For nearly a week I had been alone in our tiny, freezing apartment in Eundeok, the town in North Korea where I was born. My parents had sold most of our furniture to buy food. Even the carpet was gone, so I slept on the cement floor in a sleeping bag made from old clothes. The walls were bare, except for portraits of our ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung and his son the ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il. Selling these portraits would have been sacrilege, punishable by death.

There was no electricity or heat in our apartment. But I hardly felt the cold because I was exhausted after several days without food. I felt like the ground was going to open up and swallow me. I was sure I was about to die of hunger. I wasn’t afraid any more. But I didn’t want to leave the world like this, without a trace of myself left behind.

And so I started to write my last will and testament. It was December 1997. And I was 11 years old.

My mother and older sister, Keumsun, had left six days earlier for Rajin-Sonbong, a nearby city, to try to find food. I wanted my mother to know that I had waited for her, and to know I felt abandoned.

I wrote: “Mum, I have been waiting for six days. I feel like I am going to die soon. Why haven’t you come back?”

I started crying as the darkness of night began to envelop me. I lay down and closed my eyes, sure that I was never going to wake up again.

Singing Songs

As a young girl I never could have imagined that my life would change so quickly and drastically. Up until I was nine years old, I was a happy girl.

Eundeok is located in the mountains of north-eastern North Korea, fewer than 15 kilometres from the Tumen River, the border with China and Russia. During the winter it is cold, and sometimes I walked to school through thick snow. My birthday was in the summer, the same day we celebrated the day Korea was liberated from Japanese rule in 1945. My birthday was always a happy time.

My hometown was not large. The army had several bases nearby, just like they do everywhere else in the country. You could make out a few trees on the mountains far away, but the nearby hills were all stripped bare, the forests razed for firewood.

In the middle of Eundeok flows a river crossed by a bridge. The biggest buildings in the city were of cement and had at most five floors. There were no advertisements anywhere. Walls were bare or plastered with propaganda praising our ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il and the ‘socialist paradise’ he had created for North Korea.

My father would pick me up after school. Sometimes we would stop by the street vendors to buy noodles, or he’d take me to the movies, with tickets he got through his connections working at a weapons factory. My mother worked at the hospital; she sometimes brought food from the cafeteria, which kept us from going hungry.

I enjoyed school. Mum woke us up while it was still dark. I’d wash and get dressed in my blue skirt, white blouse and red scarf that signified membership in the Children’s League. I’d meet my friends and we’d march to school singing songs in praise of our country’s leaders. After the teachers inspected our uniforms, we’d read about Kim Jong-il. The lives of our country’s leaders were one of the most important subjects, with maths, Korean language, arts and the communist ethic.

We were expected to sit in class silently. Even the tiniest bit of disturbance was met with public humiliation. I never got in trouble, but in front of the whole class the teacher would discipline a child by beating them with her pointer stick.

I was a good student, but that didn’t excuse me from the self-criticism sessions that were mandatory for everyone in the country, whether factory worker or student. At the end of the day each person had to confess their misdeeds in front of the entire class. I remember one day I made a remark while toiling in the teacher’s garden.

“What’s the point of gathering all this corn if we won’t be able to eat it?” I grumbled.

One of my classmates denounced me, and so the teacher called me over and sharply rebuked me: “That individualistic attitude is unacceptable in the socialist society of North Korea!”

Puddles of Blood

One of my favourite songs was ‘A Thousand Miles of Learning’, which recounted the young Kim Il-sung’s odyssey across the mountains in China after he fought the Japanese. I had no desire to criticise the dictatorship of our leaders. But one particular event started sowing the seeds of doubt. One morning the teacher told us we would attend an important event in our education: the execution of a man guilty of committing ‘serious crimes’.

The teachers led us downtown. A crowd gathered near the bridge. Since we were little we were positioned on top of the bridge. We would get a clear view of what was happening, so we wouldn’t miss this important lesson.

A car with tinted windows appeared. Policemen dragged out several men whose heads and faces were covered with scarves. The crowd started to shiver. After a symbolic interrogation, the accused men pitifully admitted their wrongdoings. Then they were tied to wooden poles along the river. I didn’t understand how they managed to remain so emotionless when they knew they were about to die.

Then suddenly we heard a deafening noise. I jumped, startled. The gunshots seemed to last an eternity. And then all was quiet again. Through the smoke I could make out puddles of blood littered with pieces of flesh. It was there that I learned compassion for others; I felt an immense outpouring of pity towards these men who had been slaughtered so heartlessly.

After this first terrible ordeal, I became used to the public executions. Even so, I had my qualms. I remember a man who went to the execution pole for having ‘insulted our Great Leader’. He had taken some bronze letters off an official inscription from Kim Jong-il. No doubt he had hoped to ameliorate his living conditions during the famine by selling the metal for a bit of cash.

Crucial Decision

Although my body was thin as a twig on that December evening, I still felt like I weighed a tonne. I’d slumped onto the hard concrete floor as the darkness swallowed me. I no longer had the strength to continue. My mum had left me. My body remained completely still as I heard footsteps echoing from the staircase. On that cold December night in 1997, I knew I was going to die before even reaching adolescence.

