I abandoned my homeland in 2000, when I was twelve years old. Home was a small village located in the northernmost part of Korea. A decade earlier, the Arduous March had started, and though the famine was formally over, for the poor, hunger was part of daily life. At some point, villagers had developed a habit of using chimney smoke as confirmation of life. Smoke meant that things were still okay. This reading was rarely wrong. We lived in extreme poverty, and to wake each day meant to be greeted by news of death. When a chimney stopped letting out smoke, people greeted the departure dully—“someone else died today”—before going back to their day. Even now, chimney smoke remains in my memory as a sign of life, a promise of survival.
In the nearby town of Jongsung, unlike my village, nearly every chimney had plumes of smoke furling out into the sky. In Jongsung, the smell of burning firewood stuck to my nose, and I could almost smell the waters of the Tumen River from the town. I was twelve years old, and my one hope then was to eat one meal a day. My father had passed away years earlier from hunger. My mother was a mother in name only and a non-presence in my life. My older brother, my hyung, had already left for China. In our village, there were rumors of food—even white rice—being plentiful in China. That rumor gave me my life’s goal, and I left. The only thing that stood between Jongsung and China was the Tumen River. In that space in between, there was hope and despair.
It was March when I swam across the Tumen River with a village friend. It was my first defection, and I knew nothing about borders. I had heard that soldiers guarded the river, but I thought that if I could cross the river my work would be done. Luck was with us then, and we crossed the river easily and begged for food at a humble thatch-roofed house not far from the river. The owner of the house could tell we were North Koreans, thanks to our wet clothes. The man looked around several times before tugging on my sleeve and letting us inside. He gave us a warm meal and a place to sleep. The next morning he sent us away, but not before giving us another meal and a bag of toasted rice and bread. We wandered the small town, knocking on doors to beg for food. It was while we were wandering that I reunited with my hyung, Gwang-il. When we saw each other, he was more than a little surprised. He hadn’t imagined I would come to China, and when I saw him it felt like a dream had taken form in front of me. From then on, we moved as three and stayed in that town begging in order to get by. I can’t fully put into words how shocked I was at the time that a river could be the one difference between starvation and plenty. Chosun was a place where people starved to death, and China was a place where people threw away leftovers. It was a paradise full of food, and we wandered peacefully from neighborhood to neighborhood until a month had passed. Our time in China came to an end then when we were arrested and sent to Longjing Prison. Someone in that town had reported us to the Chinese police. At the time, I didn’t know what illegal migration was. I didn’t know then what an immense thing it was to cross a border into a different country.
It was only when I was arrested that it dawned on me that there was danger in crossing a border. At Longjing Prison, countless defectors had passed through before me. There was Korean scrawled all over the white walls of the cell.
ARRESTED AND SENT BACK AGAIN?
I DON’T WANT TO LIVE ANYMORE
GUESS I’LL BE BEATEN TO DEATH ONCE I GET SENT BACK TO CHOSUN
I’M SO SCARED
WHAT A FUCKING SHITTY LIFE
I WISH I’ D JUST DIE ALREADY
There was desperation written on the walls, and I could feel the pain of the people who had come and gone before me. I could feel their fear. There was one small window, high on the wall, through which you could see the day grow dark. The light that came through the window made me think about the China that lay outside those walls.
Being locked up for days on end, resignation gradually falls over you. In the end, I spent nearly a month at Longjing Prison. Once we defectors numbered about twenty, the police loaded us on a small bus to transfer us back to Chosun, to North Korea. The bus seemed to glide along Hoeryeong Bridge. I looked out its window and saw a mass of uniformed soldiers standing together. My heart started to race. Once we got off the bus, we were ordered to take out our shoelaces. The soldiers tied us together in pairs by the wrist. I kneeled on the ground and lowered my head as ordered, and I waited to be interrogated. I could hear the pained screams of the defector already being questioned. Then my turn came. I entered the interrogation room, and the officer fired questions at me.
Why did you go to China, why did you betray your country?
I went to China because I was hungry.
