“I feel that refugees who feel they are confident talking about the past should talk about it. There is a need for that,” says Kim Eunsun, a young defector studying Chinese language and culture at Sogang University.
Kim hopes to eventually become a child psychologist, but for the time being she is more famous, in France at least, for her life story as written by Le Figaro journalist Sébastien Falletti under the title “Corée du Nord: 9 ans pour fuir l’enfer.” Kim is also currently appearing on the Donga Ilbo-run ‘Channel A’ entertainment show ‘Ijae mannaro kamnida’, a weekly talk show in which a group of defector women share pieces of their past with an increasingly interested cable TV audience.
True to her word, Kim doesn’t shy away from talking about her life in North Hamkyung Province, not even the difficult moments. For instance, she recounts without fondness the year she spent living as a child beggar (“kkotjebi”) on the streets of Rajin-Sonbong, the Special Economic Zone in North Korea’s far northeast.
“We would be sleeping at night when one of the kkotjebi would say ‘Now is the time,’ and we would all wake up; it was like a sign to go and steal [potatoes, green onions and other seasonal crops],” she explains, adding, “There isn’t just one type of kkotjebi, you see. There are three I guess, and we were in the middle class: that meant we were able to find food to survive.”
“The lower kkotjebi would have no strength to even go out to steal. They would stand around the markets waiting for someone to throw away their food so that they could eat it. Eventually they would walk around eating soil and then faint,” she adds. “The upper class would gather and go to take money from people. They were like a really weak gang.”
Recognizing that this was not going to improve, Kim, her mother and older sister finally defected before embarking on nine years in China en route to Seoul. Given the permanent uncertainty and fear North Korean defectors face in China, it was amazing that Kim and her family managed to survive, avoiding both the police and the menace of forced prostitution at the same time.
“We all spoke Chinese fairly well, so we would go to places that had signs saying that they are looking for someone to work for them,” she explains. “In China, many don’t hold an identification card. Due to the ‘one-child policy’ parents usually don’t register the second child. So they end up going into the woods and living there their whole lives.”
“Employment offices do ask for your ID, but it isn’t a serious problem if you don’t have one,” she goes on. “They look you up and down to check if you are physically good to work and then send you right over to the work place. Where we lived in Shanghai, there were many ethnic Koreans so it wasn’t as hard for us.“
As with many defectors, Kim also converted to Christianity in the process. ”The first time I met a Christian was on the border with Mongolia,” she says. “After walking many hours across wasteland, three women [who had escaped with Kim and her family] held hands and prayed. My mom and I held hands with them and prayed too, saying thank you to whoever is up there.” After arriving in Seoul, Kim says she went to church in search of community life.
Even though she has no intention of going back to North Korea and is thankful for her situation, deep down Kim still misses home. “I remember when I went to pick clover with my dad when I was young,” she recalls. “Most families in North Korea raise rabbits. The school asks us to bring rabbit fur. Actually, the next show on Channel A will be about our home town. I am very touched by the fact that I even have a place to call home. But it makes me sad that I don’t have reunions to attend and pictures of childhood friends.”