A North Korean defector has spoken out about how he escaped from the world’s most secretive state with his infant son strapped to his back and a cyanide pill in his mouth.
New Malden, a suburb in south-west London, is known for its large South Korean population, but few people know about the 600 or so North Korean defectors who have taken refuge in the borough.
Choi Joong-Ha had to leave North Korea with his wife Yun-Ah-Jung and one-year-old son Joon Choi in 2004. The country had just come out of a devastating famine that killed almost 3.5m people when he made a comment to his brother about how conditions would not change while the Kim dynasty was in charge. Joong-Ha became so scared that someone would repeat his words and he would be arrested that he made plans to leave.
He had been conditioned into such a state of paranoia that he did not tell his wife about the escape. Speaking through a translator, Joong-Ha said: “My wife is another person and I didn’t know what she was thinking. I could not trust her, I could not trust anyone. It is the way the regime works, the way it stays in power. You can only trust yourself.
“I was scared that I would be sent to a labour camp for what I said and that would have effectively been a death sentence.”
Joong-Ha told his wife they were going to visit his brother who lived near the Chinese border. When they reached the Tumen River that separates the two countries he revealed the real reason they had come. “My wife was not pleased and she didn’t want to go. If the authority catches you trying to escape you will be shot or sent to a camp.”
For 12 years Joong-Ha had been in the North Korean army and would, therefore, have been subjected to the most severe punishment if he had been caught trying to leave. Because of this he waded across the river with his son strapped to his back and a cyanide pill in his mouth.
He said: “I got to quite a high position in the army and we were constantly shown propaganda about how our country was the best in the world and no one could compare to us. … If I had been caught they would have singled me out as an example to others who might be planning to do the same thing. I would have been arrested, tortured and put in a camp or shot there and then. If the authorities saw us trying to cross it would be better to die in the river.”