At my response, the officer kicked me hard with his booted foot. His kicks were practiced and expert. A kick to my shin sent me to the ground, and I grabbed my leg as I rocked on the floor. The pain left me breathless, but he showed no mercy. He had no more questions for me, and with a few parting kicks to my legs and torso, the interrogation was over.
After everyone had been interrogated, we minors were sent to Hoeryeong Juvenile Prison. There are only two ways to leave that place: your parents come and claim you, or you escape. Our parents didn’t even know where we were, so how could they have found us? If we wanted to leave, we had to run away. After several weeks, we were able to make our way out. While in the prison, officers put detainees to work and we labored on the mountains for firewood and wild greens to eat. We were always guarded to block escapes, but we seized the chance to run when we found it. From Hoeryeong, we set off back to our hometown.
It had been about three months since we had last been home, and the landscape had completely changed. Corn had been planted in front yards and the growing stalks obscured the houses from view. As Hyung and I reached the front door of our house, my older sister, my noona, was returning home carrying a bundle of kindling on her back. She was thrilled to see us. Our mother was breastfeeding one of our half-siblings inside. And to my relief, her boyfriend, Doo-jin, was out trying to steal from the fields.
The seasons changed, though my daily life did not, and winter soon came upon us. In the winter, life becomes more severe. There were holes in all the walls of our house, which were never fixed. You could see the sky through the ceiling and the broken front door creaked in the winter wind.
When my father was alive, home was a place of comfort and a space where I could be a child. After he passed, “home” became a place of abuse, hunger, and contempt, somewhere I wanted to escape from. I had learned at an early age that I couldn’t depend on my mother. I was a little wanderer who crossed borders to flee hunger, to flee Doo-jin’s rage and fists. I would run and play with my friends, but when the sun began to set, they would head back home with happy hearts, while I felt like a rabbit entering a monster’s cave. Because of Doo-jin’s unending abuse and my mother’s ambivalence toward me, my home wasn’t a place that I could call home.
Doo-jin resumed giving orders and stealing food, as though I’ d never been gone. No matter what happened, if Doo-jin ordered me to do something, I had to follow. If I didn’t, there were only two paths for me: he would either beat me or chase me out of the house with no food. One of my responsibilities was firewood. I had to go into the mountains and chop wood, bringing back enough for his liking. Filling up our shed with enough wood meant a dozen trips back and forth from the mountains to the house.
One day, rage started to boil up from somewhere deep within me. Even a worm will turn. I’ d always endured, been patient and endured, but I couldn’t bear it any longer. I threw down the hand axe and rope I’ d been holding, and I smoked a cigarette as I set my mind to leaving this damned house. My mother was lying on the floor, again breastfeeding one of my younger half-siblings. I told her I was going to go to China. My mother didn’t even spare me a glance when she replied. “If you’re going to go, go.” As soon I heard those words, the last small spark of love I had for her burned away. I couldn’t live there any longer, and so I defected for a second time to China.
It was during my second time in China that I came to meet a Chinese-Korean missionary, Mr. Z. He operated a safehouse for North Koreans called the House of Love. A local Christian man introduced us, saying that Mr. Z. was a good man. He was not. He collected North Koreans and kept us in one place, using us as tools to extract donations in order to support the safehouse. If any of us disobeyed him, Mr. Z.’s solution was violence. He didn’t hesitate to whip me using his belt, an extension cord, or whatever other object was close at hand. Even as a child, I was stubborn and opinionated, and it was rare that a day would go by without some sort of punishment. There were three meals a day, but it was not unlike a prison. Each day was tightly prescribed for us, and we were confined within the walls of the apartment. From our first meeting after my second defection, I returned to Mr. Z.’s House of Love again and again. I kept returning for a warm place to sleep and for a hot meal to eat and because of my hyung. There was violence living there, but my hyung always returned to the House of Love whenever he defected. It was as though he thought the only way to survive in China was to live at the House of Love.
