For some defectors, however, missing relatives is just one of many hardships faced while living in South Korea.
Debt, discrimination and meagre food rations were part and parcel of Son Jung-hun’s new life in the South, where unemployment among defectors is more than three times the national average and more than half experience depression. Though Son still detests his home country, he has plans to return to protest against the South Korean government and their treatment towards defectors from the North. Despite its claims to help defectors make a life across the border, South Korea often does very little to improve their lives and more stories like Son Jung-hun’s may help to highlight this.
12. Hyeonseo Lee
Known as the “girl with seven names,” Hyeonseo Lee did indeed live her life in seven different identities throughout her long struggle to escape the watch of North Korean and Chinese authorities. As a curious 17-year-old, Lee crossed into the Chinese city of Changbai for the day in 1997 (a place she had admired and wondered about while living in North Korea). Little did Lee know that she would never return.
Without her mother and brother, Hyeonseo Lee was alone in China and what followed was a life spent on the run for almost 12 years. After being caught multiple times by security police in China, Lee made her eventual escape to South Korea. Thanks to the generosity of an Australian backpacker, Lee was also reunited with her family after seventeen years when her mother and brother (held in a Laos jail for illegal border crossing) were thankfully bailed out.
11. Ryu Ki-ho
Ryu Ki-ho’s life in North Korea was so heavily shrouded in strict rules and secrecy that – presumably like many North Korean citizens – Ki-ho had never heard of the term “human rights.” This in itself speaks volumes about the atrocious and fearful way of life under Kim Jong-Il.
Having served in the military for 11 years upon leaving school, Ryu Ki-ho had always lived as an obedient North Korean citizen. This was however until his entire family – apart from his eldest son – died of starvation. In the winter of 1997, Ki-ho lost his mother, wife and youngest son because of North Korea’s severe food shortage and he was determined to spare his only surviving child from the same fate.
Realizing that they may both die if they were caught, Ki-ho headed for South Korea alone through the Mongolian desert and used a settlement fee of $9,300 to return his son to him. Tragically, Ki-ho’s son later died when a group travelling with him were caught by Chinese officials and dispersed – leaving him alone in the desert. Ki-ho was not able to bring his son’s body back to South Korea until two years after his death.
10. Jin hye Jo
As her family faced starvation during the North Korean famine of the 1990s, Jin hye Jo’s parents made frequent trips to China for food. Unfortunately, on one occasion, Jin’s father was arrested and later killed all before she was 10 years old – marking the start of a long and painful struggle to survive.
In the 12 years before Jin hye Jo and her remaining family members found asylum in 2008, Jin’s elder sister was trafficked in China, her mother was missing and she lost her grandmother and younger brothers to starvation – helplessly watching as her baby brother died in her arms. Jin has since spoken of her horrific experience during the famine at a human rights inquiry in an effort to highlight Chinese and North Korean crimes against humanity.
9. Yeonmi Park
Compared to most children growing up in North Korea, Yeonmi Park and her family were afforded a very comfortable life and often had access to smuggled Hollywood films and television shows from South Korea. Even so, having a taste of the outside world and its vast differences led Park to question her restricted existence in North Korea.
In 2004, after her father was arrested for illegal trading, Park and her mother escaped to China, where 13-year-old Yeonmi witnessed her mother being raped. Her mother was eventually sold, but Park bought her back after becoming mistress to an abusive human trafficker in China. Once Yeonmi helped to free her mother, they both made the gruelling journey on foot to Mongolia before reaching South Korea.
8. Joseph Kim
As a boy living in a famine-hit region near the China-North Korean border, a young Joseph Kim watched his father die of starvation. He was later abandoned by his mother when she took Joseph’s sister to be sold to a Chinese man. Left to fend for himself, Kim earned money as a post guard and used his position to steal from the inmates.
After a while, Joseph made his long and brave escape from North Korea along miles of train track and across the ice-cold river to China, where he met with Christians who offered to shelter him and arrange for his eventual defection to America.
7. Eunsun Kim
Each and every home in North Korea is forced to hang portraits on the walls of the two Kims (Il-Sung and Jong-Il). To prevent her family from dying of starvation, Eunsun Kim’s mother dismantled the frames of the portraits to sell them for food – a crime which, in North Korea, is punishable by death.
From that moment on, 11-year-old Kim and her family began a nine-year long attempt to flee for South Korea. During their long escape to freedom which took them through China and later to a Mongolian detention centre, Eunsun Kim and her family were sold to an abusive farmer and faced years of gruelling labour before managing to make their way across the Gobi desert. Kim was 20 years old when her family eventually settled in South Korea.
