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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Long and Perilous Journey of a North Korean Defector

By Susan Cheong

It was pitch black and silent as 15-year-old Soo-jung Ra* made her way across the vast sand dunes of the Gobi Desert.

She was among a group of 11 North Korean defectors in search of liberty and freedom, en route to South Korea.

Their broker had instructed them to follow the barbed-wire fence that stretched along the border between China and Mongolia.

For a while, the only sound they could hear was the soft squeaking of their feet crunching in the sand.

But suddenly, they were struck by the blinding headlights of a vehicle.

At that moment Soo-jung believed she would be killed.

Life under 'the great leader'


As a young child in North Korea, Soo-jung describes a life of plenty.

She was born in 1989. Her tight-knit family of four lived in the mountainous region of Myongchon county in North Hamgyong province.

The 'Great Leader' and 'Eternal President' Kim Il-sung was in power and it was a time she recalls fondly.

Her father worked at a factory and her mother at a farm. She and her older sister went to school, had homework, played games and bickered as siblings do.

She lived what she called a relatively "normal family life".

But for Soo-jung, the first song she learnt to sing was not a nursery rhyme, rather the 'Song of General Kim Il-sung'.

"From the moment we start talking, we are taught the Kim Il-sung song. We had to sing it at least once a day at school. Whenever there was an event, it always began with this song. It was like our national anthem."

Every day Soo-jung bowed before the portrait of the 'Great Leader' that hung high on the walls of every household and building in the country.

At school, she was indoctrinated by propaganda that fervently glorified the communist society, the land and its leaders. The government's monopoly on information also ensured every citizen naturally believed everything they were told.

"I had no choice. I was born into this culture and environment so there was no reason for me to understand or question what I was doing or what I believed in," she says.

"It wasn't something we could accept or reject, it was a way of life."

Soo-jung never had the chance to meet the 'Great Leader', but the image that remains etched in her memory is the grand mural of Kim Il-sung at Myongchon square.

"There was a painting in my province where he had his arms wide open to embrace the children that were running towards him. As a young child, he was like this warm father or grandfather-like person who simply loved his people and children."


Kim Il-sung mural


Statue of Kim Il-sung

Kim Il-sung was perceived as not only a 'loving father' but a hero in the totalitarian nation. At school, Soo-jung was taught that he was a brave warrior who single-handedly wiped out the "American bastards" in a battle during the Korean War in 1950-1953.

She also learnt and believed the Americans had engineered the conflict and were to blame for the division of the Korean peninsula.

To maintain this sentiment, US soldiers were often depicted as barbarians with big noses, yellow hair and crazed eyes.

"At our athletics carnival, we played 'Bash the American Bastards', a popular relay between two teams where each player runs to bash a dummy of an American soldier with a wooden bat and then runs back and tips the next person in line," Soo-jung says.

"It was a form of brainwashing — to stir up hatred against the Americans. We were taught they were our sworn enemy."




The great famine

On July 8, 1994, Kim Il-sung died.

Soo-jung was only 5, yet remembers the day of the televised address.

"There was a breaking news announcement that he had passed away. Everyone around me burst into tears," she says.

In the ensuing months, the nation plunged into despair, with people wailing and fainting beneath the grand monuments of their leader across the country.

North Koreans mourn Kim Il-sung
The death of North Korea's 'Great Leader' also marked the beginning of great hardship.

Kim Jong-il had inherited the country's leadership from his father at a time when the country was in the midst of a severe agricultural decline.

The fall of its long-term ally the Soviet Union in 1991, and the country's crippled economy, were compounded by a series of natural disasters, propelling the nation into one of the most destructive famines of the 20th century.

"People were dying everywhere. There were people dying of starvation, there were people dying from diseases," she says.

"You'd wake up one morning and you'd hear a neighbour passed away, the next day, yet another person. It was a difficult time … for our family and for everyone."

Grass porridge soon became a daily sustenance. Soo-jung and her sister would pull grass out from the fields, grind it into powder and boil it with water. It was tasteless but it helped to alleviate their hunger.

Starvation became so widespread, it wasn't long until rumours of cannibalism started seeping into the communities.

"There was a rumour that a couple had boiled their newborn alive because they were so hungry … there was another rumour that someone was publicly executed because they killed someone to sell their flesh at the markets," she recalls.