Time passed, and soon enough it had been nearly a year between my last repatriation and return to the House of Love. I began to let myself think I would never have to experience the pain of repatriation again. But in March of 2003, at five am, a series of thundering knocks sounded on our front door. We were in the middle of a prayer service, and we quickly shut our bibles and hid them under our blankets. A hush fell over everyone, and I prayed for the knocking to stop. We waited. The frantic knocks changed—to our secret knock. One knock, one, three. One knock, one, three. It had to be one of the other House of Love brothers. The oldest among us, Yoon-chul, took a quick head count to see who was missing, who might have gone out to a morning service at the local church. Jin-ho. He and I were the same age, fifteen, and he was gone. Our secret knock kept sounding on the other side. Yoon-chul asked, “Shei?” Who’s there? From outside, we heard a voice. “It’s me, Jin-ho.” Hearing his voice, any doubts were allayed, and Yoon-chul opened the door without hesitation. As soon as the door opened, five Chinese police officers burst in without even taking off their shoes. In the end, 2003 turned out to be another year without refuge, and once again cold handcuffs held my wrists as the police took us all away.
Every time I’ d been arrested, the police always had the same questions ready. When did you defect? Why are you here? Who is your leader? The police wanted me to sell out my House of Love brothers, to inform on them and spill everything I knew. If I were to reveal everything, my words would have gone straight into the police files and be sent over to North Korea. Our crimes, by North Korean standards, were major and punishable by death or time in a political prison camp. We had adopted Christianity and we had fraternized with South Korean nationals. I had no other choice.
I pretended to be mentally disabled. To each of the officer’s questions, I pretended not to understand. I stiffened my mouth, and feigned a speech impairment when I spoke. Usually, interrogations last thirty minutes. Mine lasted more than an hour. When the police couldn’t understand my speech, they put a pencil in my hand and told me to write down my answers. I wrote exactly the way I spoke, scratching out illegible words. The longer my interrogation went on, the wearier the police became. They spoke slowly and clearly, asking where the other North Koreans were from and how we had been spending our time in China. I spoke strangely; I told them I had only been in Yangji for three days, so I didn’t know anything. After spending more than an hour with me, they wrote up a report under the pretense that they’ d interviewed me. With my session over, I returned to the holding cell where all the other brothers were.
No one spoke a word to Jin-ho. He sat in a corner, alone, with his head bowed. I was furious at him, but I was also curious. How had he come to bring the police to our door? I asked how he had ended up leading them back to the safe house. Jin-ho explained the details. He had been walking to church alone when a police car pulled up and the officers started speaking to him. Jin-ho couldn’t respond in Chinese, so he was caught out as a North Korean immediately. A Chinese-Korean officer told Jin-ho that if he were to tell them where the rest of the group was, he could stay in China. Jin-ho trusted that officer and sold us out to the police in exchange for his survival.
The police didn’t keep their word. Jin-ho was interrogated, just like the rest of us. He was stuck in a holding cell, just like the rest of us. When we arrived at Yanji Prison, the ten of us were split into two groups of five and put into different cells. The other prisoners were there for a variety of different offenses. Petty fraud, brawling, theft. It was my second time at Yanji Prison. In the time since my first stay, nothing had changed. As ever, it was seaweed soup with cornbread for breakfast, lunch, dinner. I couldn’t stomach the bread, so I only ate once a day. The Chinese prisoners saw that I wasn’t eating, and they shared their food with me.
We stayed at Yanji Prison for seven days before all ten of us were transferred to Longjing Prison. We underwent our final interrogation in China there. When I entered Longjing, I didn’t know if it would be days or months before my repatriation. The prison hadn’t changed. The white walls were still covered with scrawls.
I’M PASSING THROUGH
ONCE I GET TO CHOSUN I’M GOING TO DEFECT AGAIN
I MIGHT DIE
WHY WAS I BORN TO A FATE LIKE THIS?
The walls were full of sadness. The words on those walls could fill an entire book, if only I could remember them.
From Longjing Prison it was a near certainty that we would be repatriated and held at Hoeryeong Prison, so we all agreed: if the chance to escape were to appear, run, no matter what. If we couldn’t all flee, those who could go should go and make it out, no matter what. We agreed on a designated meeting point if we managed to escape and resolved to share our plans with the brothers in the other cell. We were there in Longjing for just shy of ten days. From Longjing, our hands were cuffed and we were put on a prison bus. We were North Korea–bound, heading for a country where death waited, a place I had never wanted to set foot in again.
