A 40-year-old woman, who was a former professional athlete, shares her experiences as an agriculture employee in North Korea and why that was such an important job. She fled on her own in 2006.
Q: Can you share with us a bit about your life prior to leaving North Korea?
When I was young, I was a professional athlete in the traditional sport of jeon goo, which is similar to tennis. I was an athlete until the age of 21, when the sport was removed because of its decline in popularity.
I went on to attain a job that dealt with the control and distribution of rice. It was a rare and important job, not easy to attain. Such work was something to be proud of, as the food and crop sector is the most important sector in North Korea.
In North Korea, food is collected and distributed by the state. Because supply is limited, rice is our most precious resource. This forces us to be strict. It was my job to guard the rice that was stored in warehouses prior to distribution. I was given a machine gun and made sure that nobody stole from the warehouse.
People would try to come in and hide just a handful or two in their coat pockets. Some were very hungry. If people were caught stealing, it meant two to three days of forced labor.
Q: What was the state of poverty where you were living?
The state of poverty varies from house to house. Each house has a food distribution card, and how much rice a family gets is dependent upon how many people are living in their household. Poverty is determined by distribution, and not one's individual circumstances.
When Kim Il Sung died [in 1994], there were very bad conditions for three years. My neighbors and I sometimes could not eat food for days at a time. In such situations, those who want to survive sometimes have to ask their neighbors for food, and this is humiliating. The other option is to look for plants to eat in the mountains. During this time, I witnessed the slow process of one of my closest friends succumb to starvation and death.
In North Korea, individuals work hard, but are unable to get the value that they truly worked for.
Q: Can you share how you left the country, and what made you decide to leave?
I wanted to have more freedom. My younger sister left three years before me. I was able to communicate with her through a Chinese broker at the border. The details of my escape are actually typical of most North Koreans who flee the country.
There are usually two brokers, one on each side of the border, that enable this to happen. But the brokers are always changing, and you never feel like you can trust them for certain. Everything is conducted through the Chinese. Without them, escape is impossible.
The first step is to call your contact in the South, and once you receive an OK, you proceed through a border region in China. You are traveling with a group of five to six people that you do not know, and have no certainty that you are able to trust them. If one of you is caught, you are all caught. After arriving in China, this group poses as a tour group, sometimes traveling to other countries to better hide their trail before eventually making it to Thailand, where they can go to a refugee center and apply for refugee status with the South Korean government. Thailand and South Korea have an agreement that protects us and allows this to happen.
Q: When in North Korea, did you know what sort of South Korea you would be fleeing to? Do North Koreans have any idea what life is like outside their country?
For most, television is the only way of seeing the outside world. Of course, everything shown on normal television is controlled by the government. There is only one channel, and most of the time the only thing that it shows is the news of North Korea.
But the Chinese have established a black market in the country, and it is very easy for individuals to get hold of movies and television dramas from South Korea. I'm sure that many people that I knew owned such things. But watching television shows from South Korea is dangerous—one has to close all of their curtains and keep the volume low so that people outside cannot see what you are doing. If you are caught, you must pay a very large fine. In very rare cases, individuals are sent to live in different provinces.
What drew me in to these movies and TV dramas was not the plot or the direct content of the shows, but the world in which these films were set: the cars, the buildings, the restaurants, the daily lives of the people. It was so different to the life that I was living.
Q: What was your first shock or impression of Seoul when you arrived?
All of the lights and how it is always bright in Seoul. In North Korea, there are always blackouts. There are popular satellite images that show the difference between North and South Korea at night. The North seems like a dark cave. What these images reflect are controlled power blackouts that are conducted to save energy, and in some areas they occur every night. People in Seoul do not have to experience this.
Q: What are your thoughts on Korean unification?
This is the biggest assignment for the Korean peninsula. As North Korea becomes weaker, I begin to worry about the influences other surrounding countries might have there. I want to believe that it can happen and that the time is ripe for change, but three generations ago my grandmother swore to my mother when she was a little girl that she would see reunification within her lifetime. When I was a child, my mother told the same thing to me. Now if I were to have children, could I tell them this, or would this just be a lie?
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