Kim Kyoung-ok still remembers chasing after the flyer balloons, alien care packages raining from the sky, filled with Korean noodles and letters from children like her. She did not know yet that there could be a better life than the one she was born to in North Korea.
But as the years passed, her mother, Kim Tae-hee, had experienced a comparatively better quality of life in China where she was one of the approximately 50,000-60,000 North Koreans permitted to work abroad—an opportunity granted to citizens considered loyal to the regime.
Kyoung-ok was only 12 when her mother decided to make a dream of a better life a reality, fleeing with her youngest daughter to China. Now 21, Kyoung-ok detailed the treacherous journey of defecting from North Korea.
It was 2007 and Beijing was preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games. Kyoung-ok explained that the crackdown on North Korean defectors had intensified ahead of the games, with China repatriating those suspected of attempting an escape to South Korea. She and her mother were forced into hiding, living in Chinese caves before traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia with the assistance of a paid broker. The pair sought asylum at a Cambodian Christian church before arriving in South Korea in 2008.
Kyoung-ok has adjusted well to her life in the South, and has developed a close friendship with a fellow refugee she met at resettlement camp and who asked not to share her last name. The relationships built in her new home have proven vital to Kyoung-ok, who has lived on her own in Seoul to attend school since age 13, while her mother, a music teacher, worked in the southern part of the country.
[Excerpted from TIME]