On the bus, the Chinese officers chatted and laughed with each other. The passengers on that small bus were silent—our faces were full of fear. The closer we drew to North Korea, the harder my heart beat; I felt short of breath and my throat burned. I didn’t have the ability to divine the future, but I did know that pain was about to come down on me. The Chinese authorities had already sent notice of our arrival, and there were North Korean soldiers waiting. They stood there in their dark khaki uniforms with Kim Il-sung pins over their left lapels. The bus we were on seemed to glide along Hoeryeong Bridge. The distance between us and the soldiers grew shorter. Before I could even finish thinking I’m dead, the bus had arrived on North Korean soil. The moments that unraveled before me were so familiar that it was like watching a scene from a film I’ d seen before. The Chinese police undid our handcuffs. They passed over each prisoner’s file to the soldiers, and we were ordered to kneel. The Chinese authorities and North Korean soldiers exchanged a few words before the bus turned around and set off for China.
The soldiers yelled at us, “Stand up! Undo the laces on your right shoe. Step to it!” There were twenty or thirty of us, and we did as ordered, moving in near unison. After taking our laces, the soldiers split us into pairs and tied our hands together. The lace was tied so tight that it nearly cut off the circulation to my hand, turning it blue from lack of blood. The soldiers lined us up in double file and ordered us to walk. We walked.
We walked a long time before finally reaching Hoeryeong Prison. Once inside, we were made to face the wall in single file. They called people in, two by two, for the interrogation. The pained screams of the first defectors drifted out from the room. I could hear the voice of the soldier clearly. “Answer me properly, you bastard. Give me a straight answer!” That was followed by terrifying thudding noises and the shrieks and screams of the prisoners as they cried out for mercy. I was gripped by fear as I stood facing the wall. What could they be using to beat people that would make that sort of thick thunk? Each interrogation took less than an hour. Every single prisoner who walked out of that room came out limping. Some were bleeding from the nose. Some were bleeding from the leg. Not a single person came out unscathed; flesh was bruised and bleeding. My time came far too soon. I entered the interrogation room, still tied at the wrist to another defector. In the middle of the room there was a heater with a fire burning. Next to it were roughly cut chunks of pine, dripping with fresh resin. The officer questioned the boy tied to me first.
The soldier asked me the same questions he had asked the boy next to me. “Hometown?”
“Onsung-gun, North Hamkyung Province, sir.”
He asked why I had crossed over to China. I told him I had gone to China because I was hungry.
At that, he spit back, “You crossed the river because you were hungry? You betrayed your country because you were hungry, you bastard? You’ d cross the river and turn your back on the grace of our Dear Leader to save yourself?”
His gaze turned steely and full of fury, he swung at my legs with a chunk of wood. He knocked all the strength out of my legs and left me on the ground. It felt as though my bones had been broken. An involuntary groan escaped from my lips. The soldier ordered the other boy to stand me up. Once I was on my feet, the soldier swung at my legs again. I wet myself involuntarily. I teetered, then fell. The pain was so great that I have no memory of the actual words he spoke to me. My legs began to bruise and bleed. I got on my knees and begged, “Comrade, sir, please spare me. I won’t do it again, I’ll never betray my country again.” Even now, I can’t recall how long I was beaten. Each blow to my legs felt like the wood was making contact with my bones and crushing them. Just like the others who had left the room before me, at the end of it all I limped out, shaking and teetering.
The boy tied to me seemed to feel calmer after the interrogation was over. He spoke to me in the softest of voices. “The officials here will make you strip down to your underwear. It’s so that we defectors can’t run away. So rip up your underwear, carefully, when no one’s watching.” Then he moved both hands to his groin and started to tear up his underwear. Because we were still tied together, I relaxed my hand so he could move freely. He ripped the fabric, then threw the rags into an ignored corner of the room. I followed suit. I put my hands into my pants and started to tear up my underwear. I don’t know if I was too weak or if Chinese underwear is too well-made, but I had trouble actually ripping them up. At any rate, eventually I managed, and I rolled up my now-unwearable underwear and threw it away in a corner. Once all the defectors had been interrogated, the soldiers gave their next order, “Strip down to your underwear.” Thanks to the boy I was tied to, I was left with a pair of thermal long johns and a thin undershirt.