Suddenly, a muffled sound reached my ears. I half opened one of my eyes. A dark silhouette appeared before me, its shadow growing larger and larger. Frightened, I lifted myself up to see that the shadowy figure looked familiar. It was my mother, with Keumsun right behind her. I felt a rush of adrenaline jolt through my body, and my anguish started to dissipate. I didn’t know it was possible to be as happy as I felt in that instant.

But my joy faded when I realised that my mother and sister had come back empty-handed. Mum looked exhausted and distraught. She drank a glass of water as her eyes swept the dark, empty room.

“The only thing left for us to do here is die,” she said softly.

Silently, she lay down on the patched sleeping bag in the corner. My sister and I huddled next to her. Darkness surrounded us as I fell asleep. We were famished and helpless, but at least I wasn’t going to die alone.

In the morning we were awoken by noise from the street, but we didn’t move. Mum was still as a statue. She was our last hope against the malady that had struck our country and was growing worse each day: famine.

Since 1995 my family members had been slowly dying, one after the other, and now the three of us were next on the list. Within a span of two years my mother had lost my grandmother and then my grandfather. Then, just a month ago, it was my father’s turn. His feeble body had already weakened visibly since the factories stopped handing out food rations. His face sank more and more into his skull. One night when he was bringing home a load of coal, he collapsed from fatigue right before our eyes.

Shortly after that he collapsed once again, and this time he never recovered. We didn’t even have the money for a proper burial. His tomb was just a hole dug in the mud, marked with a plank of wood with his name on it. A few weeks later, someone stole the plank, most likely to use as firewood – people were ready to do just about anything to ensure their survival.

Now Mum lay motionless on the sleeping bag. The trip to Rajin-Sonbong had been our last hope. She’d thought she would be able to bring us back food or money, and save us. But this last attempt had failed.

Now I felt like she was silently devising a plan in her head. Suddenly she stood up, a determined look in her eyes. She had decided to take action.

She walked towards the wall where the portraits of our leaders were hanging, reached up and took them down. She carefully removed the two sacred portraits from their frames. Our two leaders had watched us day and night since early childhood, like they did in every household in North Korea. The wooden frames were our last sellable items, but by taking them down my mum had just committed a crime punishable by death. She pulled the frames apart so no one would figure out where the wood had come from. To be safe, she burned the photos.

Mum sold the wood at the market, and we were able to buy ourselves a meal. For the first time in three days I had something to put in my mouth.

As the winter of 1997–1998 progressed, it was often less than –15° C outside, yet we had no heat in the apartment. We were desperate for food. The neighbours said that the ghost of my father would come back to try to take my mother with him.

It was then that my mum started to think about the unthinkable: fleeing the country. She began planning to escape North Korea and head to unknown territory to save us. We were going to head to China.

The Freezing River

Eundeok is located just one hour from the Chinese border, but we had never imagined taking such a risk. Illegally crossing this border, which was patrolled by armed guards, seemed insane. And yet, there was little chance for survival in North Korea. Friends had told us stories of families who had escaped to China and were doing fine.

My mother was convinced. After all, we had nothing to lose. So we were going to become defectors, traitors to our country. Our concerns at this point were far from political. We were guided by our instinct for survival, not by the idea of revolting against our regime. Our only goal was to find food and survive. It was only later, at the end of our long, perilous journey to freedom, that I understood the subservience of our lives in North Korea and began to realise the horrors of that inhumane regime.

Night was falling over Eundeok. Spring was on its way, but I was shivering from the cold. Keumsun, Mum and I slipped outside. Mum closed the door of our little apartment forever.

I had a backpack with my most precious memories, including a photo of my father. My mother carried an axe and saw, which she had borrowed from a friend, saying she needed to chop some wood. She was not going to return them; these tools would be our way to obtain food during the journey.

It was pitch-black when we reached the village at the Chinese border, after an hour or so on the back of a truck. We hid in the bushes, and I saw a sign that read, ‘Tumen River’. Beyond the river was China. Freedom – and what I longed for even more, rice – were waiting for us on the other side.

We stayed still and silent for several hours. Mum was calculating how much time we had between each coming and going of the patrolmen.

Around midnight, after a patrolman had passed, she gave the signal. She headed towards the sand, and Keumsun and I followed. When we reached the river, my feet sank into the freezing water. I didn’t know how to swim, but my mum held onto me tightly.

The water reached our knees, and then my neck. I was so scared. When Mum realised the river was too deep for us, we headed back to the bank.

Mum told us to wait for her while she crossed the river by herself and tried to find a path for us. My teeth chattered as I watched her fade into the darkness. I was scared she was going to drown and that we’d never see her again. My heart was pounding.

Suddenly Mum reappeared, dripping wet. She was shivering and could barely walk. She told us that a few metres from the Chinese side, she had slipped in the water. I felt helpless.

“So be it. Let’s go to the border guards,” my mum said in defeat.

