The winter of that year, my father, my mother, and my younger brother died one after another. Without even a coffin, I could not even cry while watching my father, mother, and younger brother were carried off by oxcart because I had no energy. In the next door household, the entire family, including a child who was still an infant, passed.
One morning after Kim Jong Il’s birthday in 1995, the Party Secretary appeared at my home carrying about 10kg of corn powder and cobs of corn. He fed warm roast grain water to us as we were almost passed out from hunger and told us to leave the village.
“If you stay in this cursed village like this, you yourselves will die. So take your sibling and go to the city (Hyesan). If you go to a place where there are a lot of people, at least you can beg…”
Thick tears streamed down from the eyes of the party secretary who was over 60 and his hands which were holding a tobacco pipe were shaking. Then he took out something from his chest that was tightly wrapped in a plastic bag. It was opium.
“In case you guys get sick…there is no medicine now, so hold onto this and use it when you need it.” Even now, I do not think that the party secretary gave us opium in lieu of medicine. It was too much for that. At the time, opium deals were done in public, so it was practically like money.”
Life as a kotjebi (beggar), then escape
We fled our village that way and reached Hyesan. Along with my elder brother, I entered the company of kotjebis and lived in an abandoned building called the Communication and Technological Factory which was situated in Choon-dong, Hyesan.
In April 1995, my brother fell ill with a fever and passed away. I did note even shed a tear. Rather than having thoughts of sorrow, I was wrapped up in fear that my guardian had disappeared. Some male kotjebis helped bury my brother, but I could not even go with them because I was so afraid.
I want to talk about kotjebis for a second.
There had been eight of us in the group, including my brother. Among us, the females included myself and a 13-year old named Shin Kyung Rim. Even though we could not wash our face, were worn out, and wore ragged clothes, there were strict rules and order unique to kotjebis.
Kotjebis have leaders and areas where they beg. Also, they never eat the food they steal or receive from begging alone, but share with others.
Kotjebis, even when they sleep during the winter, seat the children, the weak, and the women in the middle and the stronger ones sleep in the periphery so that they can block the wind. People may think female kotjebis sleeping in the center of the group might be strange, but they have rules to protect women and children. If they ignore such rules, they are chased out of the group and in extreme instances, have to be prepared for death.
In the fall of 1995, Kyung Rim, who stayed with me due to the cold winter of Yangkang Province, and other two people left towards Hamheung. The other three male kotjebis and I did not leave. We had promised to leave for China that winter when the river would freeze over.
In December 1995, with only a few days left until the New Year, we crossed Yalu River and defected to Changbai, China. We went our separate ways in Changbai. In the spring, we planned to re-cross Yalu River and to meet at the Communication and Technology Factory.
Among the kotjebis, I was an extremely fortunate kotjebi. After parting from the group, the first home I jumped into without thought was that of a couple in their 50s. The children had left to make money in the big cities. I lived there for several days, changing into different clothes and taking a bath. They were kind-hearted people, but were always afraid of being inspected by the Communist Party and I was sorry because of that.
One day, they made a call somewhere and told me to go someplace nice. They said that I would go to their relatives’ place far-away and that if I went there, I would be able to live in peace. I was very apprehensive, but could not do anything. I arrived in Yanji after riding a bus with them and took a train to where I am living now–Harbin in Heilongjiang, China.
Frankly, they probably sold me to a Korean-Chinese man for a certain sum of money. However, I do not blame them to this day. They had genuinely helped me. They took me to their trustworthy relatives in their helpless straits.
The home I had gone to was better off economically and the father and mother-in-law were very good people. Most of all, they were Korean-Chinese people, so there was no communication barrier and they doted on me. Whenever they went out, they said that they were not relieved unless I accompanied them. I studied Chinese there and married my present husband in 1998.
My husband is a kind and a generous person, so even to the present, I live happily with gratitude towards him. I travel to the Yalu or the Tumen River once a year. My husband knows my heart and is understanding towards me. If there is one complaint, it is that I became a mother without enjoying my singlehood.
When I stand on the bank of the Yalu River, I cry out loud because I miss my father, my mother, and my older and younger brothers. I do not know where they are buried. Even if there is reunification down the road, I will never know where my older brother is buried.
I will bury the pain and the tears of blood left by a socialist legacy and when the day of reunification comes, I will go to my hometown with my husband. I want to show my husband and four children the painful legacy left by the Kim Jong Il regime. And I want to find the party secretary who had gone out of his way to help our family and have him be my father. I want to repay him for the rest of my life.