When I was young, I thought my country was the best on the planet. I grew up singing a song called “Nothing to Envy.”
I thought my life in North Korea was normal, even though when I was 7 years old, I saw my first public execution.
My family was not poor, and I had never experienced hunger. But after my mother read me a letter from a coworker’s sister who said that her family was dying of hunger, I realized that something was very wrong in my country. A huge famine hit North Korea in the mid to late 1990s, and I began to see suffering, hunger and death around me.
As a young girl, I went alone to China to live with distant relatives. I thought I would be separated from my family for a short time. I could never have imagined that it would take 14 years for my family to live together again. Since North Korean refugees are considered illegal migrants in China, I lived in constant fear that my identity would be revealed and I would be repatriated to a horrible fate back in North Korea.
One day, my worst nightmare came true when I was caught by the Chinese police and brought to the police station for interrogation. Someone had accused me of being North Korean, so they tested my Chinese language abilities and asked me tons of questions. I thought my life was over, but I managed to control all the emotions inside of me and answered their questions. They let me go. It was a miracle!
After 10 years of hiding my identity and living in fear in China, I decided to risk going to South Korea. Just as I was starting to get used to my new life, I received a shocking phone call — the North Korean authorities intercepted some money that I sent my family through a broker, and as punishment, my family was going to be forcibly removed to a desolate location in the countryside. They had to get out of North Korea quickly. So I started planning how to help them escape.