Humans of North Korea: Remembering Why I Crossed That River

July 17, 2020

If I hadn’t crossed the Tumen River [into China], I’d be dead. My mom was already in China and the food shortages in North Korea were getting worse. I didn’t know where to get food. So I made up my mind to cross the river, but the day before I was supposed to go, the broker looked at the river’s water level and asked, “What if you drown in the middle of the river and die?”

I hesitated a little. Because I really could have died. But I didn’t turn back and I told the broker to send me across. I was so adamant about going that she didn’t stop me. If I had stopped or retreated because I was afraid of the water, I wouldn’t be here today. If I had tried to go back, I would have just died. In North Korea, there was no hope. No hope at all.

The morning I crossed everything was still covered in darkness. While I waited for the soldiers’ watch to end, all I could hear was the sound of the river in front of me.

It was completely black but I thought, if only I can reach the other side I can reunite with my mom.

When I stepped into the icy river I thought if I was going to die here in North Korea or trying to cross, I’d rather die trying to find my mother. That’s why I decided to cross the Tumen River that morning. It’s because of that one moment where I made the decision to cross that I can live my own life today. 

Now when I’m having a hard time, I remember that moment when I stepped into the river and remind myself that my life has a purpose. I ask myself, “Why did you cross that river?”

- Pilju, escaped North Korea at 17 years old and reunited with his mom in South Korea.

Humans of North Korea: This is freedom

April 29, 2021

I got foreign media from my dad. He was a member of the Korean Workers Party and many of his friends were security agents. They confiscated a lot of foreign media and gave it to my dad and he would bring it home.

Some of my most vivid memories are getting together with my friends at someone’s house, shutting off all the lights, and secretly watching South Korean dramas. It was exhilarating. If you heard anything outside, you’d get startled and think,

“Did they come to arrest us? Are we going to jail now?” It was thrilling doing things we knew we shouldn’t do.

Everything portrayed in the South Korean dramas was so clean and everyone seemed so wealthy. I used to think “Wow, there is such a world out there.” We were taught that South Korea was a poor country but I wondered, “Why can’t we live like that?”

I wanted to wear clothes from the dramas but I couldn’t find them anywhere. We used to get a lot of used clothes from the market down by the harbor. You either find used clothes or fabric and have a tailor make the outfit for you. After three or four days of wearing a new style, everyone would be wearing the same thing because it looked so cool.

My designs were very popular. If I started wearing something new, there was always someone who would wear similarly styled clothes because the number of South Korean dramas that inspired us was so limited. Girls would ask me where I got my clothes and if I wanted to exchange outfits. Bartering was very common and sometimes they’d offer their more expensive clothes in exchange for mine.

But you had to look out for the Inspection Unit. If they caught you wearing jeans and a hoodie, they’d cut the bottom of the jeans with scissors. My sister and brother were older than me so their friends were sometimes in the Inspection Unit. If I knew the person, I would just tell them, “I’ll go change right now” or “I’ll give you these jeans but please don’t cut the bottoms off” and I would go get it back from them later.

The regime doesn’t want people wearing those kinds of clothes. I think it’s because things like jeans symbolize freedom. North Korean society is so restricted that if they allowed jeans there would be no end to what people would want to wear.

Even now in South Korea, every time I put on a pair of jeans I think, “This is freedom.”

- Jihyun Kang
escaped North Korea in 2009. She now works in the fashion industry in Seoul.

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