Meet North Korean defector who longs for family reunion

Barbed wire wire marks the place along the Tumen River where the borders of China, Russia and North Korea meet.Photo: National Geographic

North Korean Lee has lived in South Korea for 11 years. Having built her own family in the South – a South Korean husband and children - Lee now looks like a native of South Korea which is in no way similar to the North, though the people share the same ethnic origin.

Talking to the in a café in Seoul, Lee asked neither to be identified with her full name nor photographed for security reasons. She also asked not to include any details of her family information as her father is still in North Korea, although she is not sure whether he is still alive.
Following her and her mother’s escape from North Korea, Lee’s elder and younger brothers also fled the country later, and they finally got united in South Korea.

When asked whether there’s still anything that she cannot forget in North Korea, she said it is her father who used to be a doctor and Lee spent much of her childhood with. He divorced Lee’s mother, however, due to political reasons, which Lee said is the biggest regret in her mother’s life.
“I can still remember the times when I followed my father to visit his patients when I was a child. Since now I have my own family and my own children, I really want to bring them to him. I really miss him,” Lee said.

Grandfather’s execution

While everything in life was normal when Lee was a child living in North Korea, her perception toward fate and her country changed after her maternal grandfather was executed by shooting publicly, and in front of her.

“I can still clearly remember the scene in which my grandfather was executed by shooting. It often appears in my dreams even today,” she said. “It was a nightmare that I can never forget in my whole life.”
Lee said the execution was held publicly because the government wanted all citizens to know what would be the consequences of violating the rules.

Lee’s maternal grandfather was a Korean Chinese living in Yanji in northeast China’s Jilin province before he escaped to North Korea during the Cultural Revolution. But he was targeted by the North Korean government later due to his religion.

“Christianity was illegal in North Korea. My grandfather had to work underground, but was still caught by the government” said Lee, adding that what was worse than the execution was the impact it had on her family- she was not able to go to school anymore, her mother lost her job and had to fake a divorce in order not to affect his career.

In North Korea, a grandfather’s “sin” can turn three generations in the family into political prisoners, said Lee, whose mother had to bring her and her two brothers up alone while being treated as a social outcast at that time.

Adding to that was the extreme poverty, especially in around 1998 when North Korea was under the rule of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current ruler Kim Jong-un. Lee said many ordinary North Korean people had to eat bark and root and had to see their friends starve to death.

Beginning in 1997, a lot of North Koreans fled the country due to the severe poverty, and it was also during that time Lee’s mother came up with the idea to escape.

“My mom wanted to live a clean life, and she said only when we left the country could we shake off our ‘sin’ and truly start a new life,” Lee said.

Across Yalu River to China

It took Lee’s mother five years to prepare for their escape which finally came in 2004. By saying “preparation”, it meant Lee and her mother needed to have enough money to bribe the soldiers guarding the border by the Yalu River, so as to let them turn a blind eye to their escape. It had to be successful because once failed there would be barely a chance for them to live, Lee said.

“In order to save the money we needed for the escape, my mom tried her best. She went deep into the forest to pick herbs and hunt, and then secretly sold them to Chinese at night,” Lee said.

As surveillance on males was far stricter than on females in North Korea, her mother decided to take only Lee first and promised that after she earned enough money in China, she would come back to pick Lee’s 24-year old elder brother and 8-year old younger one who was too little to understand the whole story.

With the help of a Chinese guide, Lee and her mother finally made it to the other bank of Yalu River, and later took 12 hours to climb over a mountain within the border of China as it was too risky for them to walk on road.

“I cried all the way and knew that we might never be able to go back again, but I had to move on because North Korean and Chinese police could arrest us any time,” said Lee said.

After two days’ running across the river and over the mountain, they arrived at an urban area in China. They were lucky in finding protection in China as Lee’s grandfather and grandmother were originally Chinese and there were relatives living in Changchun, the capital of northeast China’s Jilin Province.

Compared with North Korean men, life in China for women was easier as some of them could marry Chinese men or find other ways to make money.

“The happiest thing when living in China was I could make money,” said Lee who worked in a restaurant then. “In the beginning I made 500 yuan a month, later I made 1,000 a month.”

Lee said she also sent money back home with the help of a Chinese broker who was able to travel to North Korea, but it was dangerous because once caught, her brothers would be punished.

