Ga Eul, a peppy, English-speaking 23-year-old starts out, “I was born in January of 1991. Until 2005, my education consisted of learning how to worship Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il.”
As a middle-schooler, Ga Eul dreamed of becoming a math teacher. She came from an upper-middle-class family—her father managed a clothing factory and her mother was a farmer—and her parents scrounged up the money to pay for a private tutor. But when Ga Eul’s extended relatives were caught trying to escape from North Korea, she wrote, “My dream of becoming a math teacher was not possible anymore. My family members were branded enemies of the state.” Ga Eul was told that she wouldn’t be able to join the military—a key step to getting good jobs in North Korea—and neither would her children.
Ga Eul and her mother successfully escaped North Korea after receiving this news, but her brother and father were caught en route, in China, which deports defectors back to North Korea. Ga Eul’s brother, who was a teenager at the time, only spent a month in jail, but her father was sent to a political prison camp. The family hasn’t heard from him since 2006.
Nowadays her brother, Ye Jun, a construction worker, has plenty to eat. Every month or so, Ga Eul speaks with Ye Jun on the phone; like many North Koreans living near China, he uses a smuggled phone and spotty Chinese phone service to call South Korea.
Between money from Ga Eul’s scholarship and her mother’s job at a Chinese restaurant, the two women send roughly $500 per month to North Korea, of which about $200 gets to Ye Jun—the rest is siphoned off by the brokers.
In addition to spending this money on clothing and gadgets from the market, Ye Jun is saving up for a bigger goal: This year, he will attempt once again to escape to South Korea. If he’s caught, the 25-year-old is likely to suffer the same fate as his father.