After our debriefing had wrapped up, we sat around waiting for someone to tell us what we should do next. Were we supposed to work? Could we go back to school? Boredom began setting in. The agents offered to rent us some videocassettes.
“Do you want action movies,” they asked, “or erotic movies?”
“What are erotic movies?”
They explained that erotic movies were basically softcore porn, hardcore being illegal in South Korea. We opted for the erotic films—four in a row! One night seemed too short a time to make up for a lifetime of North Korean prudishness. We had entered a fairyland. We couldn’t believe our eyes: What actors would play these roles? How could they get naked in front of the camera? We recalled the charges of debauchery we had heard leveled against the South. It was said, for example, that the Ehwa women’s university was less a school for young women than for prostitutes, and that these harlots actually slept—supreme act of debauchery—with American soldiers! In North Korea, it is unimaginable that a man should try to seduce a woman. Romantic adventures are unthinkable. And not only in the movies—in real life, too, the man is supposed to take the initiative in the most direct manner possible. Courtship is seen as a remnant of a bygone era, and love is never a real concern! Yet for all that, it is considered normal for a man to force a woman to give in to his advances.
We went out to the city, accompanied as before. South Korean authorities want to observe and keep track of renegades after they first arrive. They also want to protect them. The 1996 murder by Pyongyang agents of a high-ranking renegade with family connections to Kim Jong-il testified to the need for vigilance. Moreover, we needed their help. Finding our way through the megalopolis, dealing with public services, finding work: none of these is easy for people who have spent decades in the Hermit Kingdom, as North Korea is sometimes called.
After six months of continuous chaperoning, I was allowed to rent an apartment, and a local policeman was assigned to my case. When I needed to go out—to a press conference or an interview, to buy a refrigerator or to sign my lease—I called him and he accompanied me. After two years, I was allowed to live entirely on my own. The security agents’ presence had been generally more helpful than burdensome. Despite the rage I often felt toward my guardian angel, I am indebted to him for the most fateful meeting of my life. He introduced me to a very rich businessman of Northern origin who had read my story in the papers and wanted to contribute 200,000 won ($200) a month toward my college tuition. He also bought me a computer and paid for programming lessons. More important, he taught me how to face hardships in my new world.
Then there was the Security Agency bureaucrat who first introduced me to the Protestant church that I still attend. Seoul’s Christian community offered me enormous material and emotional support. Religion is very attractive to North Korean renegades. The atmosphere of quasi-religious adoration in which we were raised in North Korea only partially explains this phenomenon; more important, I believe, is the thirst for affection—for love, even—every renegade feels. I don’t know whether I am profoundly religious, but I wanted to be baptized.
I was also lucky enough to receive support from a bank, which gave me a scholarship for the duration of my studies. Add to that the money I made from giving interviews and writing the occasional article, and I had few material worries.
Since my integration into South Korean life ultimately would have to take place through steady work, I joined Hanyang University. Its founder, Kim Yon-jun, was a strong advocate for human rights in the North. Many renegades had enrolled in his university, and I was encouraged to do the same. I chose international business as my major. All the students were much younger than I was, but they accepted me as they might an older brother. They liked me a lot and tried to help me however they could, especially with English, which I spoke poorly. Despite our amicable relations, many things they did put me off. They were always going out to cafés and restaurants, as though getting a soda from the dispenser and lying on the grass weren’t good enough. They were throwing money out the window! Life in the North had made me a bit of a Spartan. When students sat down cross-legged in front of me and started smoking, I had a hard time holding my tongue; you don’t do that in front of someone your senior. The North is hypertraditionalist. Friendships between members of the opposite sex is not the norm. When a man speaks to a woman his own age, he employs the familiar form of address, she the formal. Relations follow a strict hierarchy. Here, we were equal! Some of the female students were so self-confident, they hardly paid me any attention when I spoke to them.
