Many [North Koreans] died because of malnutrition, including my grandparents. In 1997, my father passed away too. [When I was 11] my mom sold or bartered everything from our apartment until we had nothing left. So she decided to go to the city to search for food. She left me at home, but took my older sister who’s two-years-older than me. She said she would be back in three days, but if she got food earlier she would be back sooner. She gave me 15 North Korean chon—enough to buy just one piece of tofu—and left.
Three days passed, then four, then five. I was waiting for her to come home but on the sixth day I had no energy left and thought maybe today is my last day. I wasn’t afraid of death. I had seen so many people dying during that time. What made me sad was that I felt my mom didn’t want me. She took my other sister but didn’t come back for me.
So I decided to write a will, at 11 years old. … But on the sixth day she came back. I was happy even though she arrived empty-handed. But she didn’t give up. She didn’t leave me alone. The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.
We lived in Hamgyong province, in a village called Undok in the northern part of North Korea. The first time we escaped during wintertime. The river was frozen hard and we made it across. In China, we were bought by a human trafficker then repatriated to North Korea. We were regarded as traitors, so we lived as beggars on the street, sleeping under bridges or in the market.
But we had tasted freedom. Two months later, in springtime, we escaped again. My story is a common one among North Korean refugees. Many North Korean women experience human trafficking in China. But we weren’t separated, even though we were sold to a Chinese man. So we could share the sadness and challenges, even when we were in China. Even when we were repatriated to North Korea, I was with my mother. That’s why I say, we were lucky. We didn’t become separated.
Eventually, we made it to Shanghai, where we lived for almost four years. Then, through friends, we found a way to go to South Korea.
Escaping from one’s home is not a simple thing to describe in a few words. Even though I really hate the North Korean government and the Kim family, I miss my hometown, because it’s my hometown. But I had to leave to survive.