Kim Hak-min, 30, was born in coal country in the North Korean province of North Hamgyong, which borders China. His father worked in the mines as an engineer.
At the age of 7, Kim became obsessed with electric gadgets. “I just wanted to disassemble everything,” he says. At 13, he started fixing neighbors’ watches and electrical appliances, earning the nickname “Repair Boy.” After his father died of liver cancer in 2003, Kim started making a living fixing people’s broken appliances. He got to know how televisions work.
“To prevent North Koreans from watching Chinese channels that air South Korean dramas, state security officials fix televisions so they only broadcast state-run channels. I was the kid in the town who could unlock that code and let people watch South Korean dramas. I watched them myself.”
He was arrested three times for watching forbidden dramas. The first two times he avoided punishment because he was underage. The third time he got caught, in early 2009, he was 22. “Watching a single drama can earn you a five-year sentence. I was busted for having watched hundreds! I was certain I would be sent to a far-flung prison camp, where I would perish.”
Soon after his arrest, beatings and sleep deprivation began. “They [interrogators] made you sit absolutely rigid for 15 hours straight,” he recalls. “If you move an inch, a punch follows.”
To his surprise, he was released after two months. “People in the town pleaded with the authorities to release me, for which I am forever grateful.” They were the neighbors and friends whose electric gadgets Kim had fixed in the past – often for free.
On a freezing day in January 2011, he crossed the frozen Yalu River to China with a girlfriend. After making another crossing into Thailand, a route arranged by defection brokers, the couple landed in Seoul in March 2011. Kim is now majoring at electronic engineering at Sogang University in Mapo District, western Seoul.