North Korean defector Jang So-yeon. Photo: Courtesy of Jang So-yeon

As a member of North Korea’s lowest class, Jang So-yeon’s childhood dreams were shattered. She escaped a devastating famine to China – only to be kidnapped and sold into marriage slavery. Through luck and guile, she escaped and carved out a moderately prosperous life, before – in a strikingly bold move – she escaped to South Korea. It was not the promised land she had anticipated. Crossing borders once more, she now makes her home in Canada.

This is Part 1 of Jang’s exclusive story of survival, defiance of fate and eventual redemption. Part 2 appears in Asia Times on Wednesday.

Growing up in the Kimdom

Due to her modest stature and, perhaps, her shy manner, Jang So-yeon appears younger than her 44-years. Dressed in a grey tracksuit and a thick overcoat, she looks very much like any South Korean. But she’s not – she is a North Korean defector.

Over several hours she spoke to Asia Times in a restaurant and then a coffee shop in central Seoul about a life darkened by trauma, but also lit by incidents of kindness. Though it is impossible to confirm what she says, virtually all her experiences are consistent with those of other defectors and the NGOs that assist them.

Speaking quietly but often urgently, she smiles when she recalls her worst experiences. Only when she speaks about the North Korean regime does she spark with anger.

Jang, born in August 1975, grew up in the city of Hamhung on North Korea’s east coast. Known for its industries – notably chemicals, fish processing and military equipment factories – it is North Korea’s second city after Pyongyang.

Hamhung lacks the capital’s elite population and show-city status, but even so, Jang’s childhood was idyllic. Her father was an army sergeant, her mother a housewife. She has happy early memories of playing in the snow with her two sisters as toddlers. “The 1970s were the best time for North Korea,” she said.

Indeed. The country had recovered from the destruction of the 1950-53 Korea War and was embedded in the Eastern Bloc trading system. Socialism flourished. “Everything was provided by the government,” Jang said. “There were no difficulties.”

At school, she learned about Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, history, math and even “a bit of English” – and hoped to enter university.

On a visit to the city’s College of Automation and Electronics, she saw “real computers” and the DOS operating system. “I thought it was fantastic!” At school, she followed up on this interest. “We learned a bit of computer language and algorithms at high school. It was really interesting and really fun.”

She garnered the appropriate grades to move on to tertiary education. “The highest scoring students got the chance to go to university,” she recalled. When she applied, the first clouds appeared on Jang’s horizon.

‘My uncle was the obstacle’

Despite her grades, Jang learned she could not attend university due to a “crime” committed by a relative she had never met. “It was impossible because my uncle had escaped to the South during the Korean War,” she said.

For the same reason her father, a professional soldier, could never become an officer. He would remain a sergeant for his entire career.

Unusually for a then-communist nation, North Korea was – and is – home to a rigid class structure, the songbun system. Kim Il Sung divided society into three basic classes: The “core,” “wavering” and “hostile” classes, but the divisions are wider, breaking down into nearly 50 sub-classes.

Jang learned that the leading elite were sub-divided into the “Mount Baekdu” class, composed of those related to Kim’s guerrilla struggle in Manchuria in the 1930s, and the “Nakdong River” class, who fought with the North Korean army in South Korea in 1950. As someone with a defector in her family, Jang was at the bottom of the ladder – a ladder that was impossible to climb.

Another incident made clear her family’s black name.

Jang’s sister had been dating a young soldier and the couple hoped to marry. One day, Jang came home to see a large car parked outside the family home. It was the soldier’s father, an officer at the State Security Bureau – a job only for the trusted classes. “I can’t allow this marriage!” he ordered.

Yet Jang was not, at the time, indignant about the injustice her family was subjected to. “I was just angry at my uncle,” she said. “Not the system.”

Her father had suggested she work in a military factory – “the salary and the rations were regular” – but she learned of another option for college entry. Those who labored on collective farms – without a salary – might be recommended. “They said, ‘If you do well there, you can go to university’,” she recalled.

For the wannabe student, farm work was harsh. Jang dug ditches and scavenged wood from mountainsides. The worst job was fertilizer detail. Jang had to carry a yoke from which were suspended two buckets filled to the brim with human manure.

There were indications that all was not well. The wood she found on the hillsides was used to construct fences to surround orchards, which were also patrolled by armed guards. Apple stealing was clearly a serious problem.

For one year she worked. Then two. Then three. There was no recommendation. “I finally realized,” she said. “My uncle was the obstacle.”

It was a devastating realization. By now, it was the mid-1990s and Jang’s personal misfortune was to be subsumed under a wider and more devastating tragedy.

‘The whole city had a death smell’

With communism having collapsed in Eastern Europe and the USSR having imploded, North Korea no longer enjoyed favorable trade with global partners. Moreover, years of dubious agricultural policies led to poor harvests, exacerbated by abnormal weather conditions.

Food stocks ran out. Famine and its handmaiden, disease, stalked the land. Today, this period is known, inside North Korea, by the euphemism “The Arduous March.” Jang experienced its horrors first-hand.

