On its one side, a rainbow of flowers lines the trails of lush green peaks; on the other, raw dirt blows from abandoned fields. North Korea’s Tumen River is a natural boundary between two vastly different worlds. Flowing northeast from the summit of Mount Baekdu towards the Sea of Japan, the Tumen is more than a geographic landmark—turning to the south for the last stretch of its 324 miles, it forms the border between North Korea and its neighbors, China and Russia. Like any political barrier separating one realm bursting with vitality from another that is slowly decaying, it attracts the desperate and the disaffected. Less than five feet deep on average, and as narrow as two hundred feet across, more lightly guarded than other of the country’s borders, the Tumen River tempts North Korean defectors hoping to escape to a better life. For them, the Tumen becomes a divide of a different sort: mortal. For thousands it has been a road to freedom attained. For too many others, its icy waters have brought death in the attempt.
Life under a totalitarian regime, seclusion from the rest of the world, starvation, and immeasurable poverty have led as many as 300,000 North Koreans to defect since 1953, the year of the Korean War ceasefire. Now, sixty years after the armed conflict ended between the Republic of Korea (usually abbreviated South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), the countries haven’t normalized relations. Crossing the border between the two nations over the 2½-mile wide strip of the “Demilitarized Zone,” more commonly referred to as the DMZ, is impossible. Consequently, the majority of North Korean defectors look north to the Tumen River. The dangers of the route into China may be less spectacular than the million land mines that pepper the DMZ. But the Tumen is nonetheless treacherous.
Kim Eunju, along with her middle-aged mother and older sister, defected during the middle of a bitter December night in 1999. “I felt like I had been encompassed by a hole of darkness. I had to rely on my sixth sense to manage my way ahead. I was the youngest. I held onto my mother’s hand ahead and my older sister’s hand behind me. As silently as possible, we inched our way forward.” The river was frozen. “Our main concern was to not slip,” Kim recounted. “We could not make any sort of sound whatsoever out of fear of being spotted by residents near the border or even worse, the guards.” The cold immobilized Kim in seconds. “My limbs began to feel painfully numb and the blasts of wind sent chills throbbing all throughout my body.” Her only warmth was the feel of her breath against her neck. “I felt like I was walking through a nightmare.”
Sitting at a rectangular office desk in the yellow-toned back room of a refugee center in Seoul, South Korea, Kim, sporting a crisp white t-shirt and some dark denim, spoke to me of her ordeal in 2010. The 1999 escape was the family’s second attempt to slip into China, she said. The first time, they’d been caught by Chinese guards and repatriated, then sent to a North Korean forced-labor camp. They were lucky; some deported defectors have faced mass public executions. Instead, Kim Eunju and her family were forced to toil at superfluous make-work in a “reeducation” camp, weeding for endless hours or transporting giant blocks of wood on their shoulders. “At the time, I was underage and so I wasn’t forced to do a lot of work,” she remembered, “but all of the labor they didn’t give to me they gave to my mom and older sister. To this day, I still feel horrible for putting them through that.” For the most part, the only method of getting out of these camps alive is a monetary bribe. For those who are destitute, family members on the outside must give up the little they have in order to free their loved ones. Even with such great risks, Kim and her family had no option but to try to defect again for fear of starving to death. “There was no hope for a better future,” Kim said, looking blankly into space, emotionless and detached.
Thirty-three percent of defectors from North Korea state that their primary reason is economic. “We were living like beggars, constantly in search of food in order to appease our starving stomachs,” Kim said, describing a type of painful hunger beyond the comprehension of most people in the developed world. “My sister and I never had enough energy to go to school. I don’t even remember most of the chilly winter months, because, to be honest, my brain was probably frozen since our tiny shack of a house had no heating.” Following her father’s death when Kim was a young age, she, her mother, and older sister wanted to start a new life together in a new location. “Sometimes, all three of us wished to die so that we could all be reunited together as a family in a better place.”
