Disclosure: David Tian, the author of this piece and interviewer, is also the translator for Eunsun Kim’s book: ‘A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea’.
At the height of the Arduous March – the great North Korean famine of the 1990s – Eunsun Kim watched her relatives lose their lives to starvation one by one.
At age 11, Kim (a pseudonym), too, would have succumbed to the famine had her mother not made the risky decision to take her and her sister across the Tumen River to China in search of food. Shortly after they arrived in China, however, the three of them fell prey to human traffickers and were sold to a Chinese peasant who held them prisoners for the better half of a decade, subjecting them to regular physical and verbal abuse.
Kim’s tribulations did not end there. In March 2002, she and her family members were denounced by a local Chinese resident and forcibly sent back across the Sino-North Korean border to a prison camp where they faced humiliating, degrading interrogations by prison officials. After the interrogations ended, Kim was thrown into a tiny jail cell with 60 other women, locked in by steel bars.
However, thanks to a stroke of luck, Kim managed to escape the prison camp, and finally, in 2006, she arrived safely in South Korea and has now become the proud holder of a South Korean passport. Together with her mother and sister, Eunsun has successfully resettled in Seoul and graduated from the prestigious Sogang University. She has since gotten married and just recently gave birth to a baby girl.
Rather than hide her defector status, as many North Korean defectors do, Kim has chosen to add to the growing body of memoirs detailing defectors’ lives in North Korea and their subsequent defections. Her memoir, co-authored with Sébastien Falletti, was originally published in French in 2012 under the title Corée du Nord: 9 Ans Pour Fuir L’Enfer (North Korea: 9 Years to Escape from Hell). In July 2015, it was published in English by under the title A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea.
Kim told NK News about the reasons that compelled her to share her story, and said part of the reason she was able to successfully resettle in South Korea is a result of the years she spent in China and the many hardships she faced while living there. However, despite her optimism and successful integration into South Korean society, some details about her life remain difficult to talk about, and were left out of her book.
NK News: How were you and your co-author, Sébastian Falletti, able to communicate with each other? How did you first get into contact with each other? Why did he take an interest in your particular story?
Kim: I was interning for Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) at the time and he was looking for a North Korean refugee to be the writer of a book about North Korea. He interviewed me and then became interested in my story because he said that there are many people who have extreme or bad stories about their lives but they feel very uncomfortable talking or speaking up about their stories, or they do not have clear memories about their experiences. However, he felt that I was ready to speak to people and that I remember more details about my story more clearly than other people. Also, when I was 11 years old, I wrote a will to my family, so he thought that it could be the start of a book – that’s why he chose me to write the book. When we communicated, I spoke in Korean and someone translated the Korean to English for Sébastien, and then Sébastien wrote it down in French.
NK News: What do you take to be the value of defector testimony as a source of information on a country that goes to great lengths to limit the availability of information leaking out?
Defector testimony can help bring first-hand knowledge of the problem to light, so that we may find a solution
Kim: What outside people knew about North Korea was only about the government or the Kim family; they didn’t know much about the people actually living in North Korea. Defector testimony can show outsiders how the North Korean government treats its own people, so that those who live on the outside can know about what is really going on in North Korea, about the lives of North Koreans, the human rights problem, and the lack of freedom there. Defector testimony can help bring first-hand knowledge of the problem to light, so that we may find a solution. If you don’t know the problem, you cannot find a solution. But to hear our testimonies, you can learn more about the problem and thus can try to find the solutions.
NK News: In your experience, what are some of the greatest challenges for North Korean defectors who want to provide testimony about their experiences?
Kim: We (defectors) have had difficult lives, but we don’t all share the same universal experiences or problems. Many defectors feel shy and feel shameful about their experiences, even though we had no choice about the lives (we were born into). However, many defectors feel ashamed about their past. And sometimes, their pasts are still connected to their lives now because for many things, when we talk about them in front of other people, we feel ashamed. Once we go public, show ourselves “naked,” almost, so to speak, we still have to think about how we can move forward.
NK News: Defector accounts have been under scrutiny lately after Shin Dong-hyuk admitted to certain false accounts in the book Escape From Camp 14, authored by Blaine Harden. What are your views on his recent revelations? What, if any, effects do you think they have had on your book as defector testimony?
Kim: This is a bit more of a sensitive question, but it has been an issue among North Korean refugees too. I’m not sure if I would say he’s a liar – maybe his memories were just a bit confused – but it’s hard for me to say for sure because I didn’t live the same life. However, I’m not fully confident about his second story because he’s already said some things that were not true. For my book, there is nothing written that is untrue, however, there were many things that I couldn’t talk about. Some things I purposely left out – not to lie or mislead but it’s sometimes painful for us to talk about.
NK News: The North Korean regime has tried to discredit people like Shin and are using his recent revelations to its every advantage. Have there been any efforts that you are aware of on the part of the North Korean regime to discredit the book you and Falletti wrote together?
Kim: Not really (laughs). But they are not only trying to discredit Shin, there are other people like Yeonmi Park and some others. Even in South Korean society, these individuals are sometimes suspected of exaggerating or lying. The North Korean government thus tries to avail itself of people who have already been exposed and who have reputedly told misinformation. And so, with Yeonmi Park and Shin Dong-hyuk, it was the defector community that was suspicious of them and was talking about them, and the North Korean regime decided to use this as an opportunity to counterattack against prominent defectors.
NK News: Many defectors have a difficult time readjusting and resettling in South Korea, and many of them prefer to remain anonymous and hide their status as North Korean defectors. What made you want to bring your story to the public eye?
I felt a calling to do so, but for some defectors they might not be able to share their stories and would rather forget
Kim: I started out doing small-scale interviews, little by little, and that’s how I originally started sharing my story with the public. Sébastien also selected me to write the book, and gradually I agreed to do so. More importantly, I feel that it’s really crucial let the world know what’s happening in North Korea, what’s happening to the North Korean people and their situation. For me, I felt a calling to do so, but for some defectors they might not be able to share their stories and would rather forget. As for how I was able to successfully readapt to life in South Korea, for me I was one of the people who really suffered a lot and faced a lot of difficulties for a long time in China, and so I came here after experiencing a trial period of sorts in China. For those who come more directly from North Korea, especially those who were the elite in North Korea who could do anything they wanted with money, they had to come to South Korea and become competitive again and compete with others, so it’s not as easy.
Katty Chi contributed to translating for this interview.
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