[On The Border] From N.Korea to Siberia, One Man's 15-Year Odyssey

      December 10, 2008 14:33

      Kim Man-soo is a North Korean defector. But he did not cross the Duman (or Tumen) River to escape the communist country, as so many do: he wandered the frozen wastes of Siberia.

      The North Koreans sent him to Siberia as a logger in May 1993, thee years after he got married. Leaving his pregnant wife behind, he went, lured by wages people said were 100 times higher than those of average workers back home. At a logging camp in Tynda, he worked and worked to earn enough money to cover the bribes he had to pay North Korean government officials to get there.

      North Korean defector Kim Man-soo

      Not a few people at the camp were crushed by falling logs or trees. "Ten people were killed at a time," Kim recalls. "The coffins were standing against the walls of the train, because the pianos North Korean officials bought with the bribes occupied the floor."

      Young North Koreans volunteered to work in timber camps in Siberia just as South Korean miners went to Germany in the 1960s. Siberia's timber camps were once a kind of utopian workplace, and the wages were high; but by the late 1990s, when North Korea started to suffer financial difficulties, they were Hell.

      "I worked 15 hours a day for five years. In July 1998, I counted the vouchers I had been given instead of money. They were worth US$3,000. That was my goal. I risked my life earning that money. I was excited about bringing the money home, but when I told the logging office to pay me, they said they had no money." The logging office had sent all the cash it received from Russia to the North. That was the last straw: Kim escaped in January 1999.

      A timber camp of North Korea in Siberia

      He married five times during his 10-year life on the run. "I married five women just as a means to continue my life and get an ID card," he said. He has been poor and hard at work just making ends meet. But whenever he had any money left over, he sent it to his wife in North Korea through people visiting the country.

      Now, Kim has finally been recognized as a refugee by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. His wife and the son he has never seen have now also escaped the North. He is waiting to be reunited with them after 15 years apart.

      By Park Jong-in, Lee Hark-joon 

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