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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Long and Perilous Journey of a North Korean Defector, Part 2

Escape from the north

A North Korean defector makes a second break for freedom.

By Susan Cheong

This is part 2 of the story of Soo-jung Ra's escape from North Korea. Read part 1 to find out what brought her to this point.



The second escape

It was a crisp, cool autumn day in late October 2005 — the leaves had changed their hues to yellow and crimson, and it was the season for harvest.

Soo-jung Ra*, by now 16, had spent the day out on the corn fields of Myongchon county in North Korea with her relatives, gathering and storing food for the winter and early spring.

As evening broke, a cousin who lived by the sea came to visit with an unfamiliar middle-aged man. He was introduced to the family as a wealthy long-distance relative who had come to share his fortunes.

But away from the prying eyes of Soo-jung's relatives, the man pulled her aside.

"He asked me quietly, 'Hey, you're Soo-jung right?' and then he said 'I know your parents. I'm here to get you out of North Korea.'"

The man claimed to be a broker who had deliberately fabricated his background and status so that he could make contact with Soo-jung without raising the suspicions of those around her.

However, with secret informants and government spies pervasive in North Korean society, Soo-jung remained skeptical.

She knew she was being monitored by the secret police. She was also aware a minor slip of the tongue on the whereabouts of her parents could land her in prison again.

Not only that, her relatives would be subject to alienation and severe discrimination, as their family records would be tainted for political disloyalty.

It was only when the broker detailed unique stories from her childhood, that she knew she could trust him.

"He knew all these personal characteristics about me and stories that happened to me when I was younger — stories that I knew only my parents would know … that's when I knew he wasn't some spy or a bad person."

Ten days later, Soo-jung slipped out of her house and traced her steps back to the north-eastern border town of Hoeryong under the guidance of two brokers.

There she was joined by a former patrol officer who knew the area well.

Like her first crossing, Soo-jung was surreptitiously led to a remote part of the Tumen River, except this time it was in the early evening. At the water's edge, they unexpectedly came across another group of escapees.

"We bumped into the former patrol officer's friend. He was also a former guard and was there leading another three defectors. It was strange and kind of funny as well."

The irony of the situation slightly helped calm Soo-jung's nerves. But as she took her first tentative steps into the icy cold water, she became overwhelmed by the possible grave consequences if she was to be caught again.

"All I could think about was: what would happen if I was to be arrested again? If I went to prison again, I would surely not be able to survive. I think that's what made it more terrifying — knowing what would happen if I got caught," she recalls.

"But I had no hope left in North Korea. I didn't go to school, I didn't live with my [direct] family, I simply had no future — so I had to leave."

Back in China

Soo-jung was back at her great-uncle's house in the city of Longjing in north-east China's Yanbian Prefecture.

It was November 2005 and it had been a week since Soo-jung crossed the Tumen River.

At her relative's house, she spent her days in hiding helping to care for his partially paralysed mother.

During this time, her parents in South Korea began concocting a plan.

With no legal passport or identification card, Soo-jung's status as an 'illegal economic migrant' in China meant she faced the perpetual threat of being arrested and deported to North Korea.

Her parents, unwilling to put their daughter through another perilous ordeal without them, came up with an idea that they believed would be marginally safer and faster than the precarious journey across the Gobi Desert.

She was to impersonate her older sister, Soo-yun*, and use her sister's South Korean passport to get past the Chinese guards outside the South Korean consulate in Beijing.

Inside, she would claim asylum as she was entitled to legal protection under South Korean law.

For the next month-and-a-half, Soo-jung's great uncle and auntie focused on nourishing her emaciated body while her parents in South Korea made preparations for their two daughters' mission.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, Soo-yun straightened her long hair to keep up with the latest trend. She drew a dark spot above her right lip to mirror Soo-jung's trademark mole.

And then, dressed in a chic South Korean outfit and sporting a shiny pair of gold glasses, Soo-yun took a photo for her new South Korean passport.

In mid-December 2005, on the night before the mission, Soo-jung spent some rare quality time with her parents and sister shopping and touring the Chinese capital.