The chief of police came to meet us at the patrol station. Mum told him we had left our home to chop wood, hoping to sell it for food, which is why we had the axe and the saw and why we were near the river. He didn’t believe us for a second. But he brought us pancakes made of cornmeal and milk powder and let us sleep on the floor.

We were lucky. The next morning the border official let us leave without further questions. But our situation was still dire. Going back to Eundeok was not an option. Our neighbours knew about our attempted escape.

So we headed to Rajin-Sonbong instead. It was raining, we didn’t know where we were going to sleep and we were full of gloom. Worst of all, the photo of my father had been ruined – it hadn’t survived the trip through the river. The ink was smudged and the image of his face was gone forever.

We wound up at the port of Rajin, where the fishermen unload their cargoes. We sold the tools and bought some crab shells. We feasted without thinking about our future.

Nobody could help us in Rajin, so we decided to go to Chongjin where my mum had family. We snuck onto the back of a train and rattled along for two days, crouching in corners to avoid the conductors and thieves.

When we knocked on the door of my mother’s sister, she was speechless, seeing us like homeless people. We quickly understood that we were not welcome. There was no food. Her husband did not want us around. We returned to the train station and took the train back to Rajin-Sonbong.

Left for Homeless

And so we began our homeless life. Every night we had to find new shelter where we could escape the rain. After the merchants left, we would slip under an awning at the market. Often an official would tell us to leave. We’d shelter in the staircases of nearby buildings. We went weeks without being able to bathe. Lice infested our heads and we scratched like monkeys.

When the weather got warmer and the rain stopped, my mother took us to the forest to sleep under the stars. We bathed in the streams, and collected wood to sell for a few won.

The weather dictated our daily lives. After a storm, we went to the beach to collect seaweed. We made soup to sell at the market. I took fish that fishermen threw away. Once I found a crate of mostly rotten apples, abandoned by Chinese merchants. I took out the fresh ones and we gorged ourselves.

This life was exhausting, however. Autumn came and my mother realised there was no future for us in our country. The first frosts were here. Soon, it would be too cold to survive on the streets. But the cold provided us with an opportunity: the Tumen River would freeze over, solid enough to walk across.

That frigid night in February 1999, the winter winds slapped me in the face. At the top of the hill a wisp of grey smoke rose into the air. We needed to get warm and walked closer.

Our Last Chance

Around the fire were two crouched figures: a man and a young girl. Seeing how desperate they looked, I thought maybe they were trying to do the same thing we were – escape the country. My mother started talking to the man, and he confirmed what we suspected.

“The ice is hard enough. I’ve seen people crossing,” he told us. “But it’s better to wait until morning. The guards don’t patrol as much then.”

The hill looked out across the Tumen River, a perfect spot to observe the border guards walking back and forth. Right in front of us, through the darkness, was China. Our last chance.

Hours passed. My anxiety started to build. I remembered our previous failure. What if the soldiers shot us down?

The five of us headed down the hill towards the Tumen. There were no guards in sight. The man tested the ice using his feet. It appeared solid.

We walked single file, several metres apart, to spread our weight evenly. My mum was first, followed by Keumsun, then the man and the girl. I was last. Behind me, the ink-black night looked like it was going to snatch me away. I imagined a border guard appearing and shooting at us. We only had about a hundred metres to cross, but it felt like an eternity.

My heart was pounding. I started moving faster. Suddenly I fell. After I got up, we walked much slower. The light of dawn was starting to appear. We had to hurry. Just a few more metres to go. I caught up and thought we were safe, but we were on a small islet in the river. We still had to cross to the other side, where the ice looked less solid.

We changed order. The little girl, the lightest, started off. Timidly, she approached the ice on the other side of the islet. Suddenly, we heard a cracking sound. The girl sunk through the ice before our eyes.

We panicked and began to head back. Her legs were submerged to her knees. She started screaming.

“Have you reached the bottom?” asked her father.

“Yes,” she said in a frightened voice.

So, despite the cold, we started wading through the water. We moved forwards a few more metres, and my feet touched China. We had made it. I stopped to catch my breath, but my wet clothes had started to freeze.

We took a few moments of rest, but soon our fears overtook us. We had to get far away from the river, because if the Chinese police found us, they would send us back to North Korea. I didn’t want to think about the punishments we would receive if sent back.

Fields of corn stretched as far as we could see. We had to pass through them quickly to reach the forest. But my leg was stiff and I couldn’t run. Using all the strength I had left, I tried to follow my mum’s pace. The hills felt so far away. After about ten minutes, we made it. I collapsed beneath the trees as the sky began to get light. It was my first morning outside my home country. The first dawn of my new life.

The three refugees found shelter at a nearby farm, where they were forced to toil for several years before the girls were able to escape to a nearby city, where their mother joined them. In 2006, Eunsun and her mum found their way to Mongolia, where they were taken in by the South Korean embassy and flown to freedom in Seoul. Keumsun followed two years later. Eunsun now lives in South Korea. She works for an NGO promoting human rights on the Korean peninsula.

From A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim with Sébastian Falletti © 2012 by Éditions Michel Lafon. English translation © 2015 by David Tian. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin’s Press

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