What binds Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang together are their stories. Cheol Kwang spent his childhood in North Korea laboring in the fields of Ryanggang Province to help support his family, so he didn’t go to school. His father died when he was 8. Four years later, in 2013, he and an older sister were told by their mother that they had to leave North Korea. He doesn’t remember much of the odyssey and is careful to protect the details of his family and escape, but he said he crossed into China on a frozen river. He stayed for about two weeks before being smuggled into Laos and was then granted safe passage into South Korea.
Kwon’s path to the South started from the mountainous mining region of North Hamgyong Province. In the winter of 2013, when he was 11, his family told him he would be going to his cousins’ home nearby. He saw his parents for what he didn’t know was the final time. With his older cousins, he snuck into China on the narrow Tumen River at night. After a month in China, he was smuggled to Thailand, where police detained him. When they asked where he wanted to go, he gave only one answer: South Korea.
As required of all defectors, even children, the boys spent three months at a resettlement center outside of Seoul that teaches basics about South Korea and its history, as well as how to use its currency and transportation. The center also provides medical treatment and psychological counseling. They met at the group home in June 2014.
It felt like a dream. “The quality of food, clothing and shelter is so good. It’s the complete opposite of North Korea in that way, which was a pleasant surprise,” Cheol Kwang said. He was amazed to see most people in the South had cars, carried cellphones and lived in tall, modern buildings with electricity that didn’t flicker out in a storm. On television, the choice of channels was endless. In North Korea, there was only one — and it showed state propaganda.