I told my family I would be going away for a few days and, on the eve of my departure, informed my girlfriend that I wouldn’t see her for a while because of work. I got into a car. The window was slightly open and I stretched out my hand to take hers. I nearly burst into tears. I had lied to her, I was leaving, and she thought I was coming back. It was unbearable. I’m sure she hated me for leaving the way I did, but there was no other way.
I met up with An-hyuk as planned, and we got on the train to Haesan. A few gifts were enough to win over our first conductors, but the controls became stricter and more numerous as we approached the border. The terrain also worked against us: as the train crossed over the northern mountains, the ride became slower and less bumpy, affording the conductors more time to scrutinize identification cards and travel papers. The safest thing for us was to get off before Haesan and walk. It was winter, and at least three feet of snow lay on the ground. We jumped off the train without injury, but the same snow that softened our landing also slowed our progress. In Haesan we stayed three days with a lady friend of An-hyuk who lived alone. An athlete, An-hyuk had contacts throughout the country, mostly people he met in sports clubs. One of his buddies—a boxer—lived in Haesan. He was a smuggler and gang leader, and An-hyuk hoped he might play the middleman in finding us a guide to cross the border. Attempting a crossing alone, without directions or advice, would be far too dangerous. Even if we succeeded in getting to China, we wouldn’t know what to do next, except be caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea.
Japsari, the boxer, put us up when we got to Haesan, but he had no interest in helping us find a guide. He spent nearly a week trying to dissuade us from our plan: “An-hyuk tried crossing the border once. He should know what happens to recidivists. If he gets caught, it will be back to camp.” Japsari was actually the guy’s family name; it meant something like “Eagle Face.” He had long, sharply slanted eyes that really did resemble an eagle’s. He struck me as a nasty character and I didn’t much like him, but I was careful not to let my distrust show. He thought I was the upand-up type, the kind with whom he could do business. It turned out it was An-hyuk he had reservations about, but there was no question of me leaving without my friend. We talked to him often, sometimes circling our main concern so that we might broach it more forcefully the next time around. In the end, money, beer, and cigarettes got the better of Eagle Face. As he sat fighting sleep at the end of a night of hard drinking, he finally gave a little ground, saying, “One of these days, we’ll go do a little tour of China.” He kept his word. The next day, he paid some border guards to turn their backs while we made a short roundtrip jaunt into China to meet his friend, the guide.
We crossed the Yalu River on foot. Once on the Chinese side, it only took a few minutes to reach the house of the man we hoped would eventually lead us out of the dangerous border zone. After some negotiating, he agreed to take our case and invited us to share a meal with him—which turned out to be an excellent meat dish. His standard of living was palpably superior to ours. He was a young man, between twenty-two and twenty-five years old, a Chinese citizen of Korean ancestry who made his living by cross-border trading, importing deer antlers and ginseng from North Korea and exporting socks, sweaters, and scarves back across. It was a profitable business, because Chinese goods are expensive in the North. He was proud of his work and told us he had already put aside 50,000 yuan and had another 50,000 entrusted to a well-connected North Korean businessman charged with pouncing on any good deals that might come his way. Our guide avoided overtly illegal dealings, declared his merchandise, and obtained official North Korean travel permits whenever possible. Surprisingly, North Korea charges no customs on imported products. The border guards search for illegal materials such as subversive or pornographic literature, but they don’t tax common goods. I don’t know how else North Korea would get by; apart from the Party cadres, who dress in Japanese clothes, everyone wears Chinese-made garments, if they can afford anything at all. Taxes are charged on goods entering China, but they can be avoided by buying off a head border guard with alcohol, cigarettes, or clothing. In exchange, the guard will allow you to enter the country without crossing the bridge. The smuggling occurs practically out in the open. Every frontier town in North Korea has middlemen. Their “imported” merchandise so overpacks the trains that it often causes accidents. The merchants don’t even need traveling papers to cross the border, because a little money will do just fine in their stead. It’s clear: North Korea is a total sham. Officially, it outlaws private business, but in the shadows it lets it thrive. Since there are hardly any markets, merchants warehouse their Chinese products at home and sell them to their neighbors and acquaintances. This farce is the only thing preventing the bankruptcy of the North Korean state and the pauperization of its citizenry.
