The North Korean government made my entire senior class work in the fields during the planting season.
For 40 days straight, we didn’t go to school. We just planted rice in the countryside from dawn to dusk. Even though I hated the work, some of my fondest memories are from that time. I hung out with my friends a lot because we all lived and worked together. We’d sing songs and sneak out to steal corn and potatoes when we were hungry. Then we’d roast them and share them with each other. I loved the feeling of disobeying the rules together.
We’d also hang out with the girls. I had the biggest crush on this one classmate. She had the palest skin and long black hair. In school, it was her job to clean the portraits of the leaders. Every morning she’d take her shoes off and stand on the desk while she wiped the frame with a special cloth. She looked like this beautiful statue standing over the class. It was the highlight of my day watching her do that and I looked forward to seeing her every morning.
She was my first love and while working in the fields I told her how much I liked her. After that, I started stealing corn just for her and we would laugh and talk together. 40 days seemed to go on forever. But the planting season ended and I stopped going to school soon after that because there were rumors my father had defected. I never got to say goodbye and I still think about her and wonder how she’s doing.
“If I saw her today I would walk up to her with a piece of roasted and corn and just say “remember me?”
After my father left for South Korea, the police came to question me and mom nearly everyday. We had to pretend that we had no idea where my dad was even though we knew exactly where he was. The police would sometimes interrogate us for hours waiting for us to slip up. I was still a teenager but I knew that I had to fake my emotions. I would beg the police to find my father and tell them how worried I was that he was missing.
“If I had told them the truth, they would have arrested us immediately.”
We left North Korea a year after my dad made it to South Korea. The police wouldn’t leave us alone so we first went to stay with my grandma. One of our neighbors agreed to let us know when it was safe enough to leave for good. The police bugged our phone so she had to speak in code. One day she called and said “The price of beans has been steadily going down” which meant it was time. When we got that message we left North Korea a few days later. All we had was a small bag and some money with us.
My father is a great photographer and he took a lot of photos in North Korea. We couldn’t bring even a single one with us. It saddens me to think about all the family photos that are probably gone forever. I wish we just had one.
The first time I saw my father again was in Hanawon (South Korean resettlement center for newly arrived North Koreans). I couldn’t say anything and just started crying because he was crying. He brought me strawberries and the first thing he said to me was “eat this strawberry”. I had never seen a strawberry that big and my first words to him in years were “Are these real strawberries?!”.
— Yusung Park, escaped North Korea in 2008
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