“I remember in 1995, there were so many infectious diseases,” Jang recalled. Her parents both fell ill with para-typhus. Then her sister went down with cholera. “She left in the morning and someone carried her to the hospital,” Jang said. “By the second day, she was just skin and bones.”

What Jang witnessed in the hospital in Hamhung – one of the area’s hardest hit by the famine – was virtually medieval.

“They laid the patients out like goods in a warehouse,” she said. “We could hear people crying in the next ward, and see people dying.” Outside, the dead were piled up in the open air. “Once a week, a truck came and took all the bodies away.”

Beyond the hospital, a terrible odor pervaded the city. “The whole city had a death smell,” she said. “Up in the mountains, there were graves everywhere. Some were not well covered up – it was bare, there was no soil – and the bodies were coming out.”

For the lower classes, there were no medicines. Jang’s father – who had by now left the army – went to a new, unofficial institution that was springing up nationwide: a jangmadang, or free market.

In these survival markets, created by desperate or ambitious border-crossers, goods from China, mainly foodstuffs and medicines, could be bought or bartered. As society unraveled, foreign aid also appeared. “My father went to the market and got medicine – UN medicine,” Jang said.

Jang’s sister recovered. The family began making rough bread from corn husks to sell and barter, but had to defend their precious product from feral children – desperate orphans who roamed the streets – who attempted to steal it.

Things were becoming untenable. “We struggled to survive,” she said. “Day by day, we lost everything.” Jang’s father then fell ill. The family had only 10 days of food remaining. Jang and her mother decided to travel to China, where they had relatives, to seek help.

Jang would never see her father again. “He died,” she said. “That is my biggest guilt.”

Across the border

At 10:00pm on April 13, 1999, Jang and her mother, guided by a neighbor who had made the trip previously, paid off a pair of border guards and waded across the narrow Tumen River into China. “It was a new land!” Jang recalled. “I was 24 – I was really happy!”

But uncertainties lay ahead. Neither Jang nor her mother spoke Chinese, and though the family had had intermittent contact with relatives in China, mail had stopped in the early 1990s: “Everything was going wrong.”

They walked all night and arrived in a village. They knocked on a door. It was answered by a Korean speaker – a member of China’s two million-strong Korean minority. For the first, but not the last time in Jang’s Odyssey, she would experience the kindness of strangers.

Taking pity on their poor clothes, the man took the group in. “He was so kind, he was a stranger, but he made us meat and rice,” Jang said. “This had never happened in North Korea. It was like heaven.” Jang was speechless when he gave leftovers to a dog.

They moved on. The following day, in a nearby town, they linked up with the cousin of Jang’s mother. Fortunately, he still lived at the same address as their correspondence.

They stayed for three days. Jang’s uncle gave them money and food, and they prepared to return across the border. But on their last day, Jang’s neighbor suggested she join him to come and see an amazing sight: A department store. Jang agreed.

Seized and sold into slavery

“We were just window shopping, when suddenly four men surrounded me at the corner of the building,” she said. “They had knives. They dragged me into a black car.”

Jang’s first thought was that they were Chinese police, but she spoke no Chinese. She was driven out of town, then dropped off by a stream, where she was transferred to another vehicle. She was clueless about what was happening.

In an unknown location, she was deposited in an apartment and locked in. There she met another North Korean – a 19-year-old girl who had also been kidnapped. The girl told her what was underway.

“Gangs were selling North Korean ladies to Chinese farmers – she told me it was normal at this time,” Jang said. “I had had no idea what was happening.” Some women were willing to endure this fate, just to stay in China, where at least there was food.

Jang attempted to fight her way out, but was beaten by a member of the gang with a baton. After several nights, the two were taken by the gang – one of whom was ethnic Korean – to a train station and put aboard a train to the Chinese interior.

Jang had been warned not to try and escape. If she did, she would be returned to North Korea and likely incarcerated in a labor camp. “That would be even more horrible.” For days, they were shuttled around rural areas by buses and taxis. Their minders were constantly stopping to make telephone calls. Jang realized the calls were to potential buyers.

Jang was dropped off at a poor village – “just rocks and dust” – in what she now knows was rural Hubei Province. Her minder – “he was rough, but we could talk to him” – told her that if she had problems, to call him, and he would “retrieve” her. Then a Chinese man led her away.

Villagers appeared from houses to gawp at Jang. The man took her to his house, and for three days, nothing happened: “He respected me.”

On the third day, villagers appeared with traditional red clothing and gifts of food. A blanket was laid down in the house. “He was 32, I was 24, and I realized this was the reality,” Jang said. “In North Korea, I had dated, but had never slept with a man.”

Once alone with her “husband,” he tried to force her to submit. Jang struggled. Villagers, hearing the screaming and struggling, arrived, perplexed. She was left alone. In darkness, she broke out of the house. “I walked and I walked all night.”

It was a nightmare situation. Alone, completely penniless, in a country where she spoke not a word of the language, Jang had no plan. At another village, a man put her on the back of a tractor and drove her back to the village.

Her “husband” awaited her.

Part 2 appears on Wednesday

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