We arrived back at the Korean bank of the river at the appointed hour and saw Japsari’s purchased guards miraculously walk off in the opposite direction, just as planned. We remained on the riverbank for a while to case the guard posts and observe the guard rotation schedule. Our guide said that at certain times the watchmen left their stations to give various traffickers and smugglers a chance to get across. We stayed in Korea for another few days with a friend of Japsari’s who was extremely welcoming—largely because he thought he could hitch me to his sister-in-law. Marriage, however, was the last thing on my mind. On the agreed-upon night, we headed off toward the Yalu.
It was 2:00 A.M. The night was black, without moon or stars. We found our trail but had difficulty following it in the pitch dark. Finally, we reached the riverbank. With the temperature around 0˚F, the Yalu—or the Amnok, as we Koreans call it—was covered in a thick sheet of ice. As I began to cross, I was overtaken by an intense whirl of emotions that had nothing to do with fear. Images of my family forced their way into my consciousness: I saw my mother, my sister, my aunts and uncles. Questions began shooting through my mind: Would I ever see them again? Would I ever be able to return to this country? I suddenly felt very anxious. I was standing before the River of No Return. . . . I stopped in my tracks for a moment, then bowed my head and went on.
The river crossing didn’t take long, two minutes, perhaps, of running across the ice with as little noise as possible. I still remember clearly the mix of emotions I felt just then. There was certainly fear—of getting caught and of what awaited me on the other side—but I also felt sadness. I was abandoning something indefinable that was reproaching me for leaving. . . . Those two or three minutes on the ice were like an eternity.
Though the area was supposed to be under surveillance, we didn’t see a single guard. Running across the border today is even easier: many more people are at the starting line, and the guards are more lax than ever. Just give them some money or a good pack of cigarettes and they’ll let you pass. Back in 1992, if they saw a fugitive, they would cry “Halt,” then start firing.
We arrived at our guide’s house tired and out of breath. We found him dressed in South Korean–made jacket and pants, which must have cost the equivalent of a North Korean worker’s monthly wages. He was a man bubbling over with plans, the first of which was to move to South Korea as soon as he had enough money saved up. “Going from the North directly to the South is impossible,” he said with effect, trying to bait us. But we weren’t going for it. We had taken the precaution of not telling him we were wanted by the authorities. While he was happy to help people make little “business” trips into China, he had no interest in running seriously afoul of the law. To help ensure he kept quiet about our crossing, I gave him a handsome wad of cash, for which he was also supposed to find us a truck to Yonji—or Yongil, as we say in Korea—the capital of China’s autonomous Korean region. As we sat chatting that first night, we heard some astonishing things from our guide. We learned, for example, that he was actually a member of the Chinese Communist Party. It was totally baffling. Korean Communists were hard, austere ideologues—or at least tried to act that way—and here was this Chinese Communist proudly flaunting his wealth!
The next evening’s meal was as ample as the first. The guide’s wife claimed it was just the usual fare, but what was ordinary to them was gargantuan to me: there were many different dishes, and several had meat! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt as if I’d been invited to a feast for Party cadres. In the North, alcohol is very expensive; an average bottle sells for 10 won, one-tenth of a worker’s monthly wages. The most popular spirit, paï jou (white alcohol), comes from China. It costs 60 won a bottle and is usually reserved for special occasions. Here it was being poured into our glasses as an ordinary accompaniment to an improvised meal! To get an idea of the Korean standard of living, it’s worth noting that on the black market, 150 won buys $2 U.S.—the official rate is 15 won to the dollar—which is one-and-a-half times an ordinary worker’s monthly salary, or exactly enough to buy one pack of Marlboro cigarettes. With that as my point of reference, China was like paradise, and I began to sense the huge gulf separating the universe as I knew it and the world as it might actually be.
There were more surprises to come. After dinner, our host suggested we walk to a nightclub in the neighboring village. We accepted the invitation—though I couldn’t help thinking, Don’t these people go to work? It was nearing midnight, and we were only now stepping out! Finally, I worked up the courage to ask, “Don’t you have to wake up early tomorrow?” His answer left me stunned: it was “up in the air!” His next observation, though, is the one that really did me in. “In any case,” he said, “the important thing isn’t work; it’s to enjoy life.” I was speechless.