At the city's popular night markets, Soo-jung became overwhelmed by the bustling crowd and the copious amount of food displayed along the strip of stalls.

"I was so drawn to the place. The lights were sparkling and the food, everything was sold in stacks! They had chicken hanging off hooks, chicken feet, they had everything," she says.

"It was fascinating and I remember I was so so happy, like I was totally excited."

For that one day, Soo-jung and her family managed to set aside their worries, apprehensions and fears. The family was determined to make it a night to remember, as they knew they were about to embark on an extremely risky operation.

The next morning, Soo-jung got dressed into a cream polo skivvy, a shiny chestnut-coloured vest, a pleated grey skirt, and slipped into her new sleek pair of black boots.

With her hair straightened and ears pierced, she now looked, in the eyes of her family, truly South Korean, and most importantly like her sister Soo-yun.

"My dad made sure I looked identical to my sister's passport photo. We both had the same hairstyle, wore glasses and had the same mole, so I think we did look pretty similar," she says.

"They also put in a lot of effort to make sure I didn't look North Korean. My dad hand-picked my outfit in South Korea and he made sure I looked like a fashionable South Korean teenager."

Soo-jung with her sister in China
Soo-jung with her sister in China

Her mother then exchanged the money they amassed in South Korea into US dollars, and divided their life savings between the family members. It was to be used in an emergency.

After a kimchi-inclusive breakfast to calm the soul, the family moved methodically as planned. Soo-jung and her parents started heading for the South Korean consulate in a taxi while her sister Soo-yun retreated back to the hotel.

Inside the taxi, Soo-jung put on the same gold glasses her sister wore in the passport photo. She then plugged in her earphones and turned on her sister's MP3 player.

"I was so nervous - so much that I turned up the music to full blast. It was like ringing out of my ears.

I was listening to [the South Korean artist] 'Page' because her songs are very romantic and sentimental. I needed something to help calm my nerves."

Alighting just a few metres away from the building, Soo-jung and her mother parted from her father.

He positioned himself behind another building nearby while Soo-jung and her mother began walking towards the consulate.

Two Chinese policemen stood guard at the tall steel gates. They were checking everyone's passports.

Soo-jung and her mother stood calmly in line. When it came to their turn, the guard looked through her mother's passport and then her sister's.

"He looked up at me and stared intently for a while," she says.

"He then turned around and walked away with our passports — without saying anything."

With her heart pounding in her ears, Soo-jung looked around her surroundings, averting the gaze of the second officer. She hummed to the music trying her best to stay calm.

She knew one mistake could lead to her whole family being arrested and detained under charges of fraud. With no legal protection, only Soo-jung would be repatriated to North Korea, where she would most certainly face harsh punishment at one of the notorious prison camps.

"My mother said she felt her heart crush. We had no idea why he had taken our passports. Could they have suspected something? We didn't know."

A few minutes later, she heard a faint yell.

She turned and saw her mother standing a few steps ahead of her.

"She was motioning me to hurry up. That's when I saw our passports in her hands. The officer had let us in."

As Soo-jung walked past the Chinese guards and stepped over the South Korean consulate building doorstep, she knew she had passed the test.

She was now under the protection of the South Korean authorities.

To South Korea and Australia

It was a cold, snowy day in late December 2006, a year after Soo-jung had sought refuge at the South Korean consulate in Beijing. She was inside a South Korean government van with a group of eight North Korean defectors.

She was on her way to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in South Korea where a lengthy interrogation and screening process was awaiting her.

As she looked outside her window, 17-year-old Soo-jung caught the first glimpse of the country that she had once been taught was an "impoverished" nation.

"The skyscrapers, the cars on the road, the crowd … I remember feeling quite overwhelmed at first. It felt surreal. I was happy but I was so exhausted," she says.

"I think the anxiety and stress built up over the years since my first escape had become too much for me. I felt dazed and numb … but I knew I had finally made it."

Soo-jung was elated to have finally reached her destination under the protection of the South Korean authorities.

