NK Defector Couple Face Death… or Life

Special Field Report

One of LFNKR’s local staff members went to Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in the Jilin Province of China recently to interview a couple who, in hopes of reaching Japan, had decided in early 2007 to escape from North Korea. The husband and wife (names are not disclosed for their protection) were just children when their parents, ethnic Koreans born in Japan, moved to North Korea, expecting to find the “Paradise on the earth” that was being touted in a widespread campaign to attract immigrants. The husband had been 6 years old and his wife only 1 year old when their parents made the move. 

After living in North Korea for nearly 40 years, they speak no Japanese. While they were in North Korea, relatives in Japan sent financial help from time to time, but they had not heard from the relatives for the past few years, which left them facing hardships. Their greatest challenges were the severe shortage of food and the absence of freedom.

In North Korea, they were always under surveillance by the state authorities, since they were from Japan. Each time they needed to call their relatives in Japan, they had to first submit a written application to the National Security Agency for permission to make the call. After gaining permission, they had to submit what they planned to say on the phone to a monitor from the Agency, and an agent listened in on their call to make sure what they actually said matched their application. If the monitor decided that their conversation was veering into a topic that was not on the written application, he would immediately warn them and force them to hang up. Thus, they could never talk on the phone about the hardships they were going through.

The couple decided that the situation was no longer bearable, so had no choice but to go to China where they could call their relatives in Japan and ask for help.

In early June, the couple left their home and went to a city (undisclosed for their safety) near the China-North Korea border to meet with a North Korean broker who helped them escape into China.

Once in China, the couple called their relatives in Japan. The relatives, however, coldly refused the couple’s request. The broker, listening in on their phone conversation, realized that he would not be paid for the escape, since the couple had already used all their money during their first few days in China. The broker faced having to return to North Korea without payment.

The couple happened to overhear part of the broker’s phone conversation with another broker on the evening on June 15. He was saying, “I’ll be a few days late, since I have to ‘do away with these two’ in China.” They knew immediately what the broker was planning. If the broker let them remain in China, they were almost certain to be caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea, where they would be interrogated and very likely confess to the North Korean authorities. If they gave up the name and address of the broker and the route he used in the escape from North Korea, this would endanger his own life. The broker was obviously planning to kill the couple and leave no evidence.

That night, the couple waited until the broker fell asleep and sneaked out of the house in China where they had been hiding. They had no idea where to go, since they were complete strangers there. They had nowhere to escape to, so they simply ran into the closest dark forest at the foot of a nearby mountain. There, they heard the calls of wild beasts. They ran until they were exhausted, then finally decided to stop and sleep at the foot of a high cliff to protect themselves from attacks by animals.

Starting up the mountain, the husband went first, so that he could pull his wife up after him. The exhausted husband, climbing in the dark, slipped and fell. He hurt his leg, but fortunately it was not a serious injury and did not keep him from walking.

The temperature in that area in June goes down after dark, though it is hot during the daytime. They shivered in the chilly air of the dark forest. The wife could not stop crying from fear, discomfort and overwhelming insecurity. Having no idea what lay ahead of them, they felt desperate, but managed to get through the night, encouraging each other.

When dawn finally came, they found themselves in an old-growth forest with no sign of people around. They could not tell which direction was north or south, but decided to remain hiding in the forest for a while until they recouped. For two days, they ate wild plants and grasses, then they decided to leave the forest and descend the mountain on the third day. They feared animals might eat them.

Since they had no idea which direction to go, they depended on their instincts and continued walking the whole day until they finally found a vegetable farm. They thought there must be a village nearby and approached the vegetable field. An old man was cutting weeds there. The couple called to him, hoping to ask him for help, but he turned out to be a Han, who spoke only Chinese. They could not make themselves understood, but they used gestures to let him know they wanted to make a phone call. They were asking permission to use his telephone. He seemed to understand what they were asking but shook his head, staring at them. It seemed that he had no telephone.

After the couple figured out that he could not help them with a phone, they tried begging for food. Again, he shook his head. They were ready to give up, since they could not communicate. The old man, however, said something to them, gesturing like cutting weeds, while staring at the couple’s torn-up clothing. They guessed that he was offering to help if they would help him cut the weeds, and immediately started cutting weeds with the old man.

In the evening, a woman in her 30’s came out to the old man. She appeared to be his daughter. Hoping that the woman would understand their language, they asked her if they could stay at their house that night. Seeming to understand part of what they had said, she spoke with the old man, probably asking him who they were. After that, they brought the couple to their house, where the couple was told to wait outside. Soon, the old man came out of his house and handed them one 10-RMB bill and two 1-RMB bills. They accepted the money, assuming that it was their pay for the weed cutting.

The daughter also came out of the house, and the couple handed her their old cellular phone to show their appreciation. She immediately checked it over carefully to see if it still worked. Then she smiled and handed the couple a 100-RMB bill. It obviously meant she was willing to buy the phone.

