August 17, 2019
August 17, 2019
Ask a North Korean: from middle-class life to famine and freedom
Ask a North Korean: from middle-class life to famine and freedom
Introducing a new writer, a former resident of Hyesan, Ryanggang-do
July 17th, 2019

Welcome back to the NK News feature: “Ask a North Korean!”

We are back once again with our feature that allows you, the readers, to send in your questions to our North Korean writers.

Today we’re introducing the first of our two new North Korean writers: In-hua Kim (writing under a pseudonym).

Ms. Kim is able to offer incredible insight into life in North Korea, not only because she was still living in the North less than a year ago but also because she was born in the 1960s.

As a result, she can take us through the decades, showing us the dramatic difference between life in the North before and after the devastating famine of the 1990s.

Got a question for In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.


“I come from a city called Hyesan, Ryanggang-do, the coldest place in North Korea” | Photo: Mimura~commonswiki


Hello readers,

I come from a city called Hyesan, Ryanggang-do, the coldest place in North Korea. I was born in the mid-1960s as the fourth daughter and fifth child of seven. 

My father worked as a manager in a big factory, and my mother was a process inspector at my father’s workplace. I was born soon after my family had relocated from Pyongyang – my siblings later told me they had a hard time adjusting to their new environment.

My father was a patriot, having answered the party’s call to move from his role as a manager at a big company in Pyongyang and go down to the provinces to develop the local economy.

My arrival in the family was not welcomed. My father was the oldest of six and it was important for him to have a son so he could continue the family line. They did have a son just before me, but my parents were hoping for another son for that little extra assurance. 

I grew up carefree in a crowded family of seven children

My father came back from a business trip a few days after I was born. He heard that I was a girl, gave me a quick glance, and then walked out of the room without saying a word to my mother.

My mother told me about this when I was older – she would joke that the old codger didn’t even give her any seaweed or meat after giving birth to me (which is custom in Korean culture). 

I entered this world as a daughter, not a son, and so I spent my childhood unable to receive any love from my father. My sisters and I thought we were hated and that our parents only liked our brother.

My father was sick when my mother gave birth to her sixth child. When he heard that he had another daughter, he sprang out of bed in disbelief.

My mother tried again for the seventh time – this time she produced a son. 

I was only 6 years old when my second brother was born, but I was so happy. At lunchtime, I went to the front entrance of my father’s workplace and stopped every passerby to tell them the good news. Soon the whole company was rejoicing at the birth of the manager’s second son. 

I grew up carefree in a crowded family of seven children. I attended nursery, kindergarten, people’s school (North Korean elementary school), and middle school, and thanks to my good results at middle school athletics events I was accepted into a sports school. 

However, my father opposed my admission on the grounds that sports school would only make me more tomboyish.

Unable to defy my father, I instead started work at a machine factory. I would melt iron and cast it in a mold to make products. It was so rewarding I never felt tired – I too was working hard for the fatherland.

Later on, I married a military officer who was serving at a nearby unit, settling into family life. 

The rise to power of Kim Jong Il coincided with economic disaster in North Korea | Photo: file photo

MY “ARDUOUS MARCH”

The life of a military family was envied by everyone. In the 1990s, the gradually-slumping economy finally gave way, and in 1992 the rations we received from the distribution system shrank to little to nothing. However, since the army continued to receive provisions, I was able to avoid the worst of it and also assist my parents. 

My parents had only worked faithfully for the sake of the country, they had not even the slightest of self-serving desires. But those who had only relied on the distribution system found themselves in a very difficult situation around this time.

The ‘Arduous March’… a time of difficulty the likes of which I had never experienced before

Around this time, my father resigned from his job due to health reasons. When he was confined to his bed, I would gather medical herbs and honey for him.

My father, who had not given my mother seaweed nor meat when I was delivered, said: “if I had only known that I would be indebted to my daughter like this…”

It was unthinkable to me that my great father would ever pass away. But about a fortnight after last visiting him, I received a telegram confirming his death.

My father died during the ‘Arduous March,’ a time of difficulty the likes of which I had never experienced before. 

It used to be scary to go to the hill at the back of my father’s factory since it was so overgrown with larch trees. However, beginning in the late 80s, people began cutting down the trees due to the shortage of coal, which had once been so common. By the early 1990s, the mountainside had been stripped bare.