Her journey to freedom had taken one year and seven months.

She was no longer malnourished, stunted and weak. She had grown almost 10 centimetres, put on weight and her body had finally begun to mature as a woman.

Soo-jung's time at the consulate in Beijing had been long but one of physical recovery, as she had eaten consistently, for the first time in many years — three full meals a day.

Soo-jung Ra after defection
Soo-jung Ra after defection

Her second chance at life in South Korea marked the beginning of her adventure to self-discovery.

She began studying again, completing her high school education before gaining entrance at a prestigious university in Seoul.

With dreams of helping others in need, she chose to study police administration. The contrasting perception of a police officer between the North and South made it particularly appealing for Soo-jung.

"In North Korea, the role of a police officer is to spy on the civilians and they are people you should fear. On the other hand, in South Korea, their role is more generally to protect the public and catch criminals," she says.

"They are serving the public. That's what I wanted to do."

Despite the opportunities and being able to speak the same language, Soo-jung at times struggled to assimilate into the ultra-modern South Korean society.

Like most North Korean defectors, the 'Promised Land of South Korea' was not what she had envisioned as defectors were often shunned and discriminated against.

Divided by war, the two nations had progressed in polar opposite directions, making it difficult for most defectors to connect with their Southern counterpart.

"There's a lot of stigma of being a North Korean defector. We're generally looked down upon as second-class citizens," she says.

"I felt embarrassed to have come from a poor country ... and I tended to hang out with friends who were from the North. We are all Korean, but we grew up knowing completely different things.

"On top of that, I grew up in poverty and I spent years struggling with starvation. That made things even more difficult for us to relate."

To blend in, Soo-jung quickly picked up the South Korean accent. However, like many others, she was embarrassed of her background, and continued to hide her identity.

Her search for meaning and acceptance, as well as her desire to explore the world, led to her decision to move to a foreign country in 2012.


Soo-jung Ra at Bondi beach


Soo-jung Ra at the 12 Apostles


Soo-jung Ra in Sydney

Now 26, Soo-jung describes her experience in Australia as one of spiritual healing.

Whilst working part-time at a restaurant, she spent her early years travelling and exploring the country.

"I loved watching people go about their life. I'd see people lounging on the grass relaxing and reading a book, and not caring about what was going on around them, and I'd think 'Yeah I want to do that too.' So I did."

"I laid on the grass at Hyde Park and I remember thinking 'Wow, I'm doing what they're doing.' It wasn't much but for me it was quite exciting and it gave me a lot of joy to be able to enjoy such simple things in life."

As she made sense of the world around her, her time alone helped relieve the pressures to hide and conform.

"I'd see people from all different backgrounds - Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Europeans ... and I realised I am just one of them."

"I was born in North Korea but I am a South Korean citizen, and now I am living in Australia. I'm like everybody else and coming to that realisation meant a lot to me. I no longer feel as ashamed."

Her growing acceptance of her past brought more confidence in her identity as a North Korean, fostering a desire to one day return to her motherland.

Today, she is studying early childhood education. Her past experiences as an orphan refined her dream and passion to help others, and ultimately to become a teacher.

"I truly believe the North and South will reunite in my lifetime. We are one nation. And when that day comes, I want to be there," she says.

"There will be without a doubt so many orphans in North Korea and I want to set up an orphanage to care for these children. I lived in one. I know what it's like to feel alone."

And until that day comes, Soo-jung hopes to travel the world, working for schools and NGOs to teach children in other developing countries. She no longer sees her past as an obstacle but a building block to a brighter future.

"When I think of my future, I'm filled with hope. I'm so glad that I have been able to overcome obstacles that have come my way despite the fact that I was born in North Korea."

"I have come so far and I'm proud of that. I'm so happy to have found [this] dream and most importantly to have the opportunity to live it out.

"And I can't wait for the day that the North and South reunites so that the people of North Korea can learn and experience the world freely like I am today."

North Korean defector Soo-jung Ra in Australia
Soo-yung in Australia