The soldiers lit candles to combat the prison’s power outage, a common enough occurrence due to the country’s ongoing electricity shortages. The cell I was assigned didn’t have defectors, only young kotjebi, homeless children. In the light of the candles, I could see from their faces that they were malnourished. I sat there for about an hour until a soldier opened the cell door to give us dinner. Without any light, it was hard to tell exactly what sort of food was being given to us. I lifted the bowl to my nose and gave it a sniff. There was a savory scent. When I poked my finger in, it felt powdery. The portion was so small that it would be gone in two bites. It didn’t taste terrible, but it had only been a few hours since I had left China, and I couldn’t stomach the prison food. I gave my food to the kotjebi sitting next to me, and the boy finished it off in an instant.
All the defectors had been sent to our cells still tied together in pairs by our shoelaces. I asked the boy I was tied to if he would mind me pairing off with someone I knew. He agreed easily and we untied ourselves so that I could be with Il-nam, one of my House of Love brothers. We tied our wrists together so the guards wouldn’t notice the switch. Il-nam and I hatched an escape plan with some of the kotjebi. We quietly spread the word to the other brothers, passing the message on in whispers. We decided to escape at midnight, long after any guards had fallen asleep.
The wait was too long for me. I woke to Il-nam poking me in the side; I came to my senses right away. The cell door squeaked as we opened it. At the sound of the door, the guard in the hallway yelled out, “Who is it?” He asked where we were going, so I told him we were going outside to urinate. The guard must have been exhausted, because he simply said, “Hurry up and come back,” before lying back down. Il-nam and I went outside and began searching for an escape route. We located the outer wall and raced toward it.
The wall must have been about two meters high and was made of cement. Il-nam was older than me and taller than me—he climbed atop the wall easily. But I was short and couldn’t get over the wall. Il-nam reached down from the top, but as he started to pull me up, the shoelace that bound us together couldn’t support my weight and broke. I fell back to the ground. Il-nam left me there.
The top of the wall was covered in glass shards, placed there to stop any kotjebi from trying to run away. When Il-nam was pulling me up, my arm was dragged across the glass. All I could think about was escaping, and I didn’t feel any pain, even though I was bleeding. I noticed some garbage had been piled up by the wall, and I used the heap to climb up. When I jumped down, it felt like I was falling for ages. When I landed, I felt painful shockwaves travel up my back. I ran as fast and as far as I could to any place that didn’t have any people.
I ran aimlessly. I’ d been wandering for hours when I heard the sound of a train whistle and I decided to head toward the sound. As the distance between myself and immediate danger grew, my body began to feel the cold. I was barefoot, in nothing but long johns and an undershirt, and it felt like I was getting frostbite. I began to cry. I had managed to escape from prison, but I didn’t know where to go. Should I go back? Did everyone manage to escape? And what about my hyung? He was timid and sluggish and hated the cold; wouldn’t he have stayed put? For a long while, I deliberated over whether or not to return to the prison. But I was scared of the beating I knew I would get if I returned, and I didn’t even know the way back. I decided my only choice was to go to Hoeryeong Station and take a train back to my home village. When I got closer to the station, I saw two of my House of Love brothers, Young-jin and Sun-nam. The three of us grabbed each other and sobbed. I asked them if Hyung had managed to escape too. He had, but they didn’t know where he had gone.
Officers were on patrol inside the train station, so we had to seek shelter elsewhere. There was a large number of broken-down train cars nearby. They were parked on fragments of rail and they at least blocked the wind. Young-jin, Sun-nam, and I huddled together inside one of the cars, waiting for daybreak. I woke up to the sounds of rustling, and when I looked around, I saw a couple of other people in the car, taking a shit. The train car we had slept in was a de facto outhouse. It had been in use for so long and by so many people that there wasn’t a single surface not covered in shit. It had frozen, thawed, then frozen again so many times that the shit had dried out. I had crumbs of shit in my hair. Sun-nam and Il-nam were in the same state. There had been a strange odor, but I never imagined it could be because we were on top of shit. The night had been so dark that we hadn’t known. But as the morning came we saw the absurdity and the humor—our shelter had been nothing more than a toilet.
