Death visited but hunger never left. After the death of her parents, Kim became the primary caretaker of her four younger brothers. The authorities only provided food for coal miners, so Kim would save her lunch ration—a small packet of jasmine rice—until she got home so she could make it into a thin porridge for the whole family. After she got married and became pregnant, she could no longer work in the mines and instead had to find her own food.
While nine months pregnant in May 1991, she went up the mountain to gather acorn sprouts. On her way down, she unexpectedly went into labor and ended up giving birth. Afterward, unable to walk or even stand up, she wrapped her baby in the sack with the sprouts. She crawled around 50 feet, pushing the backpack in front of her. Eventually, an old man