North Korea is the most secretive and repressive state on earth, a dystopian nightmare that makes George Orwell’s 1984 seem benign. News rarely leaks out. Censorship is total. But in A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape From North Korea, Eunsun Kim gives us a rare glimpse into everyday life behind the “Bamboo Curtain.”
Speaking from her home in Seoul, South Korea, where she now lives with her mother and husband, she describes how at the age of 11, after her mother left her home alone to search for food, she wrote a will; how learning “Konglish” was one of the biggest challenges she faced in South Korea; and—though he may be a psychopath—why North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, may be bringing change to his country.
Your book begins with the extraordinary story of your mother and sister going to look for food during the great famine in North Korea. Tell us what happened when you were 11 years old.
Many people died because of malnutrition, including my grandparents. In 1997, my father passed away too. My mom sold or bartered everything from our apartment until we had nothing left. So she decided to go to the city to search for food. She left me at home, but took my older sister who’s two years older than me. She said she would be back in three days, but if she got food earlier she would be back sooner. She gave me 15 North Korean chon—enough to buy just one piece of tofu—and left.
Three days passed, then four, then five. I was waiting for her to come home but on the sixth day I had no energy left and thought maybe today is my last day. I wasn’t afraid of death. I had seen so many people dying during that time. What made me sad was that I felt my mom didn’t want me. She took my other sister but didn’t come back for me. So I decided to write a will, at 11 years old.
I wanted to say I would miss my mom, that even if she came home after I died, I wanted her to know what I had felt while waiting for her. But on the sixth day she came back. I was happy even though she arrived empty-handed. But she didn’t give up. She didn’t leave me alone. The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.
You first escaped and were befriended by a human trafficker who sold your mother, but you write that you were lucky. Can you explain?
My story is a common one among North Korean refugees. Many North Korean women experience human trafficking in China. But we weren’t separated, even though we were sold to a Chinese man. So we could share the sadness and challenges, even when we were in China. Even when we were repatriated to North Korea, I was with my mother. That’s why I say, we were lucky. We didn’t become separated. And today we live in same apartment.
Tell us how you escaped.
We lived in Hamgyong province, in a village called Undok in the northern part of North Korea. The first time we escaped during wintertime. During the spring we were able to eat grass or steal food from farms. But during the wintertime there was no food to steal. We had no way to survive. That’s why we decided to escape. The river was frozen hard but we made it across.
In China, we were bought by a human trafficker then repatriated to North Korea. We were regarded as traitors, so we lived as beggars on the street, sleeping under bridges or in the market. But we had tasted freedom. Two months later, in springtime, we escaped again. Eventually, we made it to Shanghai, where we lived for almost four years. Then, through friends, we found a way to go to South Korea.
One of the things I found really fascinating was your realization that you had been brainwashed by your government. Can you describe what it is like to believe in a political leader so completely that criticism is unthinkable?
We were brainwashed even in our mothers’ tummies. More than 90 percent of the songs we were forced to sing were about the Kim family or the Labor party. North Korea is like Sunday church. The worship of the Kim family is normal. If you don’t escape from Kim’s church, you will never be able to criticize the system. They educate you not to ask. You only can say ‘Yes’ to the party or the Kim family. There is no ‘Why?’ If you ask, you disappear.
You now live in South Korea. What are the major differences between the cultures of the South and the North?
North and South Korea both use Korean, but for North Korean refugees the most difficult thing is the language difference. In South Korea, they speak “Konglish”. A lot of words are different.
Communication is very different, too. North Koreans communicate more directly; South Koreans communicate indirectly. For example, if a North Korean refugee has a job interview, and the owner says, ‘I will call you if we need you,’ the North Korean refugee will wait for the company for a month to call. Then, he will call the company himself and say, ‘you said you would call me, but you didn’t, what’s happened?’
In South Korea, if they don’t call you, it means you didn’t get the job. The humor is also different. Even today, if I watch a comic program, I won’t laugh because I don’t find it funny.
One big issue for North Korean refugees is that they may be considered spies, so people like your mother and you were held for days for questioning. Do you think this is a legitimate concern?
They ask you very detailed questions: when you were born, what school you went to, what you learned, if you remember any song you learned in school, every single detail. And they catch you if you are lying. But I think it’s needed. There are not only North Korean spies. Many Chinese-Koreans hide their real identity and pretend to have South Korean citizenship. So it’s necessary to check whether you are a real North Korean or not.
You describe a re-education process when you arrived in South Korea that almost seems like a reverse brainwashing. Tell us what you had to learn before you could enter South Korean society.
I learned about the capitalist system when I was in China. China says it is a communist or socialist society but it’s not. So at first it wasn’t that difficult settling in South Korea.
The most difficult thing was the loneliness, because we had no relatives there. But it was a new place and we had to learn—like a baby taking its first steps—how to go the market, how to ask a question, everything. When I went to high school, the most confusing thing was learning about Korea. In North Korea, we learned South Korea invaded. Here they taught us that North Korea invaded South Korea.
Refugees are a big topic these days—how do you feel about the influx of refugees from countries like Syria or Eritrea? How would you like to see governments handle refugees?
Escaping from one’s home is not a simple thing to describe in a few words. Even though I really hate the North Korean government and the Kim family, I miss my hometown, because it’s my hometown. But I had to leave to survive. Leaving your hometown is a big deal for all refugees. North Korean refugees still experience human trafficking in China, so do many other refugees. So, I hope, the world will pay more attention to all refugees, not only North Korean.
You were not a political person prior to your escape and education. What changed for you and why?
In North Korea, we have eyes but we cannot see. We have ears but we cannot hear. We have mouths but we cannot say what’s wrong or right. But now I have found freedom, so I know how important it is. I believe a little movement can change the world, so North Korean refugees have a duty to be political, to do something for North Korea. I hope my book will create some awareness about North Korea so it can be the seed of change.
What is your message to the world about North Korea and your countrymen and women still there? Will Kim Jong Un change things?
North Korea is a big prison. People live there, but they have no human rights. So we need to open the prison and give people freedom. It’s not only North Korea’s problem. It’s a global problem. I really hope people will not just ignore North Korea.
I believe a little movement can bring huge change in North Korea. It’s already changing faster than ever before. Videos and USB’s are being smuggled in from South Korea all the time and through those media young people are learning about other worlds outside North Korea and to have their own ideas.
Kim Jung Un is ugly. He has a big belly and strange hair. But he seems to be shifting North Korea towards capitalism. Things like copy shops and other American things are opening in North Korea. Before, North Korea really hated Western things. Now a lot of people use these things. Even if he is a psychopath, he’s trying to change things.
Follow Simon Worrall on Twitter.