We Got Out
North Korean Refugees Tell Us About the Homeland
I met these three people in a nine-story Christian church for North Korean refugees in Seoul. I don’t know the church’s name; the reverend told me just to call it Seoul Church. It looked exactly like a Christian church in Texas or anywhere in the heartland. The parishioners wore suits and dresses; the kids wore acid-washed jeans and sportswear. On the seventh floor, a family was eating in a huge cafeteria, and next door, four ladies in aprons were trying to get a classroom of hyperspazzing children to settle down.
Cut I was going to the ninth floor, to a classroom that looked exactly like your standard high-school geometry room, where Rev. Kwang Il-park was passing out leather-bound hymnals to a roomful of twitchy refugees. I sat down in the back, and a teenage girl got up, went to a closet in the front of the room, and returned with a hymnal in English. It was photocopied on green paper and comb-bound with a plastic cover. Standing at a podium in front of a couple of dry-erase boards, Rev. Il-park gave the word. A 60-year-old Korean lady to his left began to play an electric keyboard. He began to sing into a microphone. The others came in, and my heart broke. Afterward, the reverend called me to the front of the room along with my interpreter, and in probably the most ridiculous moment in my life, I held up a copy of Vice magazine and introduced myself, saying I’d like to talk to anyone who wanted to talk to me.
Three people did. Here are their stories:
I was born in Hamheung, one of the biggest industrial cities in North Korea. I was a very rich boy, so I practiced gymnastics from when I was five years old until I was ten. My house was about 15 feet wide, with two rooms. It was divided in the middle. I shared a room with my parents. This was not because my family was poor, but because in North Korea the government controls the housing. We couldn’t buy a different house—we had what the government gave us. Later, the government had to borrow money from my family to complete a housing development. In return for the favor, they gave us five units in the building.
Hamheung is much like an industrial city in the West, except because there is very little electricity in North Korea and very few raw materials and money, there are big factories but they do not run. In the West, if there is a factory, it is always open and workers are working there all the time. But in North Korea, the facility is there, but there are no materials and there is no electricity, so the factories are closed. Since there is no work at the factory, the workers don’t come in or get paid. Every now and then, the factories get raw materials from the government, and they make a product, and the government buys it. But often the process doesn’t work, no products go to the government and no money goes to the factories. The factories sit quiet and dark, empty except for the maintenance people and guards.
North Korean society has four groups of people. The highest level of society is made up of government officers. The second is the middle class, the third is the normal, average people, and at the bottom are people who don’t have proper thoughts—the anti-Communist people. The higher two groups have rice and vegetables, but the bottom two groups don’t have enough rice. They eat grass and trees. When spring comes, people pick at the edible trees and grasses and boil and eat them.
There are two major powers in North Korea: the military and the government. There is only one political power, as you know, that of Kim Jong-il. The heads of the military are very close to Kim Jong-il. Those people are in Pyongyang. There are also the heads of provinces. These make up what we call the “middle class,” which doesn’t mean the same thing as it does over here—when we say it in North Korea, the term refers to the upper class. The normal class, people like us, are the workers.
I was in the normal class but there was a lot of money in my family. At first, I didn’t think about defecting because my life in North Korea was very comfortable. Even though my family did not have political power, most of my friends were in the middle class. But in 1986, I saw a soap opera in the black market in North Korea. It was a very famous South Korean soap called Hourglass. It was very big in South Korea, and since it was so interesting, I loaned it to many of my friends in the middle class, and they loaned it to all of their friends, and it spread throughout the middle class. It became a big problem. North Korea was suffering from an economic depression at the time, and the government didn’t want Western culture—what they call “Yellow Culture”—to spread in North Korea. National Security tried to find out who had started spreading the soap opera. Many of the people who saw and copied and gave the drama away were middle-class people, so they had the power. Their parents were working in the government. Although my parents had money, they were not working for the government. They didn’t have any political powers, so I was picked as a scapegoat for the incident, and the government decided to evict me to China. They had to punish somebody and they picked me. The government said, “Evict him to China, and when everybody forgets about the incident, he can come back.”
I stayed in the Wharyong area for a while, because it is near the border. I decided I wanted to stay in China, so I went deeper into the mainland, but then I was caught and sent back to Musan, where I was questioned by North Korean officers for a week. Then I was transferred to Chung Jin and questioned even more by National Security soldiers. I slept in a small concrete room. I wasn’t allowed to lie down at night—the guards would not let me. As part of my punishment, I had to sleep in a sitting position. I was fed once a day with a small bowl of corn, beans, and vegetables. And then daily, for 40 days, I was taken to another room with a desk and two chairs, and I was tortured by two men. I was very scared—scared to death. The investigators’ job was to find anti-Communist spies, and to that end they tortured me. My bones were broken all over my body. They asked the same questions over and over: “Why did you run farther away into China? Where did you get the video tape? Do you have contact with South Korean spies? Do you have any additional tapes? Why are you so anti-Communist?”