In the West, most media coverage of North Korea is fixated on its peculiar leaders and despotic oppressive government. North Korean defectors, however, emphasize the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in their home country, where the effects of malnourishment and vast poverty are prominent. “A lot of people miss the most imperative thing that needs to change. For me, and a lot of other defectors, it’s less about who the leader is or who his father was, but rather, about the hard lives that the North Korean people are constantly faced with each and every day,” said Kim. “There is not a single drop of freedom in the country and even worse, limited ways for people to provide food, shelter, and other necessities for their families.” Northern Korean citizens live in a state of fear. “The fundamental thing that I hope people begin to focus on is not about getting rid of the current regime, but rather, helping the North Korean people and getting them the provisions they need. For me personally, as long as people have freedom, a sturdy roof over their heads, and food on the table, then it doesn’t really matter who the leader is.”
Park Youngho is another North Korean defector who, faced with chronic poverty and malnutrition, fled to China. “My parents had never been able to afford sending me to school, not even nursery school.” After his mother died, “my dad thought that it would be best for his sons to defect, even to China, where we at least would not be starving.” The decision meant indefinite separation between father and sons. “To be honest,” Park said, “at the time, I didn’t really understand why we were leaving. Because I was so young, I didn’t even know that South Korea was a nation.” He followed his older brother and did whatever his brother told him to do. “All I wanted was to not be hungry anymore.”
Through a distant family friend whom Park refers to as his “uncle,” he and his brother were able to buy the help of brokers on their journey to South Korea. Brokers are individuals who help refugees like Park get to a specific destination. Their services are invaluable to expediting the voyage of many defectors towards South Korea. “Yes, we pay them a lot of money, but at the end of the day, it’s all about a sense of trust. We had to place our lives in their hands.” The Park brothers made their way through China and Thailand in the short span of six months. “We didn’t use the same broker the entire way simply for safety reasons. My brother and I were very lucky. Unlike many other defectors, we were not forced to stay in one place for a prolonged period of time. As soon as we arrived at a specific location, our brokers were preparing to send us off to the next.”
Kim and her family did not have as simple or as short a journey as Park. They didn’t use any brokers to get to China, she said, “since there wasn’t really anyone that we trusted enough at the time.” They also didn’t have the finances to employ their services. “Brokers are expensive!” It took her and her family almost nine years to make it to South Korea. Eight of those were spent in China. “Not having the aid of a broker made things exponentially slower and more difficult, from not having the money to bribe the patrol guards while crossing the Tumen River to not having a somewhat safe place to stay while in China.”
The Chinese government does not grant North Korean defectors any sort of legal or refugee status, seeing them only as illegal migrants. “Living in constant dread of getting caught was so frightening,” she recalled. “Sometimes, I would not be able to sleep at night because I was so paranoid of every footstep and sound I heard throughout the silence of the night.” Kim’s greatest fear was being deported back to North Korea. “I knew that the second time around, my family and I would for sure be publicly executed.”
Another reason Kim and her family were hesitant to hire a broker was their fear of being separated. “We knew that if we stuck together, we would be less vulnerable to mistreatment or manipulation, usually from male traffickers hoping to take advantage of naïve, defenseless defectors,” Kim said. More than two-thirds of people who defect from North Korea are women. An astounding number of these women, close to eighty percent, are deceived or threatened into sex trafficking. Even after they escape, many defectors, feeling exploited, exposed, and without any sort of legal status in China, continue to face countless violations of their human rights.
“Fortunately, during our long eight years in China,” Kim said, describing their odyssey from place to place, “we were able to save up sufficient money to employ a broker’s help,” to get them securely through the second leg of their journey, “traveling to Mongolia and eventually, making our way down to South Korea”.
Kim and Park are among the best off of amongst North Korean defectors. The majority of those who defect never make it to South Korea. Since 1953, an estimated 25,000 defectors have successfully completely their journey to the South, only a fraction of the number that tries to escape the dictatorial regime. Not having any sort of legal status in China, many continue to live in destitution and dejection, face death along their journey, or are caught and expatriated back to North Korea to face penalties.
