After graduating from middle school in 1979, I entered the North Korean military and after training I served for 11 years, and later became a farmer. In the early 1990s, life in rural areas was much better for workers than in the city. They had access to food distribution from farms, small plots of land and vegetable gardens. By 1995 though the food shortage started to affect us.
From 1996, the amount of food being distributed halved. It decreased by another 30% by 1997, and many died of hunger in rural areas. The food shortage hit my family in 1997. My mother, my wife, and my son died of hunger that winter. Everyone but one son.
I decided to escape North Korea so that he could live. I set off for the Tumen River with my young son in April 1998. There were police officers everywhere, sentries checking every road, but I found a way to cross over to China. Finding work was hard because I had a young child. I would work but only for food.
Despite the hardships, I tried to listen to South Korean broadcasts every night. The presenters were knowledgeable about the reality of North Korea. This is when I realized South Korea was not what I thought it would be. I decided to try to get there. I felt that both of us would die if we got caught, so I decided to try and get to South Korea first and left my son in the hands of a Korean Chinese person. I said goodbye to my son in May 1999.
The winter journey through the Mongolian desert was so tough that it amazes me even now that I was able to cross it. I had to survive in order to see my son again. I was determined.
I settled in South Korea in 2000. The government gave me $9,300 as a settlement fee and I used it to look for my child. I found him in March 2001 and planned to bring him to South Korea.
A group of people traveled with my son, but the guide was caught by a Chinese officer and the group dispersed. My son got left by himself in the desert and died on my birthday. I always feel guilty for not giving him a better life.
[Excerpts of an article in The Guardian, by Ryu Ki-ho]