About the Author
View more articles by Park Ui-sung
Park Ui-sung is a North Korean defector now living in the South. He grew up in the country's coastal regions.
Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
This week a new writer introduces themselves: Park Ui-sung, who has chosen to write under a pseudonym to protect family still in the country.
I still remember the summer I first witnessed death. I was seven years old. At the time, there was a rumor in town that “this year, even the mice will die of hunger.” No writing can express how scared I was as a child hearing this. But with luck, I was able to survive the starvation and cholera that took so many lives that spring, summer, and fall.
I want to begin my first article for NK News talking about destiny. Currently, there are 30,805 North Korean defectors settled in South Korea. Of those, 71 percent are women, and 79.5 percent are from areas that border China.
Looking at the statistics, what are the chances that a man in his twenties who is not from a region that borders China could successfully defect? And what are the chances that one might turn on the TV in a coastal region in North Korea and get a TV signal from the South?
The chances are lower than winning a lottery.
When I reflect upon my childhood, even under risky situations, I was always accompanied by good luck.
Throughout my youth, I lived in a remote fishing village where to get to the post office, you had to climb two hills. The place that people said was the end of the world for me was the entire world: the endless waters of the Pacific Ocean were my safe haven and also a place where my dreams were cultivated. When I look back to those times when my friends and I would play on the beach under the scorching sun, I pity the South Korean kids spending most of their days locked up in hagwons (private academies).
The reason I was able to escape from countryside life was my parents’ passion for education. From high school until I went to college, my mother supported me. Even my father, who is usually reserved, was extremely happy when I was accepted into college.
“I still remember the summer when I was seven years old, when I first witnessed death”
The reason I am here writing this all comes down to an incident about ten years ago that made me realize that I wanted to defect.
It all started with an old television in my dormitory. One day, out of boredom, I was flipping through television channels when I caught some static noise. Curious, I adjusted the antenna to get a better signal. It was Gangneung KBS – a South Korean channel.
At first I was scared and immediately turned off the TV. But a young boy’s curiosity can withstand anything, even if it comes with dangerous consequences. I turned the television back on, and the more I watched the channel, the deeper I got into it.
I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing was how things really were in South Korea. From kindergarten, I was taught that North Korea was the most beautiful and the greatest country, and I was brainwashed into having negative perceptions about other countries.
I tried to convince myself that what I was seeing on television was South Korea’s way of luring North Korean citizens and that it was propaganda. But the dramas were exciting and caught my attention. Like watching a detective movie, it was thrilling.
Six months passed by, and within this time my outlook on the world changed a great deal. To be honest, I could not form any opinions on politics or the economy because there was nothing I could compare them with. But there were things I could compare.
One snowy night I was watching television, with blankets over the windows as usual. The news had just ended and the weather forecast came on, about how it was snowing in Seoul. I thought to myself: “It’s snowing here. Even if Seoul is far away from here, it can’t be farther than 500km away, which means it’s also snowing there.”
“I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing was how things really were in South Korea”
What was funny to me was what was said about it. The forecast informed that due to a high accumulation of snow, there was a minute-long delay for some buses. I thought to myself “this can’t be true. How is a bus being delayed such big news?”
In North Korea, express trains like South Korea’s KTX get delayed for days constantly and that was never a big deal. So I thought to myself, once again, that it was a lie. But in that moment, another thought occurred to me: “What if what I am seeing is all true? Why would they have reason to make all of this up?”
In that moment I realized that what I had been seeing on television was all real. Then I thought to myself: “If all the things I have been seeing are true, how nice is a country that has such developed systems? I wish I could study in a country like that.”
I got more serious about defecting when I got to college. I studied very hard to get into college but I was very disappointed when I got there. It was not really about learning but about ideology: it was authoritarian in nature and, essentially, like army life.
I had imagined college life was full of freedom and passion, but it was all a fantasy. The gap between my expectations and the reality only made me think more about what I saw on South Korean television. I made up my mind to go to South Korea and study there.
In my fourth year of college, I went to the border. I spent some time looking for a broker, all while trying to avoid getting caught by the state.
Crossing the Amnok River, even though it was early winter, I couldn’t feel the coldness of the water. I just remember feeling refreshed as the river’s thin ice touched my ankle.
But all the anxiety I had repressed while I was crossing into China began to emerge as I got near the border with Laos. Before crossing I had to wait there for a week – it sucked everything out of me.
In this situation, anyone would want to cross as soon as possible. But when it was my turn to cross, I decided to delay my crossing – I had a bad feeling. Nobody understood why. Two days later, I heard on the news that defectors were caught in China: the people that were caught were those who had taken my place.
“I got more serious about defecting when I got to college”
The coldness of the water in Amnok river was nothing compared to the chills that ran down my back when I heard the news. Instinct had allowed me to live.
After miracle upon miracle, I arrived in South Korea. But there were also painful moments there. Was all of this destined for me? If I really think about it, on the other side of my destiny, there are many who have suffered an unfortunate fate. While I was able to survive cholera and starvation, there were so many who died. While I was able to obtain freedom, there are still 25 million North Koreans deprived of it.
Current news on North Korea is all about Kim Jong Un, dictatorship, poverty, nuclear weapons, and terror. The media is always interested in North Korea’s missile provocations or shocking news. Inevitably, this creates only a dark image of the country. People across the world probably think “North Korea is hell and people are unhappy there.”
But this is a misperception that comes from news that focuses only on one aspect of life in North Korea. Through my writing, I want to change this.
North Korea, to me, is a place of warmth and beauty. Just as how you imagine your homeland to be. People across the world pity North Koreans, but you will come to realize that people in North Korea are like you. There are young people who care about justice, with deep passion and sharp intelligence.
Their hope for justice carry courage that goes beyond life and death, and their passion surpasses any status or heirarchy. Their intelligence can penetrate any information firewall.
Translation by Rose Kwak
Edited by Oliver Hotham