We walked to the next village, which was called Changbaekhyun in Korean. All along the main street, people stood out on their front stoops, talking and laughing. The streets were brightly lit, neon signs glowing. Across the river, on the Korean bank, everything was still, enveloped in darkness. The river separated two worlds. On one side, North Korea, “calm as hell,” as we say here, and on the other, the loud, luminous paradise. We stepped into an establishment where people stood drinking around a dance floor while couples slowly swayed to the music, holding each other close. I stared, wide-eyed. I’m sure I looked very out of place, but nothing like the unfortunate renegades one sees in that village today—haggard, thin, poorly dressed, and fleeing famine. My departure had been well organized; I wore Japanese clothes and looked more elegant than most of the Chinese people around me. A young lady came up to ask me for a dance. I was embarrassed and declined her invitation, explaining that I didn’t know how. “That doesn’t matter,” she said, smiling. “I’ll show you.” I continued to demur. Disappointed, she left before I could change my mind. So I was now in a country where the women asked the men? Things were moving faster than I could keep pace. No girl in North Korea would dare make such a proposition. The young lady was very pretty, and I would have loved to have danced with her. I declined not only because I didn’t know how to dance, but because I was overwhelmed. I watched as she sauntered over to a nearby table, where the next man accepted her offer. They danced and I watched, regretting my awkwardness and timidity.
I started in on another drink, trying to unwind. An-hyuk and our guide were deep in conversation. A feeling of great joy suddenly swept over me, a sentiment akin to hope. Here was life. . . . I felt as though I wanted to throw my arms around it, to embrace it as I should have done with that young lady. I was sure I was going to live and encounter other chances. I was light-headed and felt something heavy and dull swell inside me like a wave. It was close to 1:00 A.M. when we left the club. Our guide walked us around the village, holding forth about recent changes in local commerce. We even discussed the general economic situation. I couldn’t believe it: in the North, such freedom of speech is inconceivable. Citizens there feel they’re under constant surveillance—which for the most part, they are. The monitoring is systematic. When it’s not your identification card they ask for, it’s your traveling papers. “In China,” said our host, “as long as you don’t oppose the Party openly or act too suspiciously, you can do as you like. . . .”
It took me a long time to fall asleep that night. Images of the North and of my family paraded through my mind, punctuated by snapshots of the young Chinese woman who had asked me to dance. I began to wonder if I would ever meet her again and whether I would ever overcome my shyness. I felt like laughing: my first night out of North Korea, and here I was worried about how best to comport myself on the dance floor! This wasn’t how I imagined my escape.
The next night we made the journey to Yonji with our guide, trundling over mountain roads until the wee hours of the morning. Though we were already in March, the temperature was down around–5˚F—which was not unusual for the mountainous region where many of the passes rise above six thousand feet. Arriving at our destination stiff and chilled to the bone, our guide took us to the home of his sister, who lived with her husband and mother-in-law. The extended family, which was also of Korean ancestry, gave us a warm welcome and offered to lodge us for a time.
We nevertheless began to worry for our safety. I was growing suspicious of our guide, a Communist Party member who had worked hard to cultivate a reputation for meticulous legality. We also made a decision to tell our hosts, who inspired in us great confidence, the real reason behind our voyage to China. It was during dinner that I let slip the truth.
“We have something important to tell you,” I began. “We are neither tourists nor merchants. We’re on the run and have no intention of going back to North Korea. Life there is very hard, and we are wanted by the police for having listened to South Korean radio.”
They asked us where we intended to go next.
“We don’t really know,” I said. “Japan, or maybe the United States. . . .”
“Why not to the South?” they asked. “We’ve heard that life isn’t bad there.”
Sure, why not, but how could we get there? And how could we explain our inherent fear of the South, instilled in us by a lifetime of propaganda? It was tempting, though—another taboo to break. What resistance we still had was much weakened by our hosts’ manner of taking the South’s superiority so completely for granted. Yet, when our guide discovered our true reasons for crossing the Yalu, he wanted nothing more to do with us.
“I don’t want to get mixed up in this,” he raged. “If you don’t go back to the North right away, I’m turning you in!”
His relatives intervened on our behalf and got him to calm down. Having twice given him fifty dollars—hefty sums by Chinese standards—I thought he was being very ungrateful. With tempers still running high, he headed back home, and to this day I don’t know whether or not he denounced us.
An-hyuk and I were scared. We wanted to get away that very night, but to where? We didn’t speak Chinese or even know exactly where in the country we were. Yet all was not lost. We had our hosts, as well as a friend of our guide, a wealthy Yonji merchant who invited us out to a karaoke club.
