After being discharged from the North Korean navy as a lieutenant-colonel, North Korean defector Kim Hwa (not her real name) was given a visa that enabled travel to and from China.
At the time, North Korea was always low on medicine, so for medical purposes everyone had to buy illegal drugs in village markets. Prescription drugs and opium as well as marijuana were readily available on the black market, smuggled from China.
“There is nobody who works in trade with China that doesn’t trade drugs,” Kim says. It is so commonplace that she did not even consider the risks, and she and a friend began doing it.
One evening, she received a call from the son of her friend saying his mom had been caught. “I thought I would get caught [too], so that night I thought I had to escape to China.”
She took her savings from dealing drugs, $US3000, bribed the North Korean border guard with $US30 to cross and was walked through minefields and into China. She estimates that only two in 10 people successfully make a border crossing. Those who don’t are either killed where they stand or captured and simply disappear. She was lucky. (Since Kim Hwa defected, Kim Jong-un has increased border security on northern and southern borders, planting millions of landmines that make escapes much less possible.)
In late 2009, Kim Hwa’s partner along with other drug dealers were lined up and executed by shotgun. Kim could never return to her homeland. She traveled through Laos and Cambodia before seeking asylum at the South Korean embassy in Thailand, arriving in Seoul in December 2011. She was safe from the regime, at the cost of leaving her mother and two younger brothers behind.
“When I first got to South Korea I cried all day. I missed my mother. I joined the army when I was 16 years old, so I hardly spent any time with her.”
As a former high-ranking military officer, Hwa faced a lot of suspicion from South Korean authorities before she was allowed into the country. Defectors typically face a week-long investigation but she was questioned for three months, and was locked up throughout the process. [Finally] she was cleared and flown into Incheon airport.
Just last week, Kim Hwa attended a North Korean defectors meeting in the South and heard that about 100 defectors are arriving each month. It’s only a third of what it used to be a few years ago, but she finds it staggering considering the strengthening of border defense, increased land mines, higher broker fees for smugglers and heightened dangers associated with defection.
For her the message is clear – enthusiasm for defection is tremendous.