Heart-rending journey of North Korean defectors

  • Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times, Seoul
  • Updated: Dec 14, 2014 01:36 IST

On a recent foggy November day, the Dora Observatory in the Korean Dimilitarised Zone (DMZ), an occasionally tense buffer area between South and North Korea was bursting with tourists. Some were queuing up behind large stand-alone binoculars to catch a glimpse of the Communist regime. Others were posing with South Korean soldiers for a photo to share on social media.

Afar, the North Korean (NK) flag – 160 metres in height and weighing 240 kg – could be barely seen through the rolling mist. The flag was slumped against its pole, planted amid a hilly and largely empty stretch of land.

“The South Korean (SK) flag is only 100 metres in height. The NK flag is so heavy, it does not flap unless there is a strong breeze,” tourist guide, Sunny said.

The flag might be shorter and lighter but it is to democratic and developed SK that many defectors from the North – ruled by a single family with a muscular grip and iron fists since the 1950s -- long to come.

Over 27,500 NK live in the South. Many like Kim Hyung-deok have gradually assimilated into their adopted country; it helps that the language, food and customs are same; it helps that the two countries were once one.

Kim was suspicious at first when I met him in a Seoul café late last month. How did I get his number? After I explained, Kim relaxed, settled back on his chair and shared his story – a story about his escape from dictatorial NK, his months and years in prison in his native country and in China and his life in SK, a world away from the NK town he was born, about five hours away from Pyongyang, the bleak capital.

“There was no personal freedom. It is hard to live without government support in NK and since my grandfather had helped the SK military during the Korean War, our family was outside government support,” Kim recalled about his 20 years in NK, adding bits about how food was sometimes hard to get; and how his father toiled in mines for years to feed their large family of eight members.

Kim escaped to China by swimming across a border river in 1993, but not before spending a year in a NK jail. “I worked to build roads and a stadium. Officials ordered us to take things from civilians. I did and was jailed for it for a year,” Kim said. His voice dropped while talking about the jail term: “…very bad…not gentle…there was violence”.

After coming out of jail, he was determined to escape. But it was few more years before he could make his way to the land of his dreams: SK. The story of Kumhee Choi, in her early 30s, was similar to that of Kim’s. Like Kim, she escaped her dreary life in the reclusive, dictatorial country via China.

But unlike Kim, Kumheee escaped with her parents, sisters and brother. “We were called a lucky family. Had we been caught, it could have been very bad. But we managed,” Kumhee said.

Kumhee was 14 when she swam to cross the borders in the dead of the night. The next four years were spent in China where – like Kim – she and her family managed not to get repatriated – as per China’s policy – to NK.

For many NK defectors, SK is the automatic choice to spend the rest of their lives. “The official number of NK defectors living in the South is 27,253,” Insung Kim from the Database Centre for NK Human Rights (NKDB), said quoting SK’s ministry of unification.

“We have recorded 16 categories of human rights violations. More than 60% of violations are related to the lack of personal freedom and dignity. There are detentions and disappearances. There are cases related to food shortages, starvation, lack of religious freedom. About 10% are related to the violation of the basic Right to Life,” Insung Kim told HT during an interaction at the small, busy NKDB office in Seoul.

Then, there is torture.

“All kinds…sleep and food deprivation, severe beating, electric shocks, forced positions for long periods, solitary detention in small spaces and hard labour,” he said. For political crimes, the punishment is detention in political prison camps and there is seldom any chance of reprieve.

For felony crimes, according to Insung Kim, suspects are thrown inside labour camps; depending on the severity, the years in the camps could range from six months to 15 years.

But for defectors, finding their way into SK is just the beginning; life is not easy in a new country.

Kumhee said with a sense of irony: “Here (in SK) even dogs get to eat rice”

“But,” she added, “It was very tough initially. I did odd jobs in the beginning, even as a security guard”. “There was no warm welcome here. I was lonely, worked as a construction labourer and newspaper delivery man. No passport was issued initially. I even tried to return to NK but was arrested by the local police,” Kim said.

Luckily, both of them managed to get admission to universities and after graduation managed to get jobs. Both ended up marrying South Koreans.

As NKDB’s Insung said life is so different here that many NK feel homesick. Some, he said, get sucked into pushing and taking drugs and into petty financial scams.

“In SK, it is important to know English and computers. So, after they are accepted as defectors, they go through a three-month resettlement programme. They are taught the basics of democracy, how to operate bank accounts, given lessons on human rights – it is a concept completely foreign to them – and computer classes. They are given a guide initially and assistance to become employment,” he said, adding that they are also given an one-time $3000 grant and $750 four times for the next year.


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