“Come on, you’re not risking a thing,” he said. “No one ever gets their papers checked. The police are on the club’s payroll: they never bother anyone.”
It was my first time in such a place. An-hyuk and I sat down feeling very timid and ill at ease. The young Chinese women who served the drinks gave us very suggestive glances, which made me tremble slightly. The behavior of the Chinese men, too, was both fascinating and shocking. How could they kiss and caress these girls in front of everyone without feeling embarrassed? I was jarred by a China so willing to make a spectacle of itself. Crossing the Yalu River wasn’t enough to flush out the propaganda seeped into us over so many years. I began to wonder whether the North Korean authorities weren’t justified in fearing capitalism’s nefarious influence on China! But I think what scared me was the prospect of enjoying life. The ideas to which I had sworn allegiance since youth—work, discipline, devotion to the Party and its Guide—were making their last stand.
All around me people laughed; the bottles and glasses passed from hand to hand; the girls were nice without being vulgar. Little by little, I began to relax. Soon we were drinking and singing with a couple of girls who mistook us for South Koreans. To make us happy, they regaled us with songs from Seoul, closing their private performance with “You Can’t Imagine How Much I Love You,” a hit by the ever-popular Petty Kim. Her ex-husband, who was a composer, wrote the tune for her after her remarriage to a rich Italian.
A few days after our karaoke night, the merchant told us that our guide had strongly advised him that, unless he wanted to compromise his social position, he would do well to put us aside. The man clearly liked us, but it was equally clear he would be relieved to see us go. Another denunciation was definitely something we could do without. We thus resolved to push our plans forward and, a few evenings later, took our leave of the home that had so hospitably taken us in. We spent our first night sleeping under the stars, but we couldn’t do that forever. Bum around long enough, and we’d be sure to arouse suspicion. So the next day we walked over to another of our guide’s relatives, a woman whose house on the outskirts of Yonji would have been a perfect hideout. At first, she was afraid our presence might bring her family trouble. Yet she was convinced of our honesty and felt sympathy for our fate, and in the end she relented to our pleading and allowed us to stay with her a night or two, just long enough to buy train tickets for Shenyang—or Moukden, as it was called during the Manchurian dynasty—where An-hyuk had a friend.
The ride from Yonji to Shenyang lasted about ten hours, during which we felt very vulnerable and alone. When a conductor approached us, I went pale. I was afraid he was asking me for my transit papers; but that wasn’t it. Our neighbor, who spoke Korean, explained that he wanted to see our tickets. We handed them over, still trembling, forgetting to breathe until he was gone. Compared to North Korea, we were traveling in a free country. In the North, not speaking the language would have been enough to render us immediately suspect. I had heard there was freedom of movement in China, but to actually experience it was another matter altogether! Relieved and newly confident, we abandoned ourselves to sleep.
We arrived in Shenyang in the dark, early morning hours. We felt bitterly cold and as worried and tense as ever. We were all alone in a city we could barely find on a map, ignorant of the language, and unaware of the police’s habits. In the Korean-speaking province, apart from the karaoke episode, it was possible to forget we were in a foreign country. We now had the impression of truly being in another world. Even the buildings looked different. The large, teeming city intimidated us. We felt as if we’d crossed some other, invisible border. I was getting the jitters. I felt abandoned in an immense world, an orphan for all time. I could die now and no one would know. Fortunately, there were two of us. A few schoolboy jokes were enough to revive our spirits. What we really needed to do, however, was stop wandering the streets. It was too dangerous: police were about, and they occasionally checked the IDs of passersby. We managed to avoid them, but decided it would be safer to step into a movie house until dawn. The first theater we happened on was showing a Hong Kong kung fu film. We took our seats, exhausted, and fell asleep almost immediately. After the show, we somehow found our way to the home of An-hyuk’s friend, a guy he had met on his first visit to China. We arrived at his place between 7:30 and 8:00 A.M. He was half asleep when he opened the door. He was hardly able to believe his eyes.
“An-hyuk, what are you doing here?”
They hugged each other, and the man asked us in. Then we got another surprise: he had a woman with him.
“You’re married?” An-hyuk asked.
“No, she’s just a good friend. We live together.”
In North Korea, it’s not possible for an unmarried couple to live together. The young man spoke of love, but An-hyuk and I found the situation scandalous and quickly changed the subject. We told him our story, and he agreed to put us up for a while, then escort us to the South Korean consulate in Beijing. After a month of postponements, we finally set out on the seven-hour train ride.