With the unexpected 112-RMB in cash, the couple felt a little more secure as they bid good-bye to the father and daughter. They still had nowhere to stay, so they returned to the mountain. Using wild plants and grass to fill their stomachs, they passed their fourth night in the forest.

On the morning of the fifth day, the couple descended the mountain and set out walking, with no idea where to go. Finding a road, they waited until an old bus appeared. The bus even bore Korean writing on its front, so they flagged the bus down, expecting it would take them to a village where ethnic Koreans might live. After an hour’s bus ride, a village with Korean-style houses came into view. The couple got off the bus and looked around.

It was about lunch time, and they were starved from their five in the mountains with no chance to eat. The wife went up to one of Korean-style houses and knocked on the door. A middle-aged woman cracked the door slightly and asked “Who are you?” in Chinese. The wife answered, “We came from North Korea. We have not eaten for five days. Please help us.” The woman blurted in Korean, “We are also poor, and not able to help you.” She shut the door in their faces.

The couple decided to leave, because they knew that if they persisted, many Chinese people would report them to the police. They went to the house next door and the wife knocked. A middle-aged man stepped out. She asked again, “We are from North Korea. We have not eaten for five days. Please help.”

The man warned her, “Run away from our village immediately. We in this village do not help North Koreans anymore. Just hearing “North Koreans” upsets me. Get out of the village right now!”

Later, the couple found out that the ethnic Korean people in the village had been seriously abused by people from North Korea. Three or four years earlier, groups of people escaping from North Korea began visiting the ethnic Korean village. They would have their women or children pretend to beg during the daytime. For a while, the villagers felt sorry for them and brought them into their houses to feed or clothe them.

It was true that the children and women who begged were suffering. Sadly, however, some of them carefully checked out the houses where they were admitted during the daytime. Then at night, they led men to the houses where they broke in and stole valuables. All families in this village had suffered burglaries. The people in the village believed that all North Koreans would stoop to doing anything to get what they wanted.

The couple, who had just escaped into China, knew nothing of the situation in the China-North Korea border area, but they were told that ethnic Koreans in the area would no longer try to help escapees from North Korea. Quite a few ethnic Koreans had begun immediately informing the police if North Korean escapees showed up at their doors. The Chinese police pay informers 500RMB per head as a cash reward. This discouraged the couple from further door knocking at ethnic Korean houses to ask for help in their own language.

Knocking on two doors asking for food was enough for them to conclude that there would be no help here. Even walking around the village would be risky, especially after seeing the hostile looks from the man they had spoken to.

They headed out of the village and reached a road that led to the mountain. Before long, they spied a young man on a motorbike. The road surface was rough, and he slowed as he passed them. A kind look on the young man’s face encouraged the wife to try speaking to him.

“We need to make a phone call. Please help us.” The young man stopped his motorbike and listened to her, but did not seem to understand her language. She repeated, “We need to make a phone call,” then added, “We came from North Korea. We need to call our relative in Japan. Please help.”

He finally seemed to guess what she was asking and responded in Chinese. Although they understood no Chinese, they figured out from his gestures that he did not have a telephone. After continuing to talk, they realized that the young man understood most of what they said in Korean, but could not speak Korean. They asked again for his help in getting access to a telephone. The couple’s desperate look must have moved the young man. He gestured for them to follow. This gave them a bit of hope and they followed him. He led them back into the village.

His home, which was an old Han-style house, lay on the opposite side of the second house where they had knocked an hour earlier. Entering the young man’s house, they found a woman in her 50’s, apparently his mother. He said something in Chinese to the woman. Then, she told them in Korean, “You cannot use our telephone to make an international call. In this village, you can’t make any international calls. Go somewhere else.”

The wife asked, “If we can’t call Japan, then let us call xxx in China (city name undisclosed for security).”

The woman answered, “No, you can’t call xxx, either. Staying here in this village is dangerous for you. Leave the village quickly.”

The young man looked upset and argued with the woman in Chinese. The couple guessed he was protesting that they should help and at least allow them to make a phone call.” The angry mother repeated, “No, no, no, get out right now.” Frightened, the couple had to leave.

Their only option was the road again. Since they had eaten only wild plants and grasses for 5 days, they could not walk far, so they decided to spend the night in the mountain near the village. The temperature again plummeted after dark. Stomachs empty and surrounded once more by darkness, they felt even more desperate and fearful.

Next morning, the two headed down the mountain toward another village. After walking for a while, they noticed a motorbike approaching. It was the same young man who had tried to help them the day before. This seemed an odd coincidence. The two bowed deeply to the young man. Stopping his motorbike, he appeared very sleepy, possibly having just finished working a night shift. The young man smiled and waved his arm, telling them to follow.

At that point, they were so desperate they felt like they were drowning and clutching at straws. They arrived at the same house they had visited the day before, but this time, no one else was home. The young man led them to the telephone so they could make their call. It was true that no international calls were possible on that phone, so they tried making a domestic call to the Japanese consulate in xxx city. The call went through.

When the wife said in Korean, “I am xxxxxx (name undisclosed) from North Korea. Please help us,” the call was transferred to someone who spoke Korean.