We wanted to return to our home villages, but electricity shortages meant there were no trains running yet. We moved from train car to train car, looking for anything that could be scavenged and eaten. When I spotted a kernel of corn I picked it up and ate it without hesitation. When I saw a stray noodle, I picked that up too and ate it. That corn or rice or noodle might have come from a train window, courtesy of someone’s vomit for all I knew, but I ate without giving it any thought. It was better than starving to death. Three days passed. On the fourth day, in the early morning hours, a train screeched into the station.
We ran toward the train and saw that it had come in from Pyongyang and was Onsong-bound, the direction we wanted to go. We waited until all passengers had boarded and stowed away right before the train departed. Our plan was to get off before the last stop and walk back to our villages. The train chugged along for a long while, and at last it stopped at our station. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t want to disembark. I said to Young-jin and Sun-nam, let’s wait till we hit the last station and get off when the train turns back for Pyongyang. And so we continued on to the last stop. We got off after all the other passengers had left. The announcement came through over the loudspeaker. “Our train will depart in three hours for Pyongyang after reversing the loop.”
We stood still in the middle of the bustling crowd flowing into the train station. A familiar voice called out my name—it was my hyung. He had, without a doubt, been wearing long johns when we had escaped from the prison, but he stood in front of me wearing a school uniform. He reached into his pocket and pulled out candy. The candy was the most delicious, sweetest thing in the world. Hyung had also been on the same train. He explained that he had originally planned to get off before Onsong Station. But when the train had stopped, he suddenly wanted to stay on till the end of the line and disembark when the train was heading back to Pyongyang. We had never discussed any of this, so how had our minds connected? Had a divine power helped us? I believe it was God who kept us on the train past our original destination and to the end of the line.
After the train ride, we walked until we reached a town near the Tumen River called Hasambong. We waited for the day to grow dark, and we walked into a corn field on the mountainside so we could survey the river from that vantage point. As we waited for darkness to fall, we staved off our hunger with snow that had yet to melt.
At last, night came. We descended from the mountain and waited. The border guards rotated shifts for dinner, which gave us a small window of time to cross the river. It must have been seven or eight pm when a pack of soldiers passed by, singing a song about Kim Jong-il. We had ten to twenty minutes. We ran hard toward the river, toward the stacked embankment. We paused for a few seconds, holding our breath. We crouched down, looking around. It was quiet. We ran for the river and plunged into the water.
There was not a single light on the North Korean side of the river. Across the water, China’s lights shone brightly. When I first stepped into the water, I didn’t feel the cold. Each step closer to China submerged my body that much deeper. Up to my thigh, then my belly button, then my chest. When I couldn’t walk any further, I began to swim furiously toward China. Fifteen-year-old me was short and small. I couldn’t overcome the currents, and no matter how hard I swam, I couldn’t close the distance. Hyung and the others were getting closer and closer to China, and further and further away from me. The river had only just thawed, and fist-sized chunks of ice floated past me as I swam.
I could feel my body giving in to paralysis. I began to sink into the water. I could see death in front of me, and I called out for help. But the others were too far away and my voice was too soft to be heard over the sounds of their swimming and the river. The cold of the water stabbed my skin. I yelled out for help again. The others were just about to get out of the water when they saw me. Two of them turned back and swam to me. They dragged me out. When we emerged from the water, our clothes froze solid.
The four of us headed to a local church that we were familiar with. When we arrived, the deacon offered us a warm meal with white rice. I ate breathlessly; after all, I had spent days subsisting on scraps I found on the ground. I finished one bowl of rice, then another without pause. My memory goes black after that. I had passed out. After eating so little for days, eating so much so quickly overloaded my body—it was a food coma. When I regained consciousness, Mr. Z. had arrived at the church. He was shocked to see us so soon after we’ d parted ways.