The Chinese capital impressed me as more Western and capitalist than specifically Chinese. Most striking were the billboards for Daewoo, Samsung, and Lucky Star, all featuring both Chinese characters and Latin script. South Korea may be a small country, I thought, but it seems to reign supreme in China. It was a shocking sight for someone who had grown up on doomsday depictions of a country rife with strikes, where legions of poor workers struggled desperately to survive from one economic crisis to the next. . . . I was also impressed by the width of the streets and the cleanliness of a city that was livelier and more modern than Shenyang.
Behind the big buildings and commercial advertisements, certain aspects of a more traditional China still held fast. Take the public bathrooms, for example. I remember my first experience with one of them: on opening the door, I found myself face to face with people squatting next to one another, chatting and reading their newspapers as they relieved themselves; I quickly closed the door. Was I dreaming? No partitions, no flush chains. Even in the camp, we had partitions and swinging doors to give us a little privacy! The public bathrooms would turn out to be one of the most difficult aspects of our sojourn; all the toilets we encountered followed the same basic model. Since I absolutely needed to go, I waited discreetly at the exit until the bathroom was nearly empty before entering.
Our reason for coming to Beijing was not tourism, however, and we quickly left the station and flagged down a taxi. As we climbed in, An-hyuk’s friend nonchalantly commanded the chauffeur: “To the Korean consulate.” We arrived about fifteen minutes later. Just as we were stepping out of the car, we realized there had been a serious misunderstanding. We were standing in front of the North Korean embassy! We turned tail and hailed another taxi. The South Korean consulate turned out to be the second floor of an ordinary-looking building. Upon entering the office, we were greeted by a young woman, who smiled at us from behind her reception desk.
“Hello,” I said. “We’ve come from the North.”
Her smile went suddenly flat, and she scurried off toward the back to tell someone about our arrival. She returned followed by a man, who politely invited us into a large office. A South Korean flag hung from one of the walls. My feelings were powerfully confused: I was face to face with both the diabolical South and the longed-for end of my journey. The world had turned inside out. We told the man our story, and he took notes, neither making comments nor asking questions. Something about him struck me as too calm. I tried not to let my feelings show, but I was choking with indignation: we had come so far, traversed so many dangers, and none of it seemed of much weight to this man. Not only did he appear untouched by our suffering, he seemed skeptical of our story’s veracity. I had hoped the consulate would be willing to hide and protect us, but that, it turned out, was out of the question. The diplomat gave us a bit of pocket money, wished us luck, and bid us to come to see him in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, he would see what he could do for us. . . . Before we could respond, we were being led out to the staircase. Returning two weeks later, we were once again counseled to have patience. I felt more and more alone and realized that my life shouldn’t depend on anyone, not even a representative of the country I wished to join.
From a human rights perspective, my case was shocking. Yet how many people really care about the fate of a refugee lost in China? Like every government in the world, the South Korean government acts on the basis of national interests. The way it handles refugee matters is no exception. Yet, to consider the plight of refugees exclusively as a matter of national interest amounts to neglecting the rights of individuals. In Seoul, many years later, I ran into the same diplomat who had received me so coldly. “You must realize,” he began by way of apology, “that establishing our burgeoning diplomatic relations with China had taken us a very long time and required enormous efforts. We simply could not allow ourselves to act in a manner that would place China in an embarrassing situation vis-à-vis its ally in the North. . . .”
After coming up empty at the South Korean consulate, we returned to Shenyang with An-hyuk’s friend. Something in his attitude, however, had begun to change. He was becoming colder, more aloof. Our suspicion grew when he suggested we address our case to the Chinese authorities. He said that doing so might allow us to obtain a residency authorization and prevent us from being stopped without papers. Perhaps, but it was well known at the time that the North Korean government offered substantial gifts—color television sets, for example—to anyone who offered key assistance in the repatriation of its refugees. One little tip to the higher-ups at the Shenyang Association for Chinese of Korean Ancestry—which was controlled by Pyongyang—and we would be picked up and whisked across the border. To buy ourselves a little time, we thought it wise to offer An-hyuk’s friend a wad of yens and let him understand that more might be coming. Three days later, we left for the city of Dalian—formerly known as Dairen—the Chinese port closest to South Korea.