The original stories, and others, can be found at http://nkd.or.kr/news/story/index/1, the personal accounts page of the Association of the North Korean Defectors website. The complete translations can be found on the Woroni website. The stories have been translated and reproduced with full permission from the Association of North Korean Defectors.
North Korea seems to exist in a state of punctuated equilibrium; it’s usually quiet, but every now and then, it explodes into life. When it does, it’s associated with attention-grabbing headlines like ‘North Korea tests intercontinental ballistic missile’, or ‘UN Security Council imposes harsh sanctions on North Korea’. It’s a subject that is constantly antagonised and politicised. Because of this, people seem to forget that North Korea is a nation with a population of people that is larger than that of Australia’s. They are the true victims of North Korea: not US politicians who every now and then spit demeaning rhetoric, or bored Australian journalists considering whether North Korea could bomb Australia.
I’d like to share some excerpts from the stories of North Korean defectors with you.
The homeland that abandoned me
By Jeong Yeon-Sook, May 2011
Translated by Noah Yim
Unlike most of the other stories of defectors, mine didn’t start with hunger or the struggle to subsist. But it does share the unfairness and misery with those 20,000 other stories.
While the rest of North Korea struggled to get food on their tables, I lived a busy life in a bid to live better than the life I had. A senior from the State Security Department came to me and asked me to be an agent. The State Security Department is the secret police and internal intelligence agency of North Korea, employing 90 – 100 thousand people, it is an agency directly linked to the Kim regime, often acting above the law..
The moment I entered his office, he started to ask me whether I believed that I had received the highest order of fortune and kindness throughout my life; because I had been bestowed so much care and love by the comrade, director Kim Il-Sung, to have attended university on the Kim Il-Sung scholarship.
I answered the positive without much thought. Years of propaganda and brainwashing had trained me to feel nothing but loyalty to Kim Il-Sung. He slid over a sheet of paper, and told me to read it carefully and sign it.
The contents of the form repeated what he had already said. It continued to say that I must henceforth keep confidentiality on all directions given to me from the Department. What truly terrified me were the consequences of potential inability to hold my silence; I would be sentenced to a political prison camp. I understood its message clearly; complete confidentiality, no discretion required. I signed it.
When I left the office, my hairs stood on edge as if I had just been in an abattoir, and I swore to myself that I would never deviate even slightly from the rules set out on that form. My loyalty and patriotism inflamed.
A few days later, I was introduced to my senior, who told me to follow their every word to the letter. Because Chung-gang (author’s county of residence) is a large county adjacent to the Chinese-North Korean border, it was a major processing hub for individuals who had been repatriated or captured while attempting escape.
My first assignment was an elderly lady.
She had defected in 1996, during the Arduous March (a famine during the 1990s, that starved 330, 000 people to death). She had been repatriated alone, leaving her son and daughter back in China.
At the age of 67, she had no teeth left, and her husband, who had worked as a diagnostician, had been executed for whistleblowing. She had defected as times hit her hard during the famine with her son and daughter, but was repatriated after being reported by her own countryfolk. The Department assigned her to perform menial tasks with me, so that I could build a rapport with her to gather information.
They instructed me to initially ask questions like: ‘Is China more prosperous than we are?’, or ‘Where are your son and daughter?’, and to move on to questions like ‘Did you see any South Korean TV broadcasts while you were in China?’, ‘Was the TV content interesting?’, ‘Did you meet any South Koreans in China?’ or ‘Did you ever read a bible or go to a church?’
I performed the Department’s directions well and with great loyalty.
But every now and then, I saw myself with shame. I followed the orders without question, and to an extent, I seemed inhumane and depraved. To frame such an innocent and naïve woman for political gain was wrong.
Even now, here in South Korea, I bitterly laugh at myself when the memory resurfaces. To think that the same institution and similar people still operate in North Korea disgusts me.
One day, the woman said that she missed her children sorely; she said that her whole body was aching, and that she didn’t want to eat anything. She had lost all motivation. My task that day was to glean information about the content of a Korean broadcast titled ‘A message to the members of the Workers’ Party of Korea’ aired in China. When I asked her about it, she didn’t respond.
When I returned without an answer, I was instructed to meet my superior at the orchard. My superior kicked me and slapped me, demanding to know why I couldn’t do what I was ordered, to get some information from an old hag. I replied that she was in too much grief to ask her again, which was rewarded with a few more kicks. My senior then threatened me that there would be more to come if word got out about our meeting.
I kept my silence, unable to even confide in my husband. I repented for my mistakes, and cried silent tears.
One day, the Department gave me their final instructions for my assignment. They told me that I was to find out where the lady’s son and daughter were, after which they required no more information from her. It was clear that they intended to cooperate with the Chinese government to repatriate the lady’s children, and dispose of her.
I decided that I needed to get the lady out of the country, back to her children.
The Department, catching scent of suspicion, pushed the elderly lady and found out that I had not performed many of the duties I had been assigned, and that I had fabricated many of the reports I had returned to them. They then assigned a co-worker to surveil me.