She repeated: “I am xxxxxx. Please help us. I and my husband were born in Japan. We cannot go back to North Korea. We do not have any place to hide. Please help us.”

The person at the consulate replied, “We need to first contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo before we can take action to rescue you. Please wait until we get a reply from Tokyo.”

She said, “All right. But, we can’t make a direct call to Japan here, so please call a man in Japan for us. He is a humanitarian aid worker expecting a call from us. His phone number is xxxxxxx. Please be sure to call him.”

The wife’s few words expressed the couple’s desperate, frantic need for help from the Japanese consul. The consul told the wife that they could not immediately come to get the couple, but he promised to call the humanitarian aid worker in Japan. The wife gave the phone number of the young man’s house where the consul could return their call.

Hanging up the phone, the wife turned to the young man and begged, “We are expecting a phone call from Japan soon, so please let us stay here until we receive the call. Please.” The young man nodded.

In about an hour, the phone rang. The young man picked up the phone and immediately handed the phone to the wife.

“I’m calling from Japan. Are you Ms. xxx? Are you alright? Where are you now?” The voice was familiar to the wife, since they had talked by phone once before.

The wife replied, “We have escaped from the broker, but we have no place to hide. Please come immediately to help us.”

“Who are the people you’re staying with right now? Can you ask them to protect you? It takes two or three days from Japan, to reach you in China . Please try asking the family there to allow you to stay with them for at least 3 days.”

“They do not trust what we tell them. Would you please talk directly with the mother of the family yourself on the phone to persuade them? Please.”

“Is the mother there now?”

“No, only the son is here now. He said the mother should be back in an hour. We definitely need her permission. Could you call us again in an hour? Please promise me you will call back.”

He seemed to fully understand her feelings of desperation.

“All right, I will order the flight ticket today and get ready to leave for China as soon as possible. Make sure that you’ll be always reachable by phone. I’ll call you again in an hour to talk with the mother there.”

The fact that the couple had finally reached the person in Japan gave them hope that they would survive. However, they no longer had the cell phone, so they would have to do their best to persuade the mother to let them stay with the family for three days until the humanitarian worker from Japan arrived.

The mother, when she returned home from farming work, was surprised to find the couple again in her house. She yelled at the son in Chinese. It was obvious that she was angry with the son for bringing the couple back.

The couple kneeled down on the ground at the feet of the mother and begged.

“Please, please help us. We beg you to help us only once. We promise to return your favor. We received a call from Japan an hour ago. A man will come from Japan to help us here in two or three days, so please let us hide in your place for three days. Three days only, please. We would appreciate if you’d let us sleep in the cattle pen outside. We beg you. There will be a call from Japan again soon. You can answer the call to check if we are telling you the truth. We are not lying. If you drive us out, we have no place to go and will lose any chance of surviving.”

The mother seemed to calm down a bit after hearing that someone had actually called from Japan and that someone was coming from Japan to rescue them. She said, “OK, let’s decide after I talk with the person, who is supposed to be calling from Japan,” although she still looked doubtful.

The phone rang again in exactly one hour, and the mother answered the phone. It was Japan calling. She talked for about ten minutes, then ended the conversion with: “Anyway, come quickly. We’re jeopardizing ourselves, too. We will let them hide here for three days, but no more than three days. Be sure you take the quickest way to get here.”

The mother finally promised the couple she would let them stay for three days.

The couple were overjoyed, feeling the despair lift from their shoulders. They had secured a hiding place until rescue arrived from Japan.

There was no extra room available for the couple, so they had to sleep in the cattle pen. The young man brought futons for them. It was far better than sleeping on rocks in the mountains, although the manure smell was awful. They were in no position to complain. Instead they were thankful for the shelter. They were even given rice to eat. The family seemed extremely poor, judging from their dinner table – white rice and vegetables only. The couple considered the rice “luxury food” by then.

The parents had to leave the house and work in the field, and refused to allow the couple to stay at their home. After all, they are still strangers. What if they stole something while the family were out working? The couple followed them into the field and cut grass in the corn field. They worked hard to show their appreciation to the family. The parents of the family appeared to be impressed by all their hard work.

At noon on the 22nd, as they ate lunch at home, the phone rang. It was the man in Japan. He said that he was in xxx and expected to reach them the next day. Excited, the couple were sure they would be saved.

The couple did not know what lay in their future, before they finally made it to safety, but they say that was the happiest day of their life.

That night, they started to worry. Can he really make it tomorrow? What if something happens to him along the way? Worries haunted them. In the cattle pen, the two lay staring up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. They realized that stars were twinkling in the gaps between the broken ceiling boards. Though they had slept in the mountains several nights, the fear and uncertainty had been so overwhelming that, until now, they hadn’t even noticed the stars overhead.

The two finally calmed down enough to enjoy the nighttime sky. They felt that the stars on that particular night were the most beautiful they had ever seen.

The couple arrived at a temporary shelter on June 26. Even though they had only covered half the journey to Japan, they felt as happy as if they were already there.