"I don't know if these stories are true, but that's how bad our society got. It was really, really terrible."

By the late 1990s, the Great Famine was said to have claimed up to 1.1 million lives.

The complete collapse of the socialist food distribution system, and the priority given to feeding the military and elite in Pyongyang, had taken its toll on the lives of ordinary citizens.

Desperate to survive, Soo-jung's father left to work in Russia as a civilian merchant authorised by the government to bring back foreign currency into North Korea, while her mother went to China to work in the black market.

Unable to fend for themselves, 10-year-old Soo-jung and her sister went to live with their relatives. However, due to chronic food shortages they were soon abandoned at the district orphanage.

"My only wish was to eat a meal that made me full. When you're hungry, you don't really think about anything else except for the desire to eat. If you don't eat, you kind of walk around like a zombie staring at the ground looking for any scraps of food, or anything edible," she says.

"If you're not doing that, you're looking for food to steal."

Stealing became a daily routine. It felt morally wrong, but for Soo-jung and her friends at the orphanage, it was an act of survival.

"We'd hang around in the neighbourhood stealing other people's belongings. One would be on watch, while the other goes and steals. We'd steal corn, we'd steal people's clothes on the washing line … and if people left their shoes outside, we'd steal all their nice ones too," she says.

"We basically stole everything and anything that we thought would be of some value and then sell it at the markets in exchange for food."


The escape

In the spring of 2002, Soo-jung's mother was repatriated from China after being caught smuggling goods into North Korea.

With no home to go to following her release from prison, she spent a month living with her daughters at the district orphanage.

One early morning, as Soo-jung was preparing breakfast in the kitchen, her mother and sister left to visit their relatives who lived two hours away.

They had told her they would be back by the end of the day, but they never returned.

By that time, when Soo-jung was 13 years old, she had already become accustomed to being alone. So their unexpected departure did little to break her spirit.

"I think I would have been a little sad, but not a lot," she says.

"I had been alone for too long, I think by then it became normal for me to be alone and to be fighting for my survival."

For the next two-and-a-half years, Soo-jung continued to live alone at the district orphanage in Myongchon without knowing the whereabouts of her family.

It wasn't until October 2004 that she learnt that her parents were in fact alive and well, living in another land outside the country's borders.

"A broker came to see me at the orphanage. He said he had come to check on me on behalf of my parents. Of course I didn't believe him at first. I told him 'I don't know what you're talking about because I don't have parents and even if I did, I have no idea where they are'."

Not long after, Soo-jung moved back into the care of her relatives. With the help of several brokers, her parents had smuggled money into the country so that Soo-jung would be better looked after in a family home.

In early May 2005, a private meeting was organised between Soo-jung and her great uncle from China in the north-eastern border city of Hoeryong.

Her great uncle was ethnically Korean and had emigrated to mainland China long before the Korean War.

At this meeting, Soo-jung's great uncle surreptitiously made arrangements for her to be smuggled out of the country, contacting brokers within and outside North Korea.

Later that week, Soo-jung jumped into an open truck and made the four-hour journey back towards the border town of Hoeryong, alone.

There she was met by a broker bribed by her great uncle and the broker's friend, a high-ranking patrol guard.

This patrol officer had one responsibility — to arrest or shoot anyone who was caught crossing the Tumen River into China.

The North Korean government considered all unauthorised departures an act of treason, and individuals caught crossing or helping others to cross illegally were imprisoned, tortured or even executed.

However, after pocketing a generous sum of money, the officer agreed to lead the pair to a secluded and narrow part of the river.
Fully clothed, Soo-jung waded through the water where so many others had drowned trying to escape.

"The water was cold and was about chest high," she says.

"I held onto the broker's hand tightly and followed his lead. I was anxious to meet my parents and also scared because I had no idea what would happen to me or what lay ahead past these waters. But I trusted him."

The Chinese side of the border was deserted, with no guards out on patrol. The land was flat with a sparse covering of shrubs and trees.

Soo-jung and the broker ran through farmland until they reached an unpaved dirt road. There she was greeted by her great uncle who had been waiting in his car under the cover of darkness.

Four days later, Soo-jung's parents flew into China from South Korea to a very emotional reunion.

It was then she learnt her parents and sister had all claimed asylum in South Korea.