6. Lucia Jang
One day, in the midst of North Korea’s horrendous famine during the 1990s, Lucia Jang made the decision to cross the Tumen River into China. Once there, she was amazed by the abundance of food and sent what she could back to her family in the North. Before long, however, Jang turned to prostitution to ensure her family had enough food to survive.
During one of her many trips back to China from North Korea, Jang was arrested (while pregnant) and was told her baby would be killed at birth and that she would be sent immediately after to a labour camp. Determined to save her unborn child from the horrors, Jang was able to seek refuge with a relative to give birth and soon made her last ever crossing of the Tumen River into China and Mongolia before eventually finding freedom in Canada, where she lives with her now 13-year-old son.
5. Sungju Lee
What a young Sungju Lee believed to be a family vacation turned out to be a perilous escape attempt, which later left him homeless and abandoned by his parents in an unfamiliar land. Assuming to be in the most northern part of North Korea, Sungju Lee discovered his family had actually brought him to Gyeongsan, a city in the Northern province of South Korea.
Struggling to make ends meet, Lee’s father left for China and his mother followed soon after, forcing Lee to join a gang and steal food to provide for himself. After wandering the streets for four years, Lee found his grandfather and eventually defected to South Korea with the help of a man sent by Lee’s father. Happily for Lee, he was able to reunite with his family. Sadly, not all defectors have such luck.
4. Kim Kwang-Il
In February 2014, the chairman at a UN inquiry on the human rights in the people’s public of Korea described the violations witnessed in North Korea as “strikingly similar” to the crimes committed in Nazi Germany. Of the 300 North Koreans that testified to these horrors during the inquiry was former prisoner, Kim Kwang-Il.
Before defecting to South Korea in 2009, Kim was imprisoned in a labour camp for nearly three years for smuggling pine nuts across the border. A book Kim later published about his experience included disturbing illustrations of daily life inside one of many North Korean concentration camps. The above drawing depicts one form of torture in which prisoners were forced to stand in certain positions for long periods – those who moved were severely beaten.
3. Ga Eul
As a schoolgirl, Ga Eul dreamed of becoming a math teacher and highly valued her education (which consisted mainly of learning how to worship the great leaders). These dreams were dashed, however, when members of Eul’s extended family were caught mid escape from North Korea and branded “enemies of the state.” Because of her links to traitors in the eyes of the government, Ga Eul (and her future children) would never be allowed to obtain a good job or have the chance to study.
Determined not to see herself or her mother work in the fields for the rest of their life, Ga Eul and her family made their escape to China in 2005. Sadly, her brother and father were caught by Chinese officials and deported back to North Korea. Her teenage brother spent a month in jail, whilst her father was sent to a political prison camp and hasn’t been seen by Eul’s family since 2006. This tragically confirms for Ga Eul that if he went to political prison, he likely “never came out.”
2. Hwang Jang-yop
The story of Hwang Jang-yop’s defection from his home country is particularly shocking, since he remains the most high-ranking defector from North Korea to date. Mr Hwang tutored the late Kim Jong Il and was personally close to his father and Supreme founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. Because of his years of loyalty to North Korea and two of its great leaders, Northern officials first believed Mr Hwang had been kidnapped by the South. It was later revealed that Hwang Jang-yop sought asylum in Seoul during a visit to China.
Once in South Korea, he repeatedly spoke out about the dangers of the Northern dictatorship and his hopeless attempts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambition. Kim Jong Il vowed to take revenge on their former ally by having two agents pose as defectors with an aim to “slit the throat” of Mr Hwang if he was ever found. Despite living in constant fear for most of his life, Hwang Jang-yop admirably campaigned to bring democracy to the North – up until his death in 2010 at the age of 87.
1. Song Ee Han
During the ’90s famine, Song Ee Han and her children lived off whatever source of food they could from mice to grass and tree bark, until one day in 1997, no longer able to watch her children become more and more malnourished, Han and her husband fled for China to retrieve food. Song Ee Han retuned with sacks full of rice after a few trips, but these were later confiscated by the police.
To make matters worse, her husband was arrested and Han was later arrested also and severely beaten in police custody while pregnant, leaving her with a fractured skull. The baby boy Han eventually gave birth to died within two months. Heartbroken and weak from malnutrition, Han vowed to take her remaining children out of North Korea for good and hid in China for ten years before eventually settling in America.