Over the rabble of tourists at Dora Observatory, a lookout in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, the sound of a rousing opera can be heard. Propaganda and music is broadcast by the north from across the border; slightly further west, the south plays their reply: Celine Dion and Kpop.
Kim Hwa (not her real name) is looking back at the country she fled in 2009. Hwa feels duty-bound to educate the public about North Korea, and volunteers part-time to take day trips to the DMZ with tourists, answering their questions on life in the north and her escape from the regime.
The daughter of a schoolteacher and military officer, she and her two brothers grew up well fed, in the “happiest household”. In North Korea there’s a lot of desert, she says, and “it’s difficult to farm so we import food”: “When the imports stop we starve, but army officers’ families were still given white rice so when I took lunch to school, others were eating rice mixed with corn and vegetables but I was eating white rice … Even though I didn’t grow up eating meat soup [regarded as somewhat of a delicacy in North Korea] I wasn’t starving … looking back it’s sad, but at the time I felt happy.”
She has fond memories of the Kim Il-sung era, when she says there was no economic difficulty, free medical service, free education and the food supply was consistent. The shift begins, for her, in the second era, that of Kim Jong-il, when she saw the nation’s budget move towards nuclear development and military spending, and away from food distribution and energy supply.
The crumbling of the Soviet Union as well as environmental factors led to a massive famine in North Korea from 1994-1998, in which about 3 million people lost their lives. At the time Kim Hwa was a lieutenant-colonel in the navy, with 700 soldiers under her.
She lost 50 troops to the famine and was denied help by the government. This was the first time she thought the government would crumble, and the first time she “started having doubts about North Korea”.
To feed her troops, she decided to sell a car on the black market to buy proper food such as goats and rabbits. One of her colleagues reported her and she was discharged in 1999. Spending 20 years in the military meant she had been somewhat sheltered from general society and thought the worst of famine was confined to the armed forces. She was greatly surprised when she returned home.
“When I got home to the station … I saw all the beggars and dead bodies [and] I realized the country had regressed since the last time I came home on a holiday. … There were two- and three-year-olds begging. I teared up. I thought, ‘Why do we live like this? … I felt bad for them, but the people in the village said it was something they see all the time. They said, ‘You go inside the train station and there are dead bodies everywhere underneath the benches’. At that time I felt a sense of resistance.”
On her return [home] she found her father was absent on a work trip, according to her mother. Hwa pressed the matter with her mother and was told he had actually died nine months previously. Falsely accused by a colleague, he had committed suicide rather than face labor camps, imprisonment or potential execution. “When I heard that I felt hostility grow… towards the party [Workers Party of Korea].” Read more