I eventually got used to all this. I have fond memories of my days at the university, even though the leftist students often riled me. They always tried to make me see the shortfalls of the South Korean system of government. At least the North wasn’t corrupted by a fierce, never-ending battle for profit! Though I lacked the theoretical arguments to counter their claims, I wasn’t impressed. “Go to the North,” I told my contradictors, “and you’ll stop trying to excuse all Kim Il-sung’s failures. Go find out for yourselves.”
One day a discussion with a student member of Hanchongnyon, the university’s leftist organization, grew rather heated. I was being bombarded with would-be intellectual arguments about class, domination, and imperialism, featuring references to people such as Pierre Bourdieu. Onlookers had surrounded us. Whose side were they on? Did they agree with my interlocutor when he said that I had a “subjectivist” point of view and that my personal experience was no basis for a global condemnation of North Korean politics? A couple of students later told me that the majority of spectators had been very touched by the story of my imprisonment and flight to China. I was glad to hear that: the original silence had been like a great invisible force. Leftist students would do well to consider the meaning of that silence.
My primary concern, though, had to do with my professional future. Despite the support of my fellow students, I struggled with English. From my end, I gave a lot of students financial help. Ironically, the North Korean renegade had become a well-off student, enjoying a free education, benefiting from handsome government subsidies, and earning fees from articles and speaking engagements. By contrast, many students from the South Korean provinces were surviving hand to mouth, living in tiny rented rooms, working—some as supermarket checkers, others as restaurant workers—and waiting for their parents to send them a little pocket money. I fed them and in several cases even paid their tuition. For me, it was a way of saying thank you.
With so much money on my hands, I slipped into an odd lifestyle in which I almost lost myself. Someone offered to rent me a new apartment in the upscale Changdam-dong neighborhood, a mixed office and live-in studio space, or officitel, as it’s called in Seoul. I decided to take it. Here was an incredible universe in which money flowed like water. Out front one could see parked BMWs belonging to doctors, hostesses, movie stars. I didn’t have a BMW, but I spent money with abandon, fascinated by the power it gave me, swooning in my success. I, a former prisoner, who had been reduced to killing rats for food and swallowing salamanders, was drinking with the people of this neighborhood and eating in their restaurants! I’d come a long way from being embarrassed by a young Chinese woman’s invitation to dance. Now I was the one asking all the pretty girls to join me on the dance floor. At the same time, I was still a student. My night life and my studies were on a collision course. I came very close to being spoiled by all the money I received for opening my mouth! I no longer knew where I stood. I was uncomfortable with myself—and on certain early mornings, a little ashamed.
I made a clean break with that life. The desire to drown my sorrows didn’t run as deep as other longings: to create stability in my life, to tell the world of the situation in North Korea, to help unfortunate refugees, and to find a wife to share the rest of my life. Yet here, too, a renegade encounters difficulties that never appear in government statistics and that no amount of money can solve. I recently fell in love with a girl from Seoul whom I would have been happy to marry, but in Korea, marriage isn’t just a commitment between two individuals; it’s the union of two families. Where was my family? Dead or infinitely removed. No family, no marriage. On top of that, how could her family not be suspicious of a North Korean? That my family and I paid handsomely for not assimilating into the North Korean regime mattered little. Familial prejudices are never easy to dismiss.
The citizens of South Korea should realize they have an important role to play in welcoming refugees. They aren’t just people who have fled something; they are people who have a hard time adapting and a hard time forgetting what they have endured. I continue to have dreams in which I am running across the Yalu or in the mountains, North Korean security agents hot on my trail. They are about to catch me and I wake up covered in sweat. It is not enough for people to say they are for reunification. Their actions need to prove it. The rhetoric of reunification is one thing, people’s attitudes toward North Korean renegades quite another. I don’t question the South Korean population’s desire for reunification, even though a large segment couldn’t care less one way or another. What I do wish to denounce—based on my own experience—are the countless prejudices that are held against people from the North. Their poverty and economic inferiority are too often taken as a reflection of some natural inferiority. I myself have been the target of such misperceptions: whenever I dress elegantly, people look at me with suspicion. I’m not acting the way I’m expected to. The same goes for work. Money is so important in South Korea, I always felt I would never be seen as equal unless I earned lots of money.