"I cried so much when I met them," she says.

"I remember feeling really awkward seeing my father again. I hadn't seen him for almost eight years and I hadn't seen my mother for three years.

"I had been alone for so long, their presence felt really unfamiliar and strange to me."

Their meeting was short and bittersweet. After spending a few precious days together in the border city of Longjing in north-east China's Yanbian Prefecture, Soo-jung's parents began planning the next leg of her journey.

They knew Soo-jung was considered an "illegal economic migrant" and not a "refugee" by the Chinese government. This meant if she was to be caught at any time, she would be repatriated to North Korea.

Her illegitimate status also made her vulnerable to the risk of being reported by her neighbours. Fines and jail sentences were imposed on those who sheltered North Koreans and the Chinese government allegedly rewarded people who alerted the authorities.

However, under the South Korean constitution, North Koreans were automatically entitled to a citizenship.

This left Soo-jung with one option: to embark on the nearly 3,200-kilometre journey to Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar, where she would be able to seek refuge at the South Korean embassy.

Less than a week later, with the help of an underground network of smugglers, Soo-jung joined a group of 10 other North Korean defectors. The team was a diverse mix, with the youngest being 8 years old and the oldest 65.

They had all been living in China for differing amounts of time, yet shared one thing in common: they were on a quest for freedom, and a life free of pain and hunger.



It was night-time and Soo-jung was in a dark green van being driven by two male brokers.

They had been driving across the vast sandy plains of the Gobi Desert near the Chinese-Mongolian border with their lights switched off for what seemed like an eternity.

When the car came to a stop, the smugglers ushered them from the vehicle and gave them specific instructions.

"They said: 'Follow this fence and when you come across another barbed wire fence, cut it open with the pliers I have given you, climb over this fence and then run until you are stopped by Mongolian officials. You will then be safe," she says.

Soo-jung and the group trudged through the sand in silence, when suddenly a blinding light exposed them.

Having not yet reached the second fence, they knew it wasn't the Mongolian authorities.

It was the Chinese border police.

"It was pandemonium. We all started screaming and running like crazy. We madly started climbing over the fence [beside us] because we were so terrified. We knew if we got caught we could die."

On the other side, with nowhere to hide or run, they desperately tried to bury themselves in the sand. As they watched the lights scan across the desert, some deliberated what they should do next, while others prayed to every god they believed in.

"The person next to me was muttering 'save me God, save me God, save me God', while another was crying and crying."

Soo-jung remembers this as the single most frightening and distressing moment of her life.

"I was petrified. I had left North Korea only 10 days ago and for the first time I actually found myself fearing for my life," she says.

"I had never felt my life was in such direct danger before. I had never asked anyone — even my parents — to save me before, and here I was begging and wishing my parents would come and save me."

As the escapees plotted their next move, the vehicles turned and began driving away in the opposite direction. The beams of their headlights disappeared.

Soo-jung and the other defectors wondered whether the Chinese police had given up trying to find them, or whether they had not seen them at all.

As their nerves began to settle and hope began to build, suddenly, the same blinding headlights flashed over them — only this time from just a few metres away.

They had been tricked.

"My heart stopped. We were caught completely off guard. We screamed and dropped our bags, everything we had, and ran for our lives," Soo-jung says.

By then, at least a dozen soldiers armed with rifles had already started charging towards them.

"The soldiers were running towards us like crazy and the headlights of their vehicles continued to sweep across the desert. I could hear the others screaming, getting arrested and pleading 'Save me, save me' … and then I stopped. I stopped running and stood there, and waited for a soldier to arrest me," she says.

"I thought, well this is it. I'm going to die. I'm going to die."

Soo-jung's memory blanks out from here. Her arrest was so traumatic, she is unable to clearly recall the events following her capture.

"I don't exactly remember what happened after they got a hold of me. I would have been put in a truck but I don't remember how I got from the desert to the [Chinese] prison," she says.

"I think I was trembling in fear. I was so scared."

Life in jail and public trial

Warning: the following section contains graphic material.

In late May 2005, Soo-jung was detained at three different prisons across China over five days, before being transferred to one of North Korea's notorious prison camps in Sinuiju.

There Soo-jung was met by ruthless interrogators and subjected to a series of humiliating physical examinations.