I’ d crossed the border and been repatriated several times, but that fifth defection was the first time I was able to escape from prison in just a day and make it back to China so quickly. Usually, being repatriated meant it would be six months to a year before I could attempt another crossing. Mr. Z. called a taxi for us, and we set off for the House of Love immediately. Our clothes hadn’t even dried yet when we got in the taxi. The taxi driver saw us shivering and turned the heat on high for us. As warm air filled the car, a rotten odor emanated from our unwashed bodies. The taxi driver withstood it all, only occasionally cracking open his window for fresh air.
After I returned to the House of Love, I spent another two years living under Mr. Z.’s control. My life was like a hamster wheel: wake at dawn, prayer service, Bible study, cooking and cleaning for Mr. Z. and his family, beatings. Then there were the visits where we defectors were put on display for the South Koreans who had donated money to Mr. Z. in support of the work he was doing to help North Koreans.
One day, out of nowhere, Mr. Z. asked if I would want to go to South Korea. I didn’t need to think long. I had never dreamed I could go to South Korea, because the journey there seemed impossible to me until then. To this day, I don’t know what prompted his change of heart, as he seemed reluctant to let us go. But he allowed me and the others at the House of Love to leave for Beijing, where the person who would guide us to South Korea was waiting. My teenaged self was full of hope, and I thought I would finally be able to grasp freedom.
In Beijing, a South Korean man we knew as Mr. Kim took us in temporarily, then transferred us to the Widow. She was another South Korean, and once she met us she said we needed to return to North Korea. We were to go back, armed with the Word of God, and become martyrs. I didn’t want to lose the freedom I had paid for with my blood and tears. I didn’t want to become a martyr. I asked the Widow over and over to be sent to South Korea. But each time I pleaded with her, she told me that it was Satan speaking through me. She ordered me to fast. That fast went on for ten days. But I did not waver. In the face of my persistence, the Widow said I was possessed by evil spirits and the answer was the laying on of hands. Several people prayed for me at once, with my hyung and the other defectors participating. After I took off my shirt, they hit my body with their palms. I complained about the pain, so they took hold of my arms and legs and continued. The prayer session lasted about thirty minutes. My body bruised blue, and I bled from the places my skin had torn.
A few of my House of Love siblings agreed to return to North Korea, and it was after this that the Widow passed us on to another South Korean woman, Pastor H. In hindsight, I think they had planned this as a part of our spiritual training. Pastor H. had helped dozens of defectors reach the South when she took over our care. After meeting us, she was amazed and told us she’ d never met such pious and devoted defectors. She did not help us go to South Korea. Instead, her plan was for us to return to North Korea as missionaries. Proselytizing in North Korea is a capital offense, but Pastor H. was willing to have us take that risk. She assured us our deaths would not be in vain—they would glorify her name once we were in heaven.
The other defectors with me in Beijing had already agreed to return to North Korea to become martyrs. Pastor H. treated them like holy visions, sacred children of God. In contrast I, who refused to give up on South Korea, had been touched by Satan and was a rebel against God’s will. South Korea remained out of reach for three years. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was a perpetual heavy police presence in the city, and province-to-province movement was strictly controlled. When Pastor H. felt the situation in Beijing was growing dangerous, she evacuated us to a different city, Harbin.
We took shelter with a South Korean couple there who ran a Bible school, and after a few days passed, the other defectors and I returned to Beijing. Just a couple of months later, life in Beijing became precarious again, so we were sent back to Harbin. On this second journey to Harbin, I made a resolution. I told the Harbin couple I wanted to go to South Korea. Their faces took on severe expressions and they called Pastor H. A few hours later, she arrived in Harbin, fresh off a flight from Beijing. She was furious, and she insisted that it was the evil spirits talking. That she couldn’t allow me to go to South Korea, because I would become depraved and lose faith in Jesus. That I was like a greenhouse plant—outside of that shelter, I would die. When I heard that idiotic argument, I retorted that even plants in greenhouses are planted outdoors when the time comes. Seeing that she couldn’t change my mind, she told me that my wish was impure and contradicted God’s will. That too was idiotic, and the truth was that Pastor H. was a bad person who cared most about the donation money that flowed into her bank account.
