Special Report: North Korean Defectors’ Journey to the South

04/13/2018 North Korea (Channel News Asia) – Most North Koreans who break out do so by crossing the river border. Meet some of those who made it to Seoul:

Song Byeok lost his father in the river

Song Byeok, 48, was a propaganda artist. His father drowned trying to cross the Tumen river in 2000. When the artist finally left North Korea in 2001, he brought photos of his family with him.

“We left that August to find food,” Byeok recalled, describing the first attempt. “We were from a town further inland, and we weren’t sure where the river was high and where it was low. I didn’t know at the time but the river was swollen because of the rainy season. I thought we had to cross it anyway.

“All I could think about was getting to China to buy food.

I took off my clothes and tied them into a rope to strap us together. I told my father not to let go. As we approached the middle of the river, the strap felt lighter. I looked back and saw my father drifting away.

“I was devastated. He was going under the water and couldn’t get out. I rushed up to the (North Korean) border guards and asked them to save him but they just said why did I come out, why didn’t I die too. They handcuffed me and took me away. It was Aug. 28.

“I was tortured by the ‘bowibu’ (North Korean secret police) in Hoeryong, then jailed for four months in Chongjin prison camp.

“But after I was released from the camp I felt like I needed to survive and carry on living. Right before I tried to defect again, I went back home and grabbed my family photos. Even if I died trying, I thought, at least I would have this picture with me.

“I never found my father. After I came to South Korea, I went back to China in 2004 and held a memorial service for him by the river. My heart still aches.”

Kang’s mother sent a counterfeit fur

The parents of Kang, 28, sent out a coat across the Chinese border after she reached the South in 2010.

“I didn’t ask my mother to send me this coat,” said Kang, who wanted to be identified only by her surname. “But she knew I feel the cold easily and sent it to me. She sent some honey too, but it went missing on the way.

“The coat is made of dog fur. I don’t know what kind of dog. In 2010, it cost about 700,000 North Korean won (US$88 at the unofficial rate). It was really expensive. A North Korean friend went to China to pick it up for me.

“I liked this coat when I got it. I thought my mother must’ve spent quite a lot of money on it. My father was a party officer. Our family had a car and we lived in a special apartment.

“Ordinary people couldn’t afford to wear this kind of coat, not even soldiers. Commissioned officers could afford them. Border guards would wear them. It wasn’t easy to buy this kind of coat, but as time went on, fake ones began to appear.

“The state often clamped down on this item. It’s technically military supplies so the state monitored people who altered the design of the coat. I know just from looking at this coat that it’s a counterfeit one, not the official version.

“The counterfeit ones look quite different from the original ones. Military officials preferred the fakes to the original because the design looked much better. The children of rich families would wear them.

“I look too chubby in this, so don’t wear it here. I thought I could probably wear it if I altered it.”


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