Han, a Communist Party official in North Korea, was walking home from work when he heard he was in trouble. He had smuggled a radio back from China after an official trip. He listened to it late at night, huddled with earphones on and shades drawn, to hear music that brought him a whisper of sanity and took him away from the horrors of his day.
NOW, someone had found it, or someone had told.
“It could have been my children who said something outside. It could have been my friend; one knew,” said Han, 39, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his surname.
“If a farmer or laborer had a radio, he could have been released,” Han said. “But I was an official. In my case, it would have been torture and a life sentence in a political prisoners’ camp.”
At that moment, he made a choice faced by thousands who flee North Korea: He left his family to try to save his own life. He went straight to the Chinese border on that July day in 1997 and waded across the river, abandoning his wife and sons, then ages 4 and 2, and spent the next three years on the run in China, until missionaries helped get him to Seoul.
Since he left, he has had no contact with his wife and sons. “I think of them every day,” he said recently in Seoul. “I try to forget it,” he added slowly. “But they are my family.”
Defectors have gradually opened a detailed and frightening window on the brutal realities of survival for 22 million people in North Korea. For many years, the stories of the relatively few defectors were suspect, viewed as propaganda tools of the South Korean government. Their often lurid accounts of life in North Korea had the ring of exaggeration to please their new hosts.
DEFECTORS IN THE TENS OF THOUSANDS
But today North Korean defectors number in the tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands — the full scope of the exodus is not clear. They sneak across the river to China, where they live as fugitives, or flee through deserts or jungles to Mongolia, Burma or Thailand.
Their accounts have gained credibility by their number and their consistency, and by corroboration from the few outsiders who have worked in North Korea. In dozens of interviews in Seoul over two years, defectors painted a picture of cruelty, hardship and repression that made escape seem their only option, no matter the cost.
They often escape with the cruel knowledge that they have doomed their loved ones still inside. Leaving North Korea illegally is a high crime; going to South Korea is considered treason. Families — even distant relatives — of those who do so might be blacklisted, stripped of their jobs, imprisoned or killed. Many find freedom more complicated than they imagined, and their present haunted by the past.
“Family members of traitors don’t even get food rations. They are starved to death,” said the wife of Soon Yong Bum, a fishing boat captain. The couple sailed into the Yellow Sea and down to the South Korean port city of Inchon last August. They had to leave her family behind, including her brother, a government official certain to be harshly punished.
“She cries about it every night,” Soon said. “And I feel guilty.”
Tens of thousands starved in the latest famine, from 1995 to 1997. Lee, who asked that her given name not be used, was a clerk in a government office who notarized the deaths in her town. She is a pretty young woman, 29, with tumbling hair curling to her shoulders and smooth, flawless skin that belies the hardships she has faced and struggles to explain. “We started seeing cannibalism,” she recalled, pausing. “You probably won’t understand.”
She went on: “When one is very hungry, one can go crazy. One woman in my town killed her 7-month-old baby, and ate the baby with another woman. That woman’s son reported them both to the authorities.
“I can’t condemn cannibalism. Not that I wanted to eat human meat, but we were so hungry. It was common that people went to a fresh grave and dug up a body to eat meat. I witnessed a woman being questioned for cannibalism. She said it tasted good.”
Massive international food aid gradually stemmed the famine after a death toll estimated at anywhere from 300,000 to 2 million.
‘NOT A HUMAN EXISTENCE’
Lee Soon Ok, 56, told congressional committees last year in Washington that she was a high-ranking party member in a northern province who was sent to prison in 1987 as a scapegoat for dwindling government food rations. She was seized unexpectedly at work one day, beaten and thrown into a frigid, 5-foot-by-5-foot underground cell for 14 months. She said she was regularly tortured, denied sleep, doused with water and made to kneel naked on ice. She expected to die.
Her captivity “was not a human existence,” she said in an interview in Seoul. “Finally, I was given a death sentence and sent to death row. That was the hardest part. You stay on death row for one month, and everybody knows the day they will die. Then — I still don’t know the reason why — they decided to send me to a political prison camp.”
At the camp, she said, she was given clerical tasks in an office where she overheard researchers discussing chemical and biological weapons experiments on prisoners. Groups of prisoners were taken behind a hill, she said, and she was told to mark their names off the prison rations list.
She learned that her husband and son, then a student at the party’s elite university, had been thrown into prison because of her and that her husband had died there. “Finally, they brought me my son,” she said. “He had no shoes. His feet were bound with straw. His clothing was so raggedy, I thought he was a beggar.”
In 1995, she and her son escaped from the camp, climbing a rugged 2,000-foot mountain in the winter. They fled across the river, reached China, Hong Kong and eventually South Korea. Her son is now enrolled in a South Korean university. She is relieved, but her eyes remain hard and wary.
“Those seven years in prison still haunt me,” she said. “I have seen so many different ways to kill and torture people. I still see them in my dreams.”
FROM HUNGER TO SLAVERY
The escape from North Korea does not end the ordeal for many defectors. The South Korean and Russian borders are heavily guarded, so most flee across the long but shallow Tumen and Yalu rivers to China, where a large ethnic Korean community might offer aid.