We fought for a long time, from just after dinner into the next morning. Hyung had been sitting with us during part of the argument. Even if he’ d taken my side, it would have been a difficult battle, but after a while he said he was tired and went to bed. At the time, I thought him pathetic as I watched him walk away. In the end, I think she grew tired of me. She let me go. During the years she had managed us, Pastor H. had called herself our mother, but she left me without any help or a single cent. She returned to Beijing that day. The Harbin couple told me and Hyung that only one could leave for South Korea. I was dumbfounded, but their rationale was that if both of us left and were arrested by the Chinese police, we could inform on the other defectors, so one of us needed to remain behind. Who should be the one to go? In my mind it was obvious: me. Out of the defectors in Beijing, I had been the one to fight and agitate for a way out. I wanted to escape from that place as soon as possible; I felt I might go crazy if I stayed any longer. Hyung had been ambivalent about going to South Korea. How could I yield to him?
The Harbin couple called a taxi for me, then forced me out of the house. Before they made me leave, I asked for time to say one last goodbye to my hyung and my defector family, the people I had spent the last eight years of my life with. They said no. What right did they have to refuse me? But we defectors weren’t people to them, we were income-generating instruments. I left that day without saying goodbye. The Harbin couple may have felt sorry as they gave me money for the taxi fare and extended a small grace—they directed me to a church run by someone they knew. At the church I reached out to a Korean missionary couple I’ d met while at the House of Love. With their help, I was able to connect with a broker. Anxiety had been my world in China, where life was exhausting and there was no way of knowing what might happen one moment to the next. Today someone might be my brother, tomorrow a stranger. China was a country where safety was fleeting, but I knew I wouldn’t starve.
By bus, then on foot through the Gobi Desert, on July 23, 2007, I reached Mongolia. Less than a year later, I became a South Korean citizen. My hyung and noona had made it to South Korea as well, not long after I did. The three of us worked hard and eventually gathered up enough money to bring our mother over too. I did it out of a sense of duty, not love. Although by 2012 we were all in South Korea together, we lived apart.
When I first defected, twelve-year-old me didn’t know the meaning of “homeland.” My younger self was filled with hatred and the question “Can the
homeland feed me?” There were so many starving people—neglected and dying children, and countless more who lost their lives attempting to cross the Tumen River. So, what was North Korea to me? Should I hate communism? Is it that Kim Il-sung and his descendants are bad? I knew nothing about politics or the Kims, but had only one thought: Please let tomorrow be a day I don’t starve.
I was just a child, yet no one took care of me. I had to leave for China to survive. But for that, I was deemed a traitor to the country; I was beaten and cursed at as though I were no longer human. But if the North Korean government could have given me two meals a day, not even of rice but of porridge, if they had been capable enough to provide for their people, I would never have gone to China. I used to think of “homeland” as any place where I could eat three meals a day. After my first defection, I was fonder of China than of the country of my birth. I considered China my home, and every time I was repatriated and dragged back to North Korea, my heart remained in China, the place where white rice could be had.
Now, I’ve lived longer outside of North Korea than I have within it. For seventeen years, I’ve lived in foreign lands, under the skies of China, South Korea, and the United States. Breathing that air and living among foreign people, their food has become part of me and I’ve long since adjusted to this life. But still, I ache from homesickness. When I think of North Korea, my heart roils, my pulse races unevenly. I am not whole; my body is in one place and my heart in another. I am ever a stranger.
When I grew older, I began to search for my place in the world and my homeland. My homeland is longing. It’s sorrow. It’s the place, when I was eight years old, where I closed my father’s eyes with my own hands, the one person I loved in the entire world. My homeland is the place where my beloved little brother is buried. My fifth defection was my final goodbye. If I had known then that it would be my last time, I would have spent a little longer recording it in my mind and heart. It’s my lasting regret that I didn’t. I return to North Korea in my dreams and in my thoughts. I miss home. I long for the day when I can go home freely. I risked my life to leave, but my heart is always there. My homeland is my father, my little brothers, and my friends. Will I ever be able to return?