Memoir: when my husband and I defected from North Korea, we made the biggest sacrifice of all

Memoir: when my husband and I defected from North Korea, we made the biggest sacrifice of all

Memoir: When my husband and I defected to Toronto in search of a better life, we made the biggest sacrifice of allI met my husband, Oh-jooyean, in 1996, while working in a market near my hometown of Yonan, North Korea. I was 22 years old; he was 26. A year later, we went to the police station to get married. We stood before an officer and pledged to love each other, live peacefully together and forever love and respect our eternal leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

We settled in the northern province of Yanggang-do, not far from Baekdu-san, a famous snow-topped mountain that’s mentioned in our national anthem. Like everybody in our town, we lived in a “harmonica” townhouse—a type of building consisting of a long line of attached one-room cells. We didn’t have a fridge in our room, and we rarely had wood for heat. My husband and I worked in a factory or farm field—wherever we were assigned—and we survived on rations and a measly wage that was barely enough to buy a kilo of rice. We grew whatever vegetables we could in a small plot in front of our house and foraged for plants in
the mountains.

Our daughter, Hae-kyung, was born the same year we married. She had big, beautiful eyes. Even when we had no food, I was always happy looking in her eyes. Like most kids in our town, she suffered from malnutrition and was very small.

When Hae-kyung was six years old, I got pregnant again. That’s when I started thinking about the river. I remember going to visit my sister-in-law, who lived about a 30-minute walk from us and close to the Tumen River, part of the border between our province and China. The river was only about 50 metres wide at that point, and every time we visited I would think about slipping across—which people often did, to sneak money or food back into our country.

One day in December, I decided to give it a try, even though I was nearly nine months pregnant. I wanted to buy my daughter a new pair of shoes as a New Year’s gift. I waited until it was dark and the area was clear of patrolling soldiers, then waded across a shallow part of the river and made my way to the closest town.

I returned to the river the following night, with shoes and a bag of rice. I’d made it most of the way across before a group of soldiers spotted me. They yanked me out of the water, and one of the soldiers, thinking I was smuggling money or drugs under my clothes, hit me hard in the stomach with the butt of his gun. When I collapsed, he hit me on the side of my head, crushing the front of my skull, and I passed out.

I woke up about a half-hour later, covered in snow. I could see the soldiers off in the distance. They must have thought I was dead. I stood up and started running, trying to make it back to my sister-in-law’s house. I made it to the door and threw the rice and shoes inside just as the soldiers grabbed me. I pleaded with them to let me go, but because I didn’t have money to bribe them, they took me to the police station and locked me in a tiny cell for two days without food or water. It was so small I couldn’t stand or lie down, and my stomach ached. I knew I was losing my baby.

By the time I was finally released, the pain was agonizing.

I started the half-hour walk back to my house, sweating despite the freezing temperature. I delivered my baby boy right there on the side of the road. I saw his lifeless body, half of his head bruised purple from being struck by the soldier’s gun. A neighbour found us on the roadside and took us home.

It was a couple of years before I recovered from my injuries and the trauma of losing my son. During that time, my husband and I contemplated escaping North Korea, but we couldn’t imagine leaving our daughter, who was too weak to endure a trek through the mountains to China. Finally, in November 2009, I decided that if we were going to survive, we had to go.

Hae-kyung was 12 years old when we took her to my mother-in-law’s house. We’d made arrangements to leave that night, along with a guide and a few other people. We couldn’t be late. I told Hae-kyung that I’d make lots of money and come back for her, that I’d buy her lots of gifts. She was wailing, asking us to take her with us. As we were rushing to get out the door, she grabbed my ankle and begged me not to go. I had to slap her arms off of me, something I regret to this day.

It took two days of climbing through the mountains in deep snow before we arrived at a ginseng farm in China. We ate some dried vegetables we found on the ground and slept in a small hut on the property. That hut became our home, and we worked on the farm in exchange for food and a little money. We felt lucky. The reverend in the nearby church spoke Korean, and we attended his services as often as we could. After two years, we’d saved 4,000 yuan (about $630), and the reverend hired a broker to help get us to Canada.

When we finally flew in to Toronto on January 3, 2012, my heart was pounding. I still wasn’t convinced we were safe. Our broker had arranged for us to be picked up and taken to a homeless shelter at Bloor and Christie, and we applied for refugee status.

A month later, my husband and I moved into an apartment on Wellesley. We found jobs working in Korean restaurants on Bloor West. I wait tables; he helps in the kitchen. We save as much money as we can, hoping to one day have enough to get our daughter out of North Korea. Hae-kyung is 15 years old now. Toronto would be like heaven to her.

An Seo-hee lives in Toronto and is awaiting her first refugee hearing.

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