It might seem as though making it safely to South Korea means the end of all problems for North Korean defectors, but there are many new problems to face. “In the beginning, the hardest part about acclimating to life in South Korea was the loneliness,” Kim stated. “We didn’t have any friends or relatives here and not having anyone to depend on for help for the first few months was extremely nerve-wracking and challenging. I felt so uncultured and out of place.” In China, Kim had heard more about South Korea through TV shows, the news, and movies, but hearing about the hectic environment and actually living in it were very different matters. “Being so unfamiliar with so many aspects of life, from the currency to the public transportation system to the number of foreigners, was quite overwhelming,” she said. “Having to fend for myself was extremely difficult.” Coming from an atmosphere so secluded from the rest of the world, Kim took some time to adjust to the fast paced, westernized, and modern culture of South Korea.
With his easy-going personality, Park had an easier time acclimating: “When I started school, one of the main things I focused on was making friends. I have to admit, however, that it was hard sometimes. Some of classmates treated me differently once they found out I had defected from North Korea, and their parents even forbid them to hang out with me, out of fear that I would be a bad influence on them. Others judged me for being not as well off– that was the worst.” Not having attended school before, Park also struggled with staying motivated and balancing his academics and social life. “To be honest, for the first few years, I really did not have much incentive to keep up with my schoolwork.” Even the simplest of concepts took him forever to understand. “I had virtually no foundation whatsoever. As a result, my grades suffered a lot.” Although Park does wish that he had put a bit more effort into harmonizing his academics with his social life, at the same time, for him, making friends was crucial in easing his adaptation into South Korean culture. “If I had just decided to study all the time, it would have been much harder for me to get used to living in this completely foreign environment.”
Now, Park and Kim are both attending distinguished colleges, something that, just a few years ago, neither of them ever considered a possibility. From when I first met them four years ago in the brightly lit, cramped office of Citizen’s Alliance of North Korean Human Rights, the NGO at which I was interning, both individuals have changed significantly, not simply in terms of physical appearance but, more importantly, regarding their hopes for the imminent future. When I met with Kim for coffee in Seoul this past summer, she had just returned from a year abroad, studying English in Missouri. With her sleek new haircut, dainty jewelry, floral-patterned dress, and taupe strappy wedges, Kim was almost unrecognizable. “Do you want an Americano or a Vanilla Latte?” she asked me. “Personally, I savor the crisp taste of black coffee.” Apparently, during her year away and while touring Europe, she had also become a coffee connoisseur.
Park also has prospects of traveling abroad within the next year, hoping to perfect his English. While dining on some juicy Korean barbeque at one of Seoul’s most popular chain restaurants, Park told me of his expectations for the future. “After I graduate from college, I want to be the one who manages companies,” he eagerly stated. He already looked the part, smartly dressed in a simple light blue button-down and navy khakis. “Maybe I will even be the CEO of my own business.”
Like many other defectors whose perilous journey across the Tumen River ends in South Korea, both Kim Eunju and Park Youngho are optimistic for the future, not only in terms of their personal lives, but also, for the North-South relationship. Park disagrees with the overseas notion that North and South Korea are two distinctive countries. “We share the same history. At the end of the day, we are one people.” It is only because of their preconceived notions, he says, that “some people become aloof and withdrawn when they find out that I’m originally from North Korea.” This hesitation hinders many from forming deeper relationships with Kim, Park, and other defectors. “I hope that by getting to know us as individuals, separate from the oppressive regime under which we were forced to reside, people will come to realize that we are just like everyone else. North Korean or South Korean, we want and deserve the same things – freedom and lives in which we don’t have to worry about starving to death or being executed.”
For both Kim Eunju and Park Youngho, the journey is not over. They are optimistic for the potential reunification of the two brother nations. During our coffee date, Kim, firmly gripping her half-empty mug of Americano, expressed her hope of returning to her home village with her mother and sister. “What I miss the most about being back in the North are my memories with my father, such as playing outside in the fields and lying outside at night to gaze at the stars. I wish he could have escaped with us so that he too could have had a life with more freedom and comfort. Once the two Koreas are reunited, the first thing I plan on doing is visiting my father’s grave with a bottle of his favorite liquor and a bouquet of lilies to pay my long-due respects.”