How Can I Desert Our Leader & Our Motherland?

Daily NK
Choi Myung Chul

I defected at a young age and arrived in South Korea in 2004, where I was admitted into third of year of middle school. In North Korea, I had been attending school and was in second year high school.

At first, I found it difficult assimilating into a South Korean school. Social interests were different and the fact that 9 out of 10 South Korean children enjoyed going to an internet café and playing games was intriguing on its own. Though I find computer games challenging and fun today, back then it was hard enough trying to figure out a computer, let along mastering a game.

There are no opportunities to see computers in North Korea. That’s because no one owns a computer. Comparatively, North Korea is like South Korea in the 1970’s. I played outside with top spins, paper-flipping, slides and soccer. I also caught fish as our family lived in Hoiryeong nearby the Tumen River, though catching fish was not only a game but our means of survival.

At that time, the greatest obstacle to our play was hunger. When you run around and play, you need food to regain your energy. There were even times we had no strength to sit up and play. Rather we lay, slumped. During those times, we sat around day-dreaming. We would play truth or dare and pretend to smoke with cigarette butts we had secretly collected and talked nonsense while lamenting over our lives.

Satisfying hunger through the generosity of an affluent friend

We often had fights with kids from other schools. There was one incident where a child even got his head seriously hurt, but back then your friends were all you had. Even as we lay lifeless, I felt secure because of my friends.

Though I was starving, I even got to watch TV, that is during the short times our village was supplied energy. Though the majority of us were poor, one of my friends had a TV in his home, as his mother had done well at the markets. Even though only one station was broadcasting, the North Korea program, it was still very fun. I remember seeing one movie, “Order 027” which was about the People’s Army invading the Blue House (South Korea’s presidential building). The action wasn’t too bad, even interesting to a point.

Once in a blue moon, a friend would come into some money and then we would go to the markets to buy snacks. We bought bread made of corn powder and tofu rice. Even though the serving was small, my friend always shared his food with me.

Actually, all our friends did this. It was a time where we were all starving, yet we were willing to share our food, even half a corn cob.

Then one day, my mother left and I starving of hunger, left for China. On my way to Dalian in search for relatives, I was caught and forcefully repatriated back to North Korea. So I went looking for my best friend Hakjoo. Hakjoo and I had grown up together and had experienced so many things including severe hunger.

Offer to escape but offer denied

I informed Hakjoo of my plans and tried to persuade him to come. He replied, “Nevertheless, my homeland is here. If I died, I am going to die here. I cannot go with you.” We got into a huge argument and he said I had been brainwashed by capitalism.

Ever since we were little, we studied that Chosun (North Korea) was a socialist paradise and learned of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Song’s revolutionary history. Even at that time, many of us were ignorant of the outside world. My friend’s loyalty to the great leader stood firm and he denied leaving our motherland.

By the time I had seen and heard of China, my devotion to Kim Jong Il had disappeared. I tried to convince Hakjoo that China was rich in food and much more abundant than North Korea but, failed to persuade him. I remember him saying, “Still. How can I desert our leader and our motherland?”

Hakjoo did not agree with my dreams but he still wished me health and safety. He also promised me that he would not report me to the authorities and said, “Don’t worry. But you must go in safety. Do not get caught and be safe.”

North Korea is a society where each person regulates one another. It is a society where trust is nonexistent. However, I trusted that friend and because I believed that he would not report me, I was able to safely defect the country.

As I left, I said to me friend, “I will return without fail… I’ll see you then.”

That was ’98. I found my way to my relatives home in Dlian, worked as a farmer in China for 3 years and then at a restaurant for 3 years.

At first, I planned to live in China. I had no intention of coming to Korea as I felt it would then be harder for me to return to North Korea. However, I could not continue to live hidden as an illegal immigrant and in the end, I followed the footsteps of another friend in 2004.

Whenever I face a hard time I think, ‘If I came with Hakjoo, it wouldn’t have been so hard,’ If we had defected together, the hardships in China and the loneliness would not have been so bad.

No matter how difficult the task, that friend always pulled through. However, he is not here now and so all the decisions have to be made by me. It’s tough because there is not one person I can fully trust and be dependent on.

But I am going to live well. Every day, I have just enough to scrape by and though it’s not easy, I am attending university. When I return to North Korea one day, there are many things for me to do. My dream is to construct a company there and rebuild a North Korea that has fallen to devastation.

And above all, I study because I made a promise to my friend. When I return to my hometown, my aim is to meet my friend standing tall and proud.


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