I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea and that I escaped from North Korea. Both of these events shaped me, and I would not trade them for an ordinary and peaceful life. But there is more to the story of how I became who I am today.
There’s a quote I once read from Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Sometimes, the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem inexplicable. I’ve seen the horrors that humans can inflict, but I’ve also witnessed acts of kindness and sacrifice in the worst circumstances. I know that it is possible to lose part of your humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished and that given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again.
I grew up in Hyesan, a city of 200,000 on the Yalu River, which runs between China and North Korea. It is the coldest part of North Korea, with temperatures plunging to minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit.
My mother and father encouraged me from the start to be proud of who I am. My father sometimes held me in his lap and read me children’s books. The only ones available were published by the government and had political themes. Instead of fairy tales, they were stories set in a place called South Korea, where homeless children went barefoot and begged in the streets. It never occurred to me that they were really describing life in my country.
I’ve seen the horrors that humans can inflict, but I’ve also witnessed acts of kindness and sacrifice in the worst circumstances.
Children were taught to hate the enemies of the state with a passion.
We also read about our Leaders and how they worked so hard and sacrificed so much for us. Our Dear Leader Kim Jong Il had mystical powers. His biography said he could control the weather with his thoughts and that he wrote 1,500 books during his three years at Kim Il Sung University, named after his father. This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and TV shows broadcast by the single, state-run station. Whenever the Leaders’ pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would play. It made me so emotional. North Koreans are raised to venerate our fathers and our elders, and in our collective minds, Kim Il Sung was our beloved grandfather, and Kim Jong Il was our father.
Children were taught to hate the enemies of the state with a passion. Our schools and textbooks were full of images of grotesque American GIs with blue eyes and huge noses executing civilians. Sometimes at recess we lined up to beat or stab dummies dressed like American soldiers. Every subject in school came with a dose of propaganda. A math problem would go like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?”
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There were so many things we were forbidden to do, buy, or sell, and public executions were used to teach lessons in loyalty and the consequences of disobedience. When I was little, a young man was arrested for killing and eating a cow. Cows were the property of the state, and they were too valuable to eat because they were used for plowing fields and dragging carts. Anybody who butchered one would be stealing government property.
This man suffered from tuberculosis and had nothing to eat, but that didn’t matter to the police. They took him behind the market and tied him to a piece of wood. Three men with rifles began firing at him until his body flopped to the ground. My mother watched in shock—she couldn’t believe that in her own country, a human’s life had less value than an animal’s.
Families could watch only state-generated propaganda films, which were boring. So there was a huge demand for smuggled foreign movies and TV shows, even though you never knew when the police might raid your house. They’d first shut off the electricity so that the videocassette or DVD would be trapped in your machine for them to find. People got around this by owning two players and switching them if they heard a police team coming.
My uncle had a VCR, and I went to his house to watch Hollywood movies. My aunt covered the windows and told us not to say anything. I loved Cinderella, Snow White, and the James Bond movies. But the film that changed my life was Titanic. I couldn’t believe that someone had made a movie out of a shameful love story—in North Korea, the filmmakers would have been executed. I was also amazed that the characters were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their destinies fascinated me. Titanic gave me my first small taste of freedom.