When I didn’t answer their questions, or answered wrong, they would kick me or punch me or beat me with big wooden sticks. Also, there is a torture called “pigeon.” They tied my arms and feet together behind my back and hung me by my hands and feet from the ceiling, so I was flying in space like a pigeon. They suspended me like this generally for two or three hours. Your head is heavy, so in the pigeon position, your head goes down, your blood goes into your face, and the brain doesn’t work properly, so it makes you lose consciousness. And then every time I passed out, they dipped my head into water so I would wake up, and then the process would begin again. Often when I was passed out, I would forget where I was, and then I would wake up and remember. But after about ten days of beating and torturing, all you can think about is that you want to die as quickly as possible. So when I woke up and found out that I was in prison, all I could think was, “Why am I still alive? I want to die, die, die.” Many people do die during the 40 days of investigation, so I expected myself to be dead. There was no hope that I could get free, so I just wanted to end everything: the physical pain and the foolishness. I just wanted to die. After getting beaten so many times, there comes a time when you don’t feel anything, not even physical pain, just a dumbness. Like in a boxing match, the boxer doesn’t feel much pain… The body sensors get dumb. So after a certain amount of torture, I couldn’t feel much pain anymore.
When my 40 days were over I was to be sent by train to North Korea to jail. In the train I was depressed. I couldn’t bear the fact I was going to be imprisoned in North Korea and I decided to commit suicide. I stepped outside the moving train and jumped into a river but miraculously, I didn’t die. After that, I made my way into South Korea.
My father was born in North Korea and my mother was born in South Korea. But during the 6/25 War [the Korean War], my mother volunteered as a North Korean military officer. I was born in Pyongyang, and I had a very nice life there. The North Korean government rations food to the people, and in Pyongyang all the people get rice, no matter how low their social status is.
When you look at the city of Pyongyang, it is beautiful—it is even better looking than Seoul. The city is very clean and the opera house is beautiful and everything is very good-looking. But when you go inside a building, there’s no electricity, so you can’t use the elevators. You have to use the stairways to go up to the top of a building, however tall. There is no water in the buildings when the electricity is cut off, so most of the time, when you turn the faucet on, the water will not come out. You have to draw the water by hand and then carry it upstairs. There is no heating system in the buildings because there is no electricity, so it is cold and you have to wear warm clothes all the time. It is kind of a comical situation.
When I was 14, the government decided that even though my mother had fought on their side in the war, she was born in the South, so she could not be trusted entirely. Our family was put outside of Pyongyang. For the first year, we lived in On-sung, in a house shared by several families in a similar situation. After the first year, our family got out of the house, and we found a very small house in a rural area.
My parents were doctors in Pyongyang but after the eviction, they had to do physical labor on the housing-construction sites and in the mines. Because working at the mines was punishment, my parents could not find any happiness there. Nevertheless, they felt grateful that they were not in prison. They still had some freedom, so they were thankful. I was the same. I didn’t have hard feelings or bad feelings for Kim Il-sung, because I was young, and they continuously teach the young people that he is the great father of the North Korean people. I thought that he was a very good person and he was feeding me with the rice. The food was given by him, the clothes were given by him. I felt very thankful to him.
In the 1990s, a lot of people died from starvation, and I started to think about defecting. On-sung is part of the border area, very near China’s Northern Province. I saw a lot of people coming from China with rice and money. I thought that if I stayed in On-sung I would starve to death, but I saw that if I got caught in the course of trying to defect, then I would be killed by the guards. I decided that I had to take the chance, because if I stayed in North Korea I would die of starvation.
My husband couldn’t come, because he has a lot of brothers and sisters in North Korea, and if he defected it would affect their lives. We had two daughters. One was ten years old and one was five years old. I took the older daughter with me when I crossed the river. I found that China was a very nice place to live because there was rice everywhere. People just threw the rice away because they were full. I was surprised to see so many people living without starvation. I thought I should take the younger daughter too, so I went back to get her.
I was walking alongside the river in the early evening, going to get my younger daughter, and the North Korean soldiers caught me. They fired questions at me: “Where are you coming from? Why are you walking along the river? Are you trying to cross the river?” I said, “Oh no, my house is just over there and I am going back to my house.” But I was wearing a Chinese perfume, and in On-sung nobody had any perfume. Also, I was wearing nice Chinese clothing—a cotton jacket and cotton pants. The North Koreans just knew I was coming from China, so they took me and imprisoned me for four months.
There were about ten women in a room that was nine-by-seven feet. Ten women can only fit in that like sardines, all lying down. There was one water faucet in the room and one toilet. There was a pipe by the ceiling and water was always dripping out. Except for at bedtime, I had to sit up and I couldn’t move. Everybody had to sit up and we could only move for five minutes every two hours. It was our punishment—sitting still. At night when people slept we could get up and move around.