There were no trees near my father’s burial site. I wished that there were some trees left so that he could have some shade from the scorching sun in the summer and some protection from the cold wind in the winter.

My family moved from one place to another, following my husband’s postings, until we returned to my hometown, Hyesan, when he was discharged at the age of 40.

My husband had graduated from middle school and joined the army when he was 17 years old — he knew nothing but military life and had a hard time adjusting into regular society.

Since provision of all our daily necessities and food rationing ended following his dismissal, it was an extremely difficult time.

I learned from my oldest sister, who was living in Pyongsong, how to make Pyongsong cookies, which had a high market price. I would earn money selling these cookies at the ‘jangmadang’ (North Korea’s informal markets).

We were managing to make a living when suddenly my husband died in the mid-2000s. 

One evening he returned home from drinking with his friends, got out his military badge case, which he kept in the closet, and stared at it. I felt something was up.

He was quietly smoking a cigarette when I started to hear some groans and jumped to my feet. He had fallen to the ground, clutching his heart. I started shaking him and yelled at my daughter to get the neighbors. But by the time everyone got there, it was too late. He had died of a heart attack.

I think he must have been in great agony since he retired. He used to say that he would be in uniform for life and that he would never leave the guard post from which he defended his country. The sudden discharge order could have brought on his internal breakdown, though he never talked about it.

Living isn’t too tough as long as you’re wearing a military uniform in North Korea. You can get by without too much effort since you receive food and clothing from the state, so soldiers make efforts not to get discharged.

Losing my husband overnight, I fell into difficult circumstances. My mother and siblings helped but they were also suffering during the Arduous March. Feeding and schooling two daughters was a heavy burden to bear.

Ms. Kim finally left North Korea in October 2018 | Photo: NK News

ESCAPING NORTH KOREA

One day, my older daughter suddenly disappeared. My younger daughter and I searched everywhere but she was nowhere to be seen.

I later realized that she had left the country. Ever since her father died she had been wanting to go to China and earn some money like everyone else was doing. In the end, she ended up leaving secretly. It was about a year until we reconnected.

Around this time I started using a cell phone. One day, upon the request of my daughter, I liaised between a mother in South Korea and her son in the North, delivering some money to him.

But two years later, the son was caught talking to his mother by state security and imprisoned. He denounced me and got himself released.

I was unable to walk back then due to the inflammation of my knee joint, but I was still taken to a detention house. No arrest warrant was presented. I was subsequently tried at the court and put to compulsory labor.

I wouldn’t be alive today had I not made it to South Korea

While in prison, I didn’t repent for my alleged sin — I stiffened my resolve to escape to South Korea. 

I noticed things had changed when I was released from prison and returned to my hometown after nearly two years in October 2016.

First of all, there was wire mesh along the Yalu River, which meant I could no longer do my laundry there.

Also, tall apartment buildings had replaced all the one-story houses due to the railroad construction between Pyongyang and Hyesan. Things were no longer like they were when I was growing up. 

One day, I encountered an old acquaintance who happened to be released from prison two months after I was. Empathizing with each other, we decided to come together as a family and looked for a way to defect from North Korea.

Reconnecting with my daughter after two years, I finally made it out of the country in October 2018, together with my new husband and our children.  

After journeying through China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, we arrived at Incheon International Airport in December, 2018.

Everything seemed like a dream from the moment I arrived in South Korea. The scenes that unfolded before my eyes as we drove down the expressway on the bus had me in a daze.

Even the expressway itself showed me how advanced the South Korean economy was.

I am now leading a happy life with my family, often meeting with my daughters who I had missed so much.

I had been born into a middle-class family, not knowing any hardships growing up. But my life was turned on its head during the Arduous March in the 1990s. I wouldn’t be alive today had I not made it to South Korea.

Life in the South has its difficulties, but I stay strong in the knowledge that I’m better off than I would be back in North Korea. Going forward, I intend to live life as a proud tax paying citizen of the Republic of Korea.

There’s so much more I want to talk about, but I will leave it here for today.

Translated by Jihye Park

Edited by James Fretwell

Featured image: Adam Westerman

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