She was forced to strip naked and stand in a line, while the female guards viciously searched everyone's bodies.

"It didn't matter whether you had your period, it didn't matter whether you were sick, you just had to strip. We weren't human to them," she says.

"They made us do squats with our hands on our heads so they could check whether we had any money rolled up and hidden in our [vaginas]. If that didn't work, the guards stuck their hand in and searched through some of our bodies."

The guards were from the Bowibu, North Korea's most feared political police force, infamous for its brutal examinations.

Soo-jung and the others were given an identification number and divided into groups. During interrogation, the adults were savagely beaten intermittently while the children were locked up in solitary confinement.

On one occasion, Soo-jung says she could hear the blood-curdling screams of a fellow prisoner being tortured in the next room. She was a pregnant woman who had been sold as a "bride" to a Chinese farmer.

But in the reclusive nation, to be impregnated by a Chinese man was considered racially and politically "impure". As a form of ethnic cleansing, she was subjected to a brutal abortion.

"We could hear the Bowibu officer shouting and swearing at her — just really bad foul language. The adults told me they had placed a wooden plank above her swollen belly and they grabbed each side of the plank and pushed down on her stomach to abort the child," she says.

"She was screaming and crying … except she wasn't crying for help. She was pleading for forgiveness."

"To them, she was an animal. They killed her baby."

For weeks, Soo-jung and the defectors were forced to divulge their escape plans before they were compelled to single out a person from their group upon whom ultimate blame could be laid.

"There was this one middle-aged woman and she was a little clumsy from memory and I think she ended up being accused as the 'ringleader'. She had been in China the longest," she says.

"I'm sure everyone felt bad and sorry for her … but when you're in a life or death situation, especially in that kind of environment, you don't really have the headspace to think deeply about what's going to happen to the others.

"And I don't know what happened to her … she would have suffered a lot."

Soo-jung was detained at Sinuiju for a month before she was forced to face a public trial in her hometown province of Myongchon.

The trial was held at the entrance of a large market at the busiest time of day.

Handcuffed and with shackles on her feet, 15-year-old Soo-jung and about 10 other convicted criminals were led into an open space in a single file.

The charges against them were then broadcast out of loudspeakers on top of a government van to a large, silent crowd.

"There was a person who was charged for going to China, another was for fraud, and there were a few who were charged for stealing corn or some other goods … and when it came to me, the broadcaster said 'this person's name is Soo-jung Ra and she was arrested while attempting to escape to the South. Her parents and sister have been declared missing but her uncle lives at X and works as a X at X'," she says.

For more than two hours, Soo-jung was made to stand and listen quietly with her head achingly down low as the broadcaster read out everyone's crime, family background and sentence.

No one was given the opportunity to speak. No one was given the chance to defend themselves.

"I felt so embarrassed and ashamed. It was my hometown. I lived there. I knew the people there. It was humiliating, really, even now when I think about it … it's not something I like to recall," she says.

Soo-jung spent the next two-and-a-half months locked up in prison, carrying out the most menial tasks at her district police station.

By sheer luck, she avoided a lengthy prison sentence at one of the country's political prison camps.

Her young age and short malnourished stature had worked in her favour. She was 15 years old but her body hadn't reached puberty. She stood at a mere 140 centimetres.

Soo-jung was released back into the community on the eve of her 16th birthday in early autumn 2005.

"My uncle came to pick me up. I couldn't look at him properly. I felt really ashamed and apologetic as I had brought shame to his family," she says.

At home, Soo-jung was met by a barrage of questions. And to her surprise, her relatives were cautiously interested in life beyond their country's borders.

"They'd ask me: 'Do people live well in China? I heard they have lots and lots of food, like unlimited sacks full of rice. Is that true?' and 'I heard if you open a fridge in China, it's packed full of food like vegetables and meat. Is that true too?," she says.

"I nodded yes and I remember they looked at me in complete awe."

Soo-jung was immensely relieved to be back in the safety of a family home. Her arrest in China and time in prison had been excruciatingly painful, both mentally and physically.

But her brief encounter with the outside world had stirred within her an unfamiliar feeling of a desire to know more; it wasn't long until she became consumed by thoughts of a second escape.


* names have been changed to protect privacy

Part Two: Read the conclusion to Soo-jung Ra's story.