Yoon Ha's Story: Part 1 - Life in North Korea
Yoon Ha resettled to South Korea through LiNK’s network about a year ago. She recently shared her story with us. This is part one of three. Continue to part two.
When I was asked, “How was your life in North Korea?” for the first time, I just started crying because my life there was so hard. It was so hard.
When I was a little kid my mom left me, my younger sister, and my dad, because of our financial struggles. I felt so abandoned and unloved.
And even though I was young, I had to start working to contribute to my family’s finances. My sister and I would forage for plants in the mountains and riversides. We carried the herbs, roots, and pinecones on our backs, walking for three hours to get to the marketplace. We sold our stuff so we could get corn powder to eat. And then we would walk the three hours back to our house. It was very, very hard.
In my late teens my father passed away. I was devastated. After a few years of living with relatives, my sister and I moved back to live with our mom again. But we were still very poor. People would make fun of us for being so poor and not having a father around. I felt a lot of shame about my family and living situation.
When I was 22, my mom asked me to start living with a man much older than me to lessen the financial burden on my family. I didn’t like living with him at all.
I decided to leave my hometown to find a better life somewhere else. I walked for a few days to get to Hamhung, one of the biggest cities in North Korea, hoping I could find work there.
In the city, I did a lot of things to make money. I would sell gas lighters and secondhand vinyl. I had to do it secretly because it was illegal. And it never paid well--just enough to buy food. I was staying at homes, cheap inns, empty houses, and even sleeping on the streets and next to graves when I had to. Sometimes I got beaten by people from the city because they didn’t like that I was making money but wasn’t from there.
I worked there for many months, but I couldn’t save any money so I decided to go back to my mom’s place. My mom and my sister were still struggling, and having me back was a burden to them. So I left home again and walked to Pyongyang to find work. In North Korea you need a special permit to move to different cities, and I didn’t have one. I got caught and sent to jail for 10 days.
After I was released, I started walking to other cities again to find work. I knew I might get caught by the police again, but I couldn’t go home. I walked a lot. Walking was the only way I could travel to where I needed to go.
I made it to another town and found work crushing ore to extract gold. The work was illegal and we would do it secretly in people’s houses. In one of these houses, I got beat up and got kicked out. I didn’t do anything wrong; they just didn’t want to pay me. Even after that incident I continued to do the same work in other houses. For the first time in my life, I had made a decent amount of money--enough to buy 100 kg of corn.
I was so happy. I would be able to bring some money to my mom and sister so we could eat food for a while. I also missed my family, so I started heading home.
At a bus station on the way home, a woman and her daughters asked me to get water for them. They stole all of my money and ran away.
I couldn’t handle all the bad things that kept happening to me. It felt like my life was hopeless and pathetic. I went to a river near the bus station to commit suicide. But right when I was about to jump into the river, all of sudden a thought came over me.
“Why do I have to die? Why? I've not done anything wrong. I'm still only in my early 20s.” I made the decision to live and make the better life I wanted.
Instead of going home, I started walking again. I just kept going north. Even though I was so hungry, the hope for a better life drove me to keep walking.
After walking for days, I somehow arrived in Hyesan, a city on the border with China. I saw many people like me, who had been wandering around in search of food and work. I had travelled to many different parts of North Korea, and came to the conclusion that life was difficult everywhere in my country.
A couple in their 30s or 40s approached me and asked how old I was. I told them my age, 23. They asked if I wanted to go to China. They said I could have a better life there.
“A better life? Yeah, I would do anything to have a better life.”
So I decided to go to China with them. I was so focused on having a better life; I didn’t ask many questions. A few days later, in the darkness of night, we crossed the river into China.
Continue reading with part two.
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.