Joy's Story: Part 1 - Growing Up in North Korea
I didn’t have a dream for my future when I was a child because my family was just trying to survive. My dad ran a farm, but one day the regime took all of his property. We had to start illegally selling wood to make money. We were always worried that we would get caught. We lived in constant fear and anxiety.
I remember not being able to eat for two days. My parents went into the mountains to find grass to boil and eat. Once we couldn't find grass, so my dad and I went to someone's cornfield. He carried me on his back and, when we got there, we pretended that I had to pee so I could go into the field and eat the unripe corn.
Eventually things got too hard for my mom, so she divorced my dad and left us. Life was so hard back then.
Because we never had enough money, there were a lot of arguments between my dad and my stepmom. There were other issues too—my sister’s husband tried to rape me. My father and stepmother also tried to marry me off when I was a teenager. I understood that they couldn’t keep taking care of me because of the economic situation, but I didn’t want to get married. When they set up a meeting with a prospective partner, I didn’t go but lied to my parents that I had and didn’t like him at all, mentioning a lot of bad things about the guy although I had never met him. I felt bad for him, but I had to do that because I didn’t want to get married.
Eventually, I decided to leave for China, hoping that I would have a better life there. I didn’t want to go to South Korea at the time because I heard a lot of rumors about how difficult living there was for North Korean people. Instead, I wanted to find an old Chinese couple, like my grandma and grandpa, who would let me live with them in exchange for taking care of them. I was naive.
I cried a lot at the idea of leaving my family and friends. I couldn’t tell my family that I was going to China, but I did tell some of my close friends. I asked them to give my goodbye letters to my family. I felt so apologetic to my father that I didn’t do much for him as his daughter. Before then I didn’t like my father because, after the regime took away his farm, he started drinking a lot and not taking care of our family, yet I just couldn’t help feeling heartbroken leaving him. I also got to spend 3 days with my mom who lived far away from my family before I went to China. At the time I got to have a lot of conversations that brought us a lot of healing and reconciliation.
I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.
I found a broker who gave money to the border guards so they didn’t patrol when I was supposed to cross the Tumen river. When I got to the middle of the river I felt that the ice was quite thin so I had to crawl to cross the rest of the river that was covered by snow. I didn’t realize that moment but later after I arrived I realized that my feet got so swollen because they got frozen from crawling the river in the snow. I couldn’t feel my feet for a while.
Continue reading Part 2 of Joy's story, focused on her time spent hiding in China.
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Humans of North Korea: This is freedom
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.