PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Refugee memoir blog

by | July 2nd, 2013 | 06:57 am
|

Among the interns that work at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea are a number of former North Koreans. (Full disclosure: I’m on the Committee’s Board.) Recently the Committee has begun a blog series “Intern Memoir” in which these individuals tell their life stories. So far the Committee has posted two, “Crossing Thresholds” by Hana Kim, and “Dreams of My Hometown” by Sung-chul Kim.  Both are extraordinary stories, well-told.

Hana Kim’s story is one of a growing up in relative privilege. Recounting her first job, working for a trading company, “One time, I bought some dduk (rice cakes) at the market and continued shopping, holding the food in my hand. I never imagined that someone would swipe my snack from my hand before my eyes. When I looked down, I saw what looked like a homeless child who had stolen my dduk. I was shocked and confused, as I could not understand why these children would wander around the streets stealing things from strangers. “

After the trading company she landed a job at an “international hotel” (with North Korean characteristics): “One might think an international hotel serves anyone who can pay to stay, but hotels, even international ones, in North Korea operate under a different business plan. International hotels are typically only open to National Central Party executives and overseas customers. In the hotel that I worked for, only National Central Party members and a UN Missions team passed through. Typically, for many months at a time, staff members were the only people roaming the hotel corridors because no one else could receive government approval to rent a hotel room.”

She grew increasingly disillusioned after being forced to join a “Highway Construction Youth Brigade” and watching colleagues die in abominable conditions.  Like many refugees, particularly young, single, women, when she escaped into China, she expected to return to North Korea. But stranded in China, she began to learn more about South Korea, and eventually made the decision to make the second, on-migration, to that destination. She eventually made it into college in South Korea, and placement as an intern at HRNK.

Sung-chul Kim’s story is more difficult to read, recounting the disintegration of his family during the famine and torture at the hands of North Korean police. Eventually he made it to South Korea and after working multiple jobs to pay off his debt to the broker who arranged his escape and obtaining his high school equivalency credential, was able to enter university in South Korea. Yet he remains unsettled: “I searched for hope, but found much misery embedded even within the hope I found.” He wants to be a poet. He wants to help the North Korean youth he left behind.  I sense that despite his discomfort, somehow he is well along that path.

Keep your eye on this blog. These pieces are well worth reading.