The South has a number of associations for North Korean renegades. One of them was founded by Ko Yong-hwan, a former North Korean diplomat stationed in Zaire. It seems to me that the group’s main focus is helping wealthy renegades, who are already rather well adjusted. At the other end of the spectrum Hwang Jang-yop, the Worker’s Party ideologue who fled North Korea in February 1997, created an association that tries to help all refugees while loudly proclaiming its hostility toward the Kim Il-sung dictatorship. Its sacred task—more important, according to its founder, than the battle against Japanese occupation—is to publicize the crimes committed in the North by Kim Jong-il. Hwang Jang-yop wants nothing less than to bring down the regime. This organization also raises money to help support and protect renegades wandering along the Chinese border.
Much remains to be done. Over the last ten years, the situation in North Korea has continued to deteriorate. Refugees now crossing into China over the Yalu, or farther east over the Tumen River, tell us terrible things about the conditions in North Korea. Eyewitness accounts gathered by Good Friends—a Buddhistinspired association—are crushing. People have been reduced to eating grass and the bark of young pines and sycamores. Haggard children wander about with their skin often black and rotting from infection. As soon as the first cold spells hit, they die of typhoid fever or cholera. Families are being torn apart. Parents frequently abandon their youngest children in the hope that someone better off might find them and give them a home. People try to cross the border without means or protection. Whenever I hear these stories, I think of all the advantages I had. Money allowed me to reach the border by train and to hire a guide.
Today, most refugees arrive at the riverbank exhausted by days and sometimes weeks of walking. The guards treat them harshly. No gifts? No pity! Myriad are the stories of vicious beatings and imprisonment in foul cells. Even if they manage to avoid the border guards, these unfortunates are not invited to dinner and karaoke after their crossing, as I was. The Chinese police often close their eyes to the illegal human traffic, but they also return a considerable number to North Korea. All along the border, Christian groups are doing incredible work to save the kkot-jebi—or wandering children—feeding and giving shelter to the neediest among them. These groups are also fighting against the trade in young North Korean women: 2,000 to 5,000 yuan is all a bride costs in this region of China.
I try to help newly arrived renegades integrate into their new universe. Sometimes I am solicited to give assistance to refugees hiding out in China. At the end of October 1999, a South Korean businessman who trades in China told me he passed my phone number along to two renegades who claimed to know me. A few days later, I got a telephone call from China. “Comrade Kang Chol-hwan,” said the voice. That “comrade” (dongmu) was quite a throwback. There was a time when I heard and used that word constantly. The caller was the brother of a woman neighbor of ours at Yodok. I had met him once at his sister’s. He began by giving me news of my sister, whom he last saw two years after my defection. “She had been interrogated, of course, and looked like she was very poor. The authorities seemed worried when they realized you were gone. They were afraid you would talk about the camp. During the morning lesson in our village your case was always being discussed. The party secretary told us that we all needed to be vigilant and make sure such incidents don’t happen again, that we should feel responsible and speak out about any rumored plan of escape.”
I also learned that several of my old friends, as well as a number of Party cadres involved in my case, had been sent to the camps. These included Yi Chang-ho, the local secretary, and Kim Jongnam, the head of the Office for Public Security. Others, such as the director of security, the general secretary for administration, and the secretary of Party organization, were fired. I am sad I caused others to suffer. I am also sad that because of me, my sister lives under the shadow of constant threat. At the same time, I am proud that my escape filled the entire gun with a certain hope. As for the North Korean refugee who called me, it will be understood that the less detail I provide about his story, the better. For the sake of giving people a fuller picture of the difficulties renegades face, I will, however, mention that his Chinese runners threatened to turn him over to the police and sell off his young lady companion unless I sent him some money. Fortunately, the South Korean businessman who first put us in contact had a way of changing their minds. . . .