A few days later, I found out that the lady had escaped from the compound. She had noticed my disobedience of the Department’s instructions, and escaped.
I had to escape too.
By Lee Ok-Jin, 2005
Translated by Noah Yim
When people think of North Korea, a few things come to their minds: a society without free speech, an impoverished and starving population, and people who do what they are told to do and eat what they are given. They think of an oppressive regime enslaving its people. They are not wrong.
Contrary to a free, democratic society, the communist model is rudimentary and has no room for individual expression. But humans innately want to be unique; from this desire, North Korea has become a place where amoral and antisocial behaviour has become commonplace.
My story is a product of the special circumstances created by this toxic, dysfunctional society that is North Korea.
In 1998, when I was 23, I married to a researcher in a government laboratory. He was tall and built well; a good-looking and successful man by all accounts.
Unlike most other couples, we loved, and had great mutual respect for each other.
We lived in the scientists’ apartment in Pyongyang’s Kwangbok street (a very rich area reserved for high-class government employees). Our lifestyles were unlike the lifestyles that most people overseas think of when they thought of North Korea.
One day, my husband invited his superior to our house. He was an older man who also worked at the laboratory. They drank foreign whisky together, and based off their actions and conversation, seemed like very close friends. He then invited me to sit and drink with them. I didn’t want to, but him being my husband’s superior, it was difficult to refuse. It is uncommon in North Korea for women to drink.
It was the first time that I had ever drunk alcohol, and I felt its effects almost immediately. My thinking slowed, and my eyelids became heavy. I wanted to lie down but the situation did not permit it, and I sat in silence. I took small sips as they urged me to drink more, and I fell asleep there.
I woke up in the middle of the night. I came to my senses due a strange inkling. I could not help but be shocked by the sight that greeted my eyes. I was naked. And I was not alone. The superior had his arms wrapped tightly around me and was grunting heavily.
I tried to push him away, but I was too late.
He groped my body as if he were my lover, and after quenching his lust, he lightly touched my cheek with a grin on his face. At that moment, I shut my eyes tightly.
He lay down, as if satisfied, and let out a laugh. I couldn’t move a muscle. Tears of remorse dripped down my face.
After the superior had left, my husband was nowhere to be found.
He arrived in the morning, with a lopsided grin. He asked me to serve him breakfast before he went to work. I had not done anything to that point in time. I had lost the motivation to do anything. It was the first time that I had ever seen him and felt disgust and revulsion.
One night, trapped by the turbulent thoughts raging within my head, the doorbell rang. I went to the door and opened it, expecting my husband. It was, instead, his superior who had come over that night.
He came into the flat, as if it were his own home, and sat on the couch in the sitting room. He naturally took his overcoat off and hung it up.
‘Come sit here next to me,’ he said.
My heart started to pound.
‘Come sit here next to me,’ he repeated, ‘It’s not like we’re strangers.’
He continued, ‘Your husband got a very big promotion today. Have no doubt that it was your beauty rather than his ability or skill that got him that promotion. I’m even thinking about giving my position to him in the future, depending on your actions. Of course, this is what we agreed on, but I really do like you.’
I felt as if the world had been pulled out from underneath my feet.
‘What? You made an agreement with my husband?’ I asked.
‘Of course – I couldn’t have possibly done that with you if it were not for an agreement.’ He replied casually.
Realisation finally dawned on me. Emotions flooded my face.
‘Let me ask you one thing. Are you telling me that my husband sold his wife for social prestige? Are you willing to stand by that statement?’ I asked.
‘Why are you taking this so seriously? He didn’t sell you, we’re just cooperating. To simplify it for you; there’s no issue here, and there’s no need for you to interfere and ruin our future prospects.’ He replied.
He continued on rambling his terrible, offensive reasons. I bit back the anger and humiliation that almost consumed me, and continued to listen to him, and thought once more about the deeply hypocritical and amoral society that I lived in. He, however, continued to spout out his thoughts about emotions and interactions that he would never understand or experience.
The next day, I confronted my husband about it.
‘I’m telling you, you’ll get pushed out otherwise.’ He said, ‘Living in Pyongyang is not that easy. The most valuable thing to us is not our household or family, but our nation. Personal differences, and the sanctuary of one’s household are second to the nation. If, in order to protect our family, I was to deny his offer, he can oust us from Pyongyang and we’ll lose all the power we have. It’s not like there’s somewhere we can go to vent our frustrations. The way this nation works is that law, morality, and everything else is seconded to power and influence. A man must use everything in his arsenal to rise to the highest position he can, and must wisely, and expertly, brave through the humiliation and suppression of emotions to be the true holder of power. You can leave me if you don’t understand this. I have long given up on those petty concepts of household and family and those who heed those meaningless words that have flowed down from unsuccessful ancestors. If you want to be with me for the rest of your life, you need to get out of that mindset. I don’t want to go down to some place in the middle of nowhere and dig up the food we eat to have a nice, loving life with you.’
What more needs to be said? I did not respond, but walked outside, in the middle of the night, and continued walking with no thought of stopping.