The following story is fictional and is NOT a depiction of facts.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’ll be at my uncle’s place,” I said, without looking at her. “I’ll be back in a few days, okay?”
She draped me in a long, black coat and walked me to the front gate, holding a kerosene lamp that glowed luminously in the dark.
“Don’t put yourself in harm’s way alright? Come home safe and sound.”
She smiled at me, and off I went. Till this day, I still recall the memory of that poignant moment vividly as if it had just occurred yesterday. The look on her face, combined with the glow of the lamp was the perfect definition of warmth and comfort.
- Jeom Myn-Rae
It was a chilly winter evening in North Korea when 17-year-old Jeom Myn-Rae fled her country. Nobody knew about her grand plans for a great escape — not her friends, siblings or even her mother. No one. After all, she was well aware that even the slightest detail being revealed could prove to be the final nail in her coffin for in North Korea, she learnt the hard way to trust absolutely nobody but herself. In a society where perfidious personalities tend to be more common than not- everyone spied on everyone.
“At the very last possible moment, I was really tempted to tell my mother that I was leaving the country,” she said, nearly three decades later. “Ultimately, I bit my tongue and lied to her that I was going to visit my uncle’s place in Pyongyang for a few days. I felt a jumble of emotions, all tugging my heartstrings at once just before I bid her goodbye. It was strange, yet painful at the same time.”
Jeom’s hometown of Sinuiju was close to the Chinese border. Only the Yalu River separated the borders of the two countries, where on the other side lay the Chinese city of Dandong (丹东). Every night, the city’s bright lights were a source of fascination in the eyes of Jeom, which gradually cultivated the thought of visitation with each passing day.
Her family traded with the Chinese there, which allowed Jeom to befriend plenty of North Korean guards patrolling the area. This would greatly ease the infamously treacherous journey for Jeom alongside the heavily patrolled border.
When Jeom first stepped foot onto the frozen Yalu River, she thought that she’d be home in just a matter of days. Just a few days to sightsee and take a breather away from the stifling air of North Korea. But she never came back.
“In a flash, all I could hear was the Chinese language bouncing in and out of my eardrums from the mouths of chatty locals, which was the first time I’ve ever heard another language besides Korean,” recalls Jeom. “I didn’t know that was the last time I would ever see North Korean soil, nor did I know that I would never see my mum and family ever again.”
Living in North Korea
North Korea is a country characterised by a cult of personalities spanning three generations since the end of the Second World War — Kim II-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. To say that it is a country from which very few escape and into which very little of the outside world seeps is an understatement.
An omnipresent wave of propaganda sweeps through the entire nation, presenting a lopsided vision of the world in the eyes of the masses where North Koreans are a privileged few.
“We were taught that citizens of other countries such as the United States were like walking timebombs, awaiting their untimely demise due to the exorbitant costs of their capitalistic healthcare system,” said Jeom. “They couldn’t go to universities because they had to cough up non-existent money.”
“We, as North Koreans by contrast, believed that we were the lucky beneficiaries of our most magnanimous rulers, and I was one of them.”
However, it was a view that Jeom began to question in 1994 when Kim II-sung passed away. She pondered : “How could God possibly die? I mean, my death is inevitable, but surely our God can’t just… die?”
It was at this very stage that her mind began to become self-aware, as she gradually broke free of the shackles that inhibited her vision. A vision, once filled with incessant sights of public executions which were mandatory for North Koreans to witness, was now starting to have a mind of its own. Hence, there lay the seeds for her eventual voyage into the land of The Red Dragon, where a cloud of uncertainties and turmoil awaited her arrival.
Life in China
“My first steps into Dandong was a revelation beyond my comprehension. It felt as if I came from a world of black and white, into a world splashed with the vim and vigour that life’s best has to offer. It was absolutely magical.”
- Jeom Myn-Rae
China, in essence, was a different universe in the eyes of Jeom. Being North Korean she was no stranger to power shortages, where her entire city of Sinuiju was engulfed in what seemed like a perpetual black hole. This was in stark contrast to the myriad of sparkling lights in every window, restaurant and home on the other side of the river.
Jeom managed to reacquaint herself with her long-lost uncle and cousins, who fled North Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War. There, she began a new lease of life, trying and sampling many things that were once alien to her. New ice-cream flavours, new music, new films — it was a fiesta of discovery that exceeded her expectations.
However, it wasn’t all milk and honey throughout her stay there. Her relatives had to take great care in concealing her true identity to protect her from being discovered by the Chinese authorities. The prospect of immediate arrest and deportation back into North Korea was a dread she could never fathom. At any cost.
“I relished the thought of not having to worry about my neighbours spying on my every move. No longer needing to watch shows with my curtains drawn, whilst listening to music with the volume dialled to 11, was something I truly cherished. And I wasn’t ready to let that go, at least not yet.”
True enough, she elected to stay on and enjoy the pleasures life outside the Hermit Kingdom had to offer. What was supposed to have been just a couple of days outside of the country turned into three months. During that time, her 18th birthday came and went in a jiffy, and she was having the time of her life in China.
