Running afoul of the North Korean state

For many years, Heo Yeong-hui and her husband, Choi Seong-ga, and their son, Choi Gyeong-hak, lived in relative comfort in Hyesan near the Chinese border. Heo, a talented singer, was a professor at the city’s University of Arts. Her husband played trombone in the Ryanggang musical performance group.

Heo recalls: “To others it probably seemed like I was living a comfortable life while there were people starving around me,” she said. Her life took a sharp turn five years ago. The Ministry of State Security asked her to monitor one of her students, a young woman who came under suspicion. Heo balked.

“They tried to scare me,” Heo said. “They said, ‘Is your son more important than a student?’’’

Heo was shaken. She pulled the student aside and suggested she try to flee North Korea, that it was only a matter of time before authorities arrested her. Security agents found out, and Heo and the student were sent to a detention facility.

When Heo was released, her mind was made up. “Even after I made the decision to defect, I thought it over a lot,” she said. “I couldn’t tell my son and I couldn’t tell my husband. That’s the type of country that North Korea is . . . So I thought, ‘Let me do it first. Let me go through the dangerous journey first and, if South Korea is a place that is worth it, I will bring them over.’”

Heo and the student jailed with her waded across the Yalu River on Sept. 26, 2014, into China. They managed to reach Thailand and boarded flights for Seoul, arriving on December 18, 2014.

Heo’s planning to bring her husband and son began at once. Brokers wanted $20,000 each to bring her husband and son out of North Korea, and another $12,000 to get them to Thailand. Friends agreed to lend her the money. Read more

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