But China has a pact to return the escapees to its communist ally. Defectors are rounded up in periodic crackdowns; North Korea puts them in labor camps for periods ranging from two months to life. Those who remain fugitives in China are vulnerable to sexual, physical and financial exploitation.
Sung Ae, 31, spent 31/2 years in China, sometimes in the hands of slave traders who buy and sell women for Chinese men. “I’ve had so many atrocities on my journey, I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she said in August 2001.
A round-faced woman with almond eyes and painted eyebrows, she said she jumped from a moving train to escape Chinese slavers. Koreans in China betrayed her, and she was constantly on the move to avoid being caught.
“In North Korea I was starving. In China I was always pursued,” she said. She spent 16 days on a smuggler’s boat with 64 illegal Chinese workers to make it to South Korea in December 2000.
Lee, the former clerk, said she was fooled into believing she would have a good life in China. “One day, a man from my home town came to see me. He was looking for good-looking women from North Korea to go to China. The prettier the better. I decided on the spot to go.
“Of course, he fooled me. He said he would introduce me to a good man, a university graduate, who was looking for a wife. Then I realized North Korean women were being sold at a cheap price to rural farmers in China.”
She drifted from family to family in China, working in slave conditions, until she was caught by Chinese authorities. She said she was beaten and returned to North Korea in 1998, where she was sent to a labor camp, starved, worked brutally and sexually molested. Finally released, she turned again to slave traders, who smuggled her in a box back into China. Finally, in late 2000, Christian missionaries smuggled her to a third country that she would not name, and then on to South Korea.
“In China, they sell you again and again,” she said. “Young girls are sold to bars. Women are sold to farmers, and then resold.”
‘TREATED AS FOREIGNERS’
Only a small fraction of those who cross into China get to South Korea, with the help of Christian missionary groups or professional smugglers. Still, the number has doubled each year since 1998, exceeding 1,141 last year, according to the South Korean government. The North Koreans get a subsidized apartment, social and vocational training, a lump-sum bonus of about $25,000 and a monthly allowance of about $500. Even with that help, they are bewildered aliens from a tightly controlled nation frozen in the 1950s.
They arrive to a boisterous, competitive society. And despite the cliches in South Korea about brotherhood with those in the North, the defectors say they are greeted with discrimination that makes some wonder whether they made the right choice. For five years, they must regularly report their activities to authorities.
“It’s not easy for us to live here,” said Han, who fled when his radio was found. “South Koreans don’t understand the hardships. They don’t care and they don’t understand. We are treated as foreigners here. A lot of defectors go on to Canada or the United States.”
The North Koreans are conspicuous by their accent. Few are qualified for South Korea’s high-tech society, and most defectors are unprepared for the capitalist treadmill that rewards initiative and hard work.
“We are so used to living with what we are given, and doing what we are told. We don’t have the concept of responsibility in working,” said Byung, 40, who spoke on condition his last name not be used. He arrived in Seoul last December after wading through chest-deep water into China to escape with his wife, mother and sons, ages 7 and 9.
“I really had no idea about this society,” added Byung, who is now in industrial school, and learning to drive and use a computer. “The biggest surprise is that everyone is free here to say what they want. But I thought everyone would be rich and well off. Now I see there are people who don’t have a job.”
BURDEN OF GUILT
Pak Do Ik, 38, is an example of success — and of the burden the defectors still carry.
He was an elite party member in Pyongyang, a writer of propaganda and theater scripts praising the regime, who got into trouble for getting creative. His first offense, a comedy, landed him in a mining labor camp for a month. Comedy was “a bad genre” for a humorless dictatorship, he concludes now.
When he returned, he wrote an obsequious play in 1999 that had leader Kim Jong Il’s mother pressing a revolver into her son’s hands with seven bullets and a purpose for each: “The first bullet is to crush the United States! The second is to achieve our revolution ...”
“The audience applauded every bullet,” Pak said. “But the National Security Agency said it wasn’t factual. They said it was a ‘default on revolutionary achievements.’ That day I ran away to the mountains.”
After a month in hiding, he climbed down a cliff to the Tumen River and crossed into China with his savings — 80 U.S. dollars. His knowledge of the regime’s hierarchy made him interesting to South Korean intelligence agents in China, and after they interrogated him for months, they helped him defect.
In Seoul, he found he could make money quickly. Starting as a liquor company deliveryman just over two years ago, he now heads a blossoming business of two firms with 78 employees selling cosmetics and entertainment.
He is shopping a script for a television series and promoting pop artists, and he has a business plan to develop a “North Korean guerrilla training theme park camp” that would let tourists experience Stalinist army training and — for realism’s sake — deny them food for several meals.
Pak wears diamond-studded cuff links and fancy suits, and plays golf at an expensive club each weekend. Pictures of beautiful actresses working with his company are on his office walls.
But Pak said he is not happy. “Among the people who defected, I think I am the richest. I drive a BMW 700 series. But when I bought that car, I cried. I miss my brothers and sister and father,” he said. “I was wondering what I am doing here, when my siblings are suffering?
“I don’t think anyone can be happy when they feel guilty.”
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.