[On The Border] 6,000-Mile Grand Journey of Escaping N.Korea

A 19-year-old Young-wha crossed the Duman (or Tumen) River in 2006. Her mother, Park Soon-shim, who fled North Korea a year earlier, saved money from fixing clothes to let her out of North Korea. The following year, her brother, Young-kyu, also managed to escape from the North to join them. It was August 16, 2007, that the whole family finally got together in a Chinese city and decided never to forget the day. It took full three years for them to do so. And it was the day that Young-wha was going to leave China for a final haven at the risk of her life once again.

Her departure time was 8 o'clock in the evening. The whole family sat around a table for dinner. Finishing the meal in a hurry, Young-wha carried her bag on her shoulders.

"I am leaving, mom," Young-wha told her mother with a smile. Her mother and little brother would follow her as soon as they save some money. It rained outside. Young-wha took out her cell phone on the street and called her mother. "Mom, I am sorry for all the bad things I've done. Trust everything will be fine, not to worry. I don't want to cry... but... Mom..." She sobbed. "Mom, it might be the last chance that I see you."

Around the same time in another shelter in the city, seven North Korean refugees were waiting for the departure. They were Jung Chul, Min Young-mi, Sung Kum-ja, Park Young-shil, Cho Hee-young, Jung Hyun-min, Kim Myung-soon. All were female except for the eight-year-old Jung Chul. The missionary from the sponsor for N. Korean defectors, Durihana Mission, told them repeatedly, "You should never talk about any other person if you get caught. Take it alone. Otherwise, the rest will be captured as well." When it was time for goodbye, Young-mi had to leave her sister, brother-in-law, and two-year-old nephew behind, who have to wait for anther chance because the bigger a group is, the easier they get caught. The sisters were holding in tears, but no sound of sobbing. "With the sound of sobbing, the next door can report to the police." explained the missionary.

At 11 o'clock at night, a bus set out for Beijing at a city station. A public security guard got on the bus at a highway ramp. The group held their breath. Young-wha whispered, "What if they check IDs?" Luckily, the guard just looked around and got off. There were three more check-ups before they arrived in Beijing. Every time they pretended to sleep. The train for Kunming, the next destination, would leave at 4:30 p.m. the following day at West Beijing Station. The group scattered to spend the night.

On Aug. 17 at 2 p.m., the seven North Korean refuges showed up one by one as they promised. When all of them came by 30 minutes later, they got on the train, which ran for 2 nights and 3 days. They took seats at different coaches, checking each other's security once in a while. Chinese police could come in for check-ups any moment, and that made them so anxious as to lose appetite. On Aug. 19 at 4 a.m., a sudden check-up was conducted at Young-wha's coach. One of the passengers claimed to have lost his or her belongings. Young-wha quietly ran into a toilet and locked the door. "I was there for more than an hour. Even with people's banging, I didn't open the door." Many others also hid themselves in other toilets. "I was going to jump out if I got caught. I'd rather die." said Sung Kum-ja. At 8:50 a.m., the train arrived at the Kunming station. But they had no time to lose. They needed to travel to a border town right away. A driver who would take them was waiting at the plaza. He was a Korean. Told they were there for a mission, he said in doubt, "You are from North Korea, aren't you? I saw people caught just a few days ago." None of them replied. He drove in 60 - 70 miles an hour. There was another patrol check-up at the highway. He quickly turned the bus into a dirt road. Then Young-wha said anxiously, "I would kill myself if captured. Why am I trembling so much?" And no one took her saying "kill myself" as a joke.

Finally after 9 hours of driving, they arrived at the border town. The guide who came with them said good-bye to them. "Make sure to survive. If anyone gets caught, just run away without even looking back." Then another Chinese guide led them to a shelter, and said, "Do as I say with no question. Just walk 8 hours tomorrow and you will survive." None of the refugees felt like eating food, but they had to fill their stomach only for tomorrow's trip. On Aug. 20 at 10 a.m., they were divided into two cars. No one talked to the guide for 11 hours. Some had car sickness. The little boy, Jung Chul, threw up everything he ate. At 9 p.m., the group arrived at a small dugout. The guide went out to check the security status. The walk on the next day took 18 hours, not 8 hours as he had promised.

Crossing the Laotian border, they walked through a river through jungle. People hid themselves with any tiny noise. Though exhausted, they tried to help each other, saying, "We live together and die together." By running, walking, swimming, and driving, they got to a shelter on Aug. 22 at 8 p.m. During all those hours, all they had for meal were one egg and two sausages. They spent the night there, and left for the Laos-Thai border the following morning.

On Aug. 24 at 5 a.m, they were at Mekong River, across which is Thailand, which accepts N. Korean defectors as international refugees. All of the group were on the verge of collapsing. Chul fainted. Young-wha, who suffered from car sickness, felt queasy. Others had stomachache and fever. Having experienced so many N. Korean defectors, the guide said without any emotion, "You must have malaria from drinking river water."

Taking shelter in an ambush by the river, they prayed. Young-wha asked the boy, Chul what he had prayed for. "I prayed to be able to meet my mom," he answered. His mother is already in South Korea. "What about you," he asked Young-wha, and she said, "I prayed for the same one."

Lights flickered from the distance over the river. That was a signal that a Thai security guard was out. The guide gestured to them to run. Two small motor boats approached. There was leakage on the bottom of the boats. When they got started, someone said in a low voice, "Don't move. The boats will wreck. Do you want to be an alligator prey?" The boats were tumbling hard. It took 15 minutes to cross the river. They got off the boat and hid in the dark. It was Thailand! Everyone hugged in joy. "We are alive. We are alive," they said.

On Aug. 25, the group gathered in front of the Korean Embassy in Bangkok. The nightmare journey for 8 nights and 9 days was over and yet the journey still did not end. An embassy staffer told them to come back on Monday as it was closed on Saturday. Young-wha was disappointed. "We went through all the ordeals to come here, but it seems that we are not welcomed," she said. They gathered again two days later. Young-wha called her mom in China, "Mom, I'm sorry only I am here in this safe place." These North Korean defectors were accepted into a shelter for foreigners in Bangkok and came to South Korea early this year.

Young-wha's mom, Park Soon-shim, and brother crossed the China-Laos border three months after Young-wha left. She had expected it would take another two years for her to save enough money for her and her son's escape. That was why she told her daughter that they would all be able to meet again in Seoul in the winter of 2009. The dream came true much earlier. Durihana Mission helped with most of the expenses. It was all thanks to Young-wha's email to the mission.

Park had to go through all the ordeals Young-wha had experienced to arrive in Bangkok. She crossed rivers and mountains and changed cars and trains numerous times. Laos tightened its security with the change of government, so she had to hide more than a week in a shelter in the border town until she could cross the border to Thailand. It took 8 nights and 9 days for Young-wha, but 8 more days for her mom. Park and her son arrived in South Korea this summer. Much earlier than her mom's wish, the whole family was able to get together in the South and have a nice time.

By Park Jong-in, Lee Hark-joon 


englishnews@chosun.com / May 04, 2009 14:26 KST