But one day, a torturous realisation took over her mind by storm. With her sudden status as an adult by virtue of her 18th birthday, the consequences of failing to return would be draconian — both for herself, and her family. Her uncle offered to take her back to the Yalu River, where she could cross the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge back into North Korea.
A Change of Plans
In spite of that, a spanner in the works was thrown in Jeom’s way. Two days before her scheduled departure, she received a phone call that would turn her life on its head. A friendly border guard had informed Jeom’s mother about her situation and that she was due to return home in a few days.
“Don’t come back. We’re under intense surveillance,” she heard her mother whisper through the phone.
Jeom’s mother had been forced to register her as a missing person for the fear of retaliation by the state’s secret police. Whilst there was no immediate danger to her family, the reports of an increased police presence in her mother’s neighbourhood began to raise alarms. The family had to lay low, and it was too perilous to return.
So, now with no money and the inability to speak the language, Jeom was thrown into the deep sea, forced to sink or swim in an effort to survive in China.
“China was the most difficult period in my life. I knew nothing, I knew nobody and I had no money,” said Jeom.
Worried that her presence in her relatives’ home would place them in the crosshairs of the Chinese government, she slid away and attempted to make it out on her own.
Jeom soon found herself a job in a bar, where she acted as a waitress and a bartender.
“My salary was hardly adequate, almost to the point of being negligible compared to my Chinese friends. But oh my, when I received it for the very first time, I could recall being on cloud nine. In North Korea, everything was state-owned, and nothing was private. To have something I can call my own, was a momentous occasion for me.”
Although life was relatively kind to her in China, a sticking point remained: she was still a foreigner trapped in China, with no legal identity. Over the next 5 years, she had to change her name several times in order to avoid capture. Eventually, she shed her entire Korean identity, pretending to be of Japanese-Chinese descent to fit in.
This meant living off the grid and in the shadows — alone. Her stance on trusting no one from her days living on North Korean soil, continued as she attempted to ward off potential trouble. However, this brought upon a multitude of issues — loneliness, despair and depression among others.
“My mental health was rotten to the point where I even considered returning to North Korea.”
She longed for her family’s company, and life on the run had caught up with her both physically and mentally. It all seemed like a dystopia in her eyes, one that she wasn’t sure that she would be able to escape.
“I had a steely determination, unlike anything I’ve felt before. I was high on optimism. After all, I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”
After five years of escaping South Korea and living under the shadows without a legal identity, Jeom plotted another great escape — this time to South Korea where she wanted to seek asylum. On a chance encounter, she managed to meet up with a broker who bribed the authorities on her behalf, providing her safe passage into South Korea.
One day, she got a call from a North Korean woman from her hometown, where she was told that her mother was paralysed as a result of a severe stroke and wanted one last chance to see her before her inevitable death. Stricken and distraught, Jeom was torn between travelling to South Korea in search of freedom or visiting her dying mother one last time with the risk of potentially being perpetually caged within North Korea.
But then, before Jeom could reach a consensus with her conflicted self, the natural law helped make up her mind for her. Her mother passed away the very next day, and calls for Jeom to attend her funeral were relayed by the very same woman. But she relented.
“I really, really wanted to go back. But on second thought, I thought if I were to go back, I couldn’t do anything for my mother, since she had already passed,” Jeom recalled. “I decided to trust my instincts and head for the pastures of South Korea, holding the belief that my mother would agree with my decision.” So she went, without looking back.
“I wanted to be free.”
A New Life
“On the other side of the Korean Demilitarised Zone, the city of Pyongyang seemed like a corpse, a pale shadow of staleness compared to the modern megalopolis of Seoul. I felt zero nostalgia, only defiance for which the North Korean regime starved me of time apart from my mother.”
Jeom safely made it to South Korea a few days later and sought asylum which was subsequently granted by the South Korean government. The mere sight of Seoul’s nightlife and unmatchable sprightliness was akin to an illusion at first sight. Jeom’s life was now in absolute technicolour, making mundane life as a North Korean citizen seemingly black and white in comparison.
Whilst feeling in relative safety, the nature and events which transpired during Jeom’s escape left her wanting vengeance. After all, she escaped out of desperation. Stay and die; leave, and maybe survive. Whilst critical and crystal clear on her assessment of her homeland, she was not ready to abandon her homeland.
“It’s a place I want to prosper,” Jeom said. “It’s home.”
Now that she has obtained a sense of security, Jeom bagan on her ultimate mission — to single-handedly plot the escape of all her remaining family members from North Korea. She would not allow a system cemented on the deception and confinement of its people from the world to deprive her family from further isolation.
“I will fight for my family, and for them to have the ability to chart their future, on their own terms.”
“I will make it my life’s mission to raise the awareness of the international community towards the inhumane brutality displayed by the North Korean regime upon its 25 million citizens.”
“Because if I don’t speak up for them, who will?”