What also impressed Lee in her first days in China was the roads. “There were just so many cars and the road was so wide. But it was challenging to live there due to language. And I was also scared about my real identity being disclosed.”

North Korean refugees travel by minivan along mountain roads in southern China. They will enter Laos, cross the Mekong River into Thailand, and be placed in an immigration detention center before being sent to South Korea. Photo: National Geographic

Meandering journey to South Korea

After living in China for two years, Lee and her mother decided to move to South Korea, as many North Korean defectors were employed illegally in China and were often threatened by employers to report their real identity to police. They lived in the horror of being sent back to North Korea. People who get sent back face years of hard labor, abuse, and often death in brutal camps.

While China would repatriate North Korean defectors at the beginning, it is reported that it has shown some leniency toward them in recent years. According to Lee Young Jong, director of Unification Research Institute, the China-North Korea relationship has been very subtle, which directly affects border guards’ enforcement on the defectors - when relations are good, there would be more leniency; while if tension is heightened, there is no negotiation.

Normally there are two ways to escape China - one is to go west to Mongolia through China’s Gobi Desert, but the terrain is so treacherous that many refugees attempt to head south instead.

Lee and her mother took the second path - getting to Kunming in south China’s Yunnan Province first and then to Thailand where Lee and her mother stayed in a detention-like room provided by the South Korean embassy in Thailand for three months. Lee said the detention which could hold 200 to 300 people, mostly North Korean defectors, was too small to sleep.

Lee said she was lucky to finally make it to South Korea as some had to wait much longer than three months and some might die before they got to South Korea.

Following Lee and her mother, her two brothers also fled North Korea. But Lee said her brothers’ escape was not as smooth as hers due to the heightened border control. It took each of them more than 3 million Korean won to finally arrive in South Korea.

“There are three days in my life that I will never forget - the day that I left North Korea, the day I came to South Korea, and the day I saw my brothers in Seoul on March 15, 2010,” she said.

Broken dream

After Lee and her mother arrived in South Korea on July 16, 2006, Lee was sent to the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees in South Korea, named Hanawon, to be educated for three months mainly on how to live in the new country, which is a must for every North Korean defector arriving in South Korea.

What was good for a North Korean who had escaped to the South was that there was a remission of tuition for college. Lee was admitted later by a university in Seoul, where she met her husband.

However, Lee said what hinders a North Korean from getting fully integrated into the South Korean society is the language. Though sharing the same national language, the Korean language spoken in the North and South is quite different, from intonation to wording. Lee said North Koreans who escaped to South Korea are never willing to talk about their real identity publicly in order not to be seen differently. So she took a long time in changing her North intonation into the South one, and has to be very careful even today.

Majoring in social welfare in college, Lee now works in an affiliated agency under the South Korean Ministry of Unification, sometimes giving lectures to North Koreans who just arrived in South Korea like she had. What she tells almost every North Korean defector is that they have to forget everything in the past, because only when they forget can they start a new life, she said.

Lee is one of over 30,000 North Koreans living in the South now, according to estimates by the Ministry of Unification, but not all of them can finally get themselves as involved in the mainstream society as Lee.

She said among her North Korean friends, some are leading a better life than her, while some others find it hard to adapt to the new environment.

“While in North Korea, everyone gets paid roughly the same no matter how much work they do, here in South Korea, the more you do, the more you will get paid. Some just think it’s better to get paid, even if it’s very little, regardless of how much they do,” Lee said.

Some of their dreams about South Korea before they came just got broken after they found they had to try harder both physically and emotionally - to make ends meet and get accepted by the society.

According to a survey in May by an affiliated group under the Ministry of Unification, which focuses on North Korean defectors’ dissatisfaction with living in South Korea, 58% chose economic difficulty, 31.7% chose discrimination, 25.3% feel a gap between ability and dream, and 24% lack of involvement in society and culture.

According to Lee, for many North Korea defectors, South Korea is not their only dream land. They hope they can finally go to some developed countries like Britain and Germany where they can have a better life, while for most defectors in South Korea, the normal is that the more you do, the more you will get, and much more than in North Korea.

“I prefer the way of living in South Korea. It makes you believe only when you work hard, can you get reward. Life is now good enough for me,” Lee said.

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