There was one woman who had given birth to a baby about a month before I arrived, and her body was still unrecovered. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t walk from her spot to the toilet, so we had to carry her. She started to cry and shout that she could not walk, so they took her out after ten days and sent her back home.
I was beaten by the guards. I bled. I was tortured in the prison. They kicked me and beat me until I became unconscious. I was unconscious for 20 hours. I was lying down in my blood, in the room with the other nine women. The other women tried to clean me up and help me, but there was no medicine or doctor in the prison. About ten days after I woke up, there was an outbreak of typhus and I got it. With high fever, the body will tremble. Three or four women had typhus during this time. When we recovered, the others got it, back and forth. It passed down the hallway to the other cells, so we could listen to the other women at night, when it was quiet, and they’d be moaning.
During this time, my ten-year-old daughter was in China with a couple who felt very sorry for me and her. I was able to defect again after I got out of prison, and I paid a Chinese broker to take me and my daughters to Seoul. It cost about $7,000 total, and this is money I was able to pay using the resettlement money I received from the South Korean government upon my arrival. On-sung is a rural city, so when it rains everybody has to wear rain boots. When I got to South Korea, the first thing I did was go to the department store to buy rain boots for my kids. The guy in the store asked my why I wanted to buy rain boots in Seoul and I said, “Isn’t it rainy in Seoul? I don’t want my children’s feet to get dirty.” He thought it was very funny.
The human rights issues in North Korea are really urgent and the situation is really bad. About 3 million people died of starvation between 1993 and 1998. It started in 1993 because that was the year Kim Il-sung died. After his death, society went into total chaos and the high officers didn’t care about the welfare of the normal people, because they were busy saving their own necks.
I starved during that time. After starving for ten or more days you lose all your energy. You lose the energy to walk. When I did manage to walk in the street, I saw a person in front of me fall down, and he had no energy to get up. He just stayed lying down in the road, because he didn’t have anything in his stomach. I couldn’t help him because I had nothing in my stomach either so I just passed by, and the person who fell down died there. I saw a lot of people lying down in the street.
During this time, young people in North Korea ran out of their homes because there was no food. They ran away and lived with other young people. These kids were called koseibi, which means “the young kids who are moving around like swallows.” They stole or begged, and that’s how they lived every day. It is very cold in North Korea and if five of them went to sleep at the station, only two or three of them would wake up. They’d die because of the cold weather. There were so many corpses at the railway stations, the government created an organization to take care of them. It was called 918 Public Service. Koseibis were dying every day in large numbers, so the 918 Public Service tried to bury their bodies in the nearby mountains. During the winter the ground is frozen, so you cannot dig it deep enough to put in the bodies. They just dug shallow holes and put the bodies inside and covered them with some dirt.
When I was in high school, my friend was at this rice field near town, and behind it there was a mountain used for burial. There was not enough stone to make tombstones, so the graves had these white nameplates instead. The mountain was entirely covered with these white wooden sticks. During the spring and during the summer, the bodies that were not buried deep enough started to come out as the ground thawed, and there was a stink. The skeletons were fine because they did not stink, but some bodies were not completely decomposed yet and there was still flesh on the bones. That makes a lot of stink.
My father was locked up in the political prison and my mother was working in the city to make some money to support me and my brother, so we were left alone in the house with one bowl of corn that had to last five days. I ate one piece of corn every hour.
About 15 million tons of rice are needed for the North Korean people to survive for a year. Since the 1960s the rice production has only been 8 million tons. The Soviet Union and East Germany used to help out, but now North Korea is not getting any help, even from its allies.
The only way to make things better is to make the world know about the awful status of people’s lives in North Korea today. What the U.S. is doing right now is affecting North Korea. They are banning economic transactions between North Korea and other countries. This is responsible for the starvation to some extent, but the major reason why the North Koreans are suffering is that the government of Kim Jong-il is refusing to open up because they killed so many people to get to their current positions. They cannot open up, because they would have to face military trial.
Most refugees in South Korea or other countries are sending money to their families in North Korea, because even if you don’t have any money in South Korea you can still live, but if you don’t have any money in North Korea you will die. It’s a strange life… That’s all I have to say today.
Excerpt from the Novel ‘Family Life’
Cheers to the Revolution: Kiev's Beautiful Molotov Cocktails
VICE Shorts: I'm Short, Not Stupid Presents: 'How to Keep Smoking'
The Ass Menagerie
VICE News: Investigating an Unsolved KKK Murder in the Deep South
Meet the New Generation of British Nudists
Dangerous Unhappy Things: A True Ghost Story
Meet the Nieratkos: Thomas Campbell Made a Skate Video That’s Actually Worth Watching
Sculpting Nudes in a New York Night Club