During my time in Seoul, I met and spoke to a defector from North Korea who was kind enough to share her story with me. Her identity will remain anonymous throughout as per her request to ensure her safety.
People are literally starving back home. I remember in 1994 when our “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung died his son Kim Jong-il took over and roughly three million people starved to death. It used to be that the government would provide everything for us but once that stopped there was no food and people started to drop like flies.
I lived in Chongjin, the second largest city in North Korea with my husband and our only son. Medical care was the worst as there was no medicine for patients and electricity was sparse, only working for an average of two hours a day. Salaries in North Korea are next to nothing and basic necessities can only be found on the open market (black market) as necessities are smuggled in from China.
To get by I worked refurbishing used bicycles and sold them on at a local market. As most North Koreans aren’t allowed to own cars, bicycles are very popular and are imported in from Japan on large ships.
I made the decision to defect in 2013 to South Korea after my husband was killed. Life became too much to bear as I could not support my son alone and I had to move in with my two sisters. The process of escaping North Korea is incredibly risky.
If caught you can face severe consequences such as expulsion, exile to the countryside, and even execution. Defecting was an extremely difficult decision as it was too dangerous for my son and me to defect together. In the end, I chose to go first in order to pave a route for him to follow me afterwards.
The first step in my journey was to contact a mule who arranged the sale of North Koreans to Chinese men in exchange for settlement money. Once I found someone my sisters reported me as missing and presumed dead to the authorities so that no one would be looking for me. I was then sold and smuggled into China where I lived with my owner for a year.
In 2014, I was able to finance another mule to smuggle me out of China and into Laos. I continued across the Mekong river from Laos into Thailand where I sought protection at a North Korean refugee camp in Bangkok. From there I appealed to be resettled into South Korea where the law recognizes North Koreans as equal citizens.
It took me 14 months in total to get from China into South Korea and another six months to settle into the lifestyle. For the first three months, I was detained by the government and questioned to ensure I wasn’t a spy. The next three months consisted of an educational course designed to help defectors such as myself integrate into South Korea as smoothly as possible.
I was supported every step of the way from being taught how to ride the subway and how to open a bank account, to being given my own apartment and ID. For the next five years, I was given an allowance of $3,000 a month and the option to study for free including University, all paid for by the South Korean government.
It was hard to adjust knowing that I had left my family behind, but two years later my son was able to join me and we are now safe and happy in Seoul. I send my sisters money through a mule and using his phone we are able to speak twice a year. It is my hope that one day they too will be able to join me.