North. A North Korean. A North Korean soldier dashed. A North Korean soldier dashed through the Joint Security Area and reached South Korea amid gunfire on December 21, 2017. In a few minutes’ time, this North Korean soldier’s hard work paid off.
During the Cold War, defectors often fled from the communist states into the capitalist ones. In twentieth-century Europe, many East Germans risked their lives for a new start in West Germany. This was particularly true after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. Sadly, many had an ill fate. In August 1962, Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old apprentice bricklayer, attempted to climb over the Berlin Wall to get into the American zone. However, Peter was shot in the stomach and back. He fell, and was again on the East German side. Receiving no medical aid he bled to death within an hour. Even though a new life was close in sight, Peter did not live to see it.
Presently, around 25,000 North Korean defectors live in the South of Korea …
Although the Iron Curtain was torn down in Europe, it continues to bar people in communist North Korea from the rest of the world. In this poverty-stricken country, leader Kim Jong-un develops nuclear missiles at the expense of 28 million North Koreans. Hopeless and living hard lives, many are determined to desert North Korea.
Generally, North Korean defectors are a conglomerate of North Koreans from almost all walks of life. Thae Yong-ho, the former North Korean diplomat at the United Kingdom, defected to South Korea together with his family in 2016. He ranks as the most senior official to escape North Korea. But defectors also include youngsters in northern mining villages and North Korean logging workers in Siberia, Russia.
Often, North Korean defectors aim to settle in South Korea. According to law, South Korea must accept all North Korean defectors as South Korean nationals. The constitution of South Korea defines, ‘the entire Korean peninsula’ its own territory. Presently, around 25,000 North Korean defectors live in the South of Korea. A few others settle in the West. By some measure, several thousands of North Koreans are still working their way towards a new life.
… the greatest challenge of all is to guard against indoctrination and be determined to leave.
Before the North Korean defectors reach their desired borders, they have to dodge through countless barriers. Most North Koreans escape through China. Before they head towards South Korea, they have to travel over 10,000 miles through China and spend 18-20 hours trekking through the forest in Laos.
Others decide to set sail from the Northeast coast of China into the sea near South Korea. Yet, dangers abound. For one, the motor of the boats can get jammed in fish nets and foul weather can swallow them up. The Chinese guards patrolling the sea can also repatriate them. In 2010, Chinese guards caught 33 defectors just as they were about to board near the Yellow Sea. Unfortunately, they were repatriated and sent to labour camps.
Physical obstacles aside, the greatest challenge of all is to guard against indoctrination and be determined to leave.
Obviously, North Korea closely monitors its people and bombards them with heavy party propaganda. Repeatedly, North Korean defectors stress in their autobiographies that ‘walls have eyes’ and ‘birds and mice could hear your whisper’. Besides, indoctrination really works. Kim Chaeng-song confessed how he had believed in the party:
‘Before I fled from North Korea, I have always believed that the Paradise I live in [North Korea] is a Garden of Eden, full of ripened figs’.
Mr. Ji Seong-ho had not thought of deserting North Korea until, in 2000, he was caught and beaten by the secret police after an illegal trip to China. Realising that he ‘had no future in North Korea’, he left with his makeshift crutches that his father made for him. His siblings and mother joined him in South Korea afterwards.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ji’s father was caught escaping North Korea and eventually died in prison. Knowing how costly it could be, North Korean defectors are determined to flee because of one thing:
‘It is not danger they love. They know what they love. It is life’.
Kim, Chaeng-song. ‘Review 2: Wretched People’. In Bandi, The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea. Translated by Xueying Liu. Taipei: Ping’s Publications Ltd., 2017.