From the North to Seoul: a Korean family's odyssey

Clan crossed ice to China, hid in boxes to escape famine and repression

January 21, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - When Jung Yeon San and his extended family fled North Korea, they had to escape their own identities as well as from the authorities.

Jung and his family, traveling in small numbers from 1997 to 1999, walked across a frozen river from North Korea into China. To avoid being sent back, they sometimes resorted to hiding in boxes.

In 2001, three years after leaving the North, Jung finally reached Seoul, the end of an arduous journey that is typical of the experiences of an increasing number of refugees finding their way to the South.

In 1993, eight North Koreans arrived in the South, according to the South's Unification Ministry. Since then, about 2,500 have found their way here, including 1,140 last year alone, twice as many as in 2001.

The Jungs and others have left the North because of crippling food and energy shortages that have caused the deaths of an estimated 2 million people and to escape a Stalinist police state that wields enormous control over people's lives.

"I couldn't live in that regime," said Jung, sitting on the floor of his sparsely furnished apartment. Seventy years old, he was the oldest member of the family to escape. "In that society, it is very difficult to live as a human being."

North Korean officials, Jung said, would seize electrical wiring and other goods he sold in his village in the northern part of the country. And criticism of the state carried grave risks.

"If you said anything the government didn't like, you could go to jail," he said. "I actually went to jail because I called Kim Jong Il `president' instead of `Dear Leader.'"

Jung and other family members said they began their efforts to escape the North in 1997, during one of the worst periods of famine. Even corn and rice were hard to obtain.

"The food that was allotted to us had been suspended," Jung said. "When we farmed, the government would take all the food away."

The entire clan wanted to leave, though they had little information about the outside world because of the government's tight control over radio and television. Authorities made travel difficult: Leaving one's home village required official permission.

On the run

At various times during successive winters, members of the family traveled the short distance to the Chinese border. Jung's wife was the first to succeed, reaching northeastern China in 1997.

Jung's turn came early in 1998. Disguised as a traveling merchant to avoid suspicion, he hid until nightfall at a train station in northwestern North Korea, waited for guard patrols to turn away, then walked across the frozen Tumen River into China.

In China, Jung, his wife and their relatives found themselves on the run from another police state determined to repatriate North Korean refugees. Jung and the others learned some Chinese and, like other refugees in the area, tried to blend in among the 2 million ethnic Koreans in northeastern China.

"Officially, there are about 15,000 North Koreans in China," said Lee Chung Min, professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. "But aid groups and [nongovernmental organizations] say there may be as many as 200,000 North Korean refugees roaming around in China."

Many of China's millions of laid-off workers live in failed factory towns in the northeastern industrial belt, and the government has no interest in having hundreds of thousands of refugees arrive from North Korea. As a result, the refugees live in constant fear of being sent home and, once there, the probability of imprisonment.

"We pretended to be Chinese," said Jung Myung Sook 44, daughter of Jung and a mother of two. "When people from the government would come door to door and check who lived where, we'd hide in closets or boxes."

`A life of hell'

South Korean missionaries in China provided important help in evading the authorities. The Jungs moved every five to six months in hope of staying ahead of officials. But authorities eventually arrested Jung Myung Sook and her sister.

"I had to live a life of hell," said Jung Myung Sook, who after being caught in 1999 was assigned to manual labor at a North Korean prison camp. She said she received little food and was beaten by guards. "If I even said something wrong, I would get hit."

She said she was pardoned in 2000 on Kim Jong Il's birthday. She immediately fled again to the border.

"But I didn't remember the way," she said. "Around 2 a.m., I tried to get across the border, but I was caught and sent back to jail."

At her new prison, a government edict forbade the beating of inmates by guards, she said. Guards got around the policy by choosing inmates to administer beatings. The manual labor was just as hard, she said, "and many people died."

She was released again, this time on the birthday of Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder. She lived at relatives' homes until just after New Year's Day 2001.

"I decided to try escaping to China again whether I lived or died," she said.

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