By: Geum Hyok Kim
I remember sitting in an empty apartment. There was nothing. No bed, no chair, no dishes, no clothes. I sat on the floor and stared at the wall for hours, wondering “what do I do now?” I was alone in a new country. I had lost all my friends and I had no idea what happened to my family.
It all started over a dinner in Beijing. I am from North Korea’s elite class and I was one of the few university students that was allowed to study abroad. In China, I met a few South Korean students and we became friends. One night over dinner they began talking about human rights in North Korea. They criticized my country and I was so confused. What are human rights? What is a dictatorship? What is freedom?
I grew up very comfortably in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. I never went hungry and I could buy whatever I wanted. I even owned a South Korean computer and I played video games on it. But there were also moments when I questioned things. There was the time I was interrogated for 3 days for giving a friend some South Korean movies. Or the time my dad had to bribe the police to let me go. But I thought it was like that everywhere.
I cried in the taxi on the ride home that night. I was so frustrated that I didn’t have the words to defend my homeland. I went back to my dorm room and began searching the internet for information on human rights.
My idea of North Korea died that night. The place I called home and the only system I had ever known was all a lie. I couldn’t stop crying as I watched a documentary about North Korea’s political prison camps. I didn’t go to class after that. I stopped hanging out with most of my friends and spent most of my time reading and learning about things I had never known about my country.
A couple weeks later I was at an ice rink in Beijing. As I was watching these little Chinese kids skate around so carefree, something broke deep inside me. I thought about the North Korean children in the documentaries who would never get to enjoy something like this. That’s when I knew I had to do something.
I began devouring books about democracy and freedom. I watched more documentaries and read the political classics like Plato’s The Republic. If the regime discovered I was reading that book, it could have cost me my life. But I couldn’t kill my curiosity. I couldn’t unlearn what I now knew and I definitely couldn’t go back to North Korea.
One morning I received a call from the North Korean embassy in Beijing. They asked me to come in because they said something was wrong with my visa. Nothing like this had ever happened before so it seemed strange. I was convinced that they knew what I had been reading and thinking about. I agreed to come in and hung up.
I never went to the embassy. I destroyed my phone and ID cards that day and left my dorm room with some cash. A couple days later I found a South Korean pastor and he helped me find a way to get safely to South Korea.
It has been six years since I sat in that empty apartment on my first day as a free South Korean citizen. There was a moment while I sat there where I began to question everything. Did I make the wrong choice? What did I do to my family? Will I really be okay on my own now? But then I reminded myself—I came here with a purpose: to learn about democracy and to help my people get their freedom. So I put on my shoes and went to buy groceries for the first time.
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