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Escape from poverty

Defector recalls privations and perils of growing up in North Korea.

North Korean defectors Ji Seong-ho (left) and Lee So-yeon discuss their experiences during an interview in Seoul. Photo: Erich Parpart

It was a cold winter night when Ji Seong-ho lost both of his left limbs. He was trying to jump onto a moving freight train to steal coal being transported from North Korea to China. He slipped on the snow and tumbled under the wheels of the carriage.

Worse was yet to come, in the form of three hours of surgery without anaesthetic after he lost his arm and leg. Getting anaesthetic at a public hospital is next to impossible for the poor in North Korea.

"The hospital had no anaesthetic. If my father was a high-ranking official, I might have had a chance to get proper medicine or money to buy food but that was not the case," he told Asia Focus.

"The three-hour operation was so painful that I passed out. My mother who was at the hospital also passed out upon hearing me screaming from the pain."

With his disability, Mr Ji could not earn a living for his family, and in a country where people with disabilities are ostracised because the regime views them as bad for the image, he felt he had no choice but to leave his family behind and escape.

That required a circuitous journey through China, Laos and Myanmar before Mr Ji ended up in Thailand. It was a 7,000-kilometre detour, in sharp contrast to the convenience of an Air China flight from Pyongyang to Bangkok via Beijing that is available to more privileged travellers.

Mr Ji, now 35 and settled in Seoul and reunited with his family, recalled his experiences for reporters from Southeast Asia and Latin America who joined a familiarisation trip to South Korea earlier this month.

The reason he had to steal from a train as a teenager, he explained, was that is family, like many others in North Korea, were starving.

"My father lost his contract with the government so we had no job. I didn't go to school so I decided to steal coal to buy food," he said. "I was the breadwinner for my two siblings. I had no choice."

The early life of the North Korean defector, who is now the president of Now, Action & Unity for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation in Seoul, was not dissimilar to that of millions of others still living in the isolated country.

For people who do not work for the government, the only alternative is the Jangmadang, the Korean word for market but used mostly to refer to the underground economy and black market. Here they can earn about 2,000 won (US$1.77) per day, trading in goods mostly from China in dollars, yuan or North Korean won. These markets are the source of most of the food and medicine for people who do not live in Pyongyang.

According to Reuters, luxury items available in the black market include a TV priced at 11.26 million won or $1,340, while beef was 76,000 won ($8.60) a kilogramme.

According to various Seoul-based NGOs, around 80% of North Korea's 25.4 million people live in poverty. Only 20% can afford to live in the capital and only high-ranking officials with more than 10 years of military service can live there.

Mr Ji was born near the border between North Korea and Russia, not far from Vladivostok, in an area where there was a lot of mining. As with all North Korean males, his duty is to serve the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as the country is known officially.

"We had to do our duty to get food. It is a contract-based relationship and what happened was that the government decided to terminate the contract of my father and we were working without pay," he said of his family's financial situation when he was young.

One current misconception is that the family of any North Korean defector will be killed if the government finds out who they are, but this is no longer true. New technology means more and more North Koreans are learning about the outside world, and many strive to save up the $10,000 to $15,000 needed to pay a black-market operator to help them flee.

More than 1,400 defectors left North Korea last year, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and it would be impossible for the regime to eliminate that many families.

"Before, people were literally starving to death before they decided to leave, but now they are leaving not because of the financial situation only, but the shift has been that much more information is flowing into North Korea," Signe Poulsen, representative of the OHCHR Seoul office, told Asia Focus.

"Along the border with China, North Korean people are able to use the signal, and they can also pick up the phone to call their family in South Korea to get information -- but they will of course be punished if they are discovered," she said. Flash drives are another popular way to get information into the isolated country.

Lee So-yeon, a famous North Korean defector and current chairwoman of the New Korea Women's Union, said women make up 80% of the estimated 30,000 defectors who have escaped since 1996 and reside in South Korea.

Around 90% of the workers in the North Korean black market are women who have little chance to work for the military or the government, she said. Even though Ms Les's father was a professor and she held a military rank, she still ended up in a hard-labour prison camp from which only a few people have escaped alive.

Ms Poulsen said that many women were trafficked across the border and sold to Chinese husbands who are looking for North Korean women to bypass the one-child policy. A lot of female defectors live for two or three years in China before escaping to South Korea.

"Some of them have to leave their young children in China to come here which is tragic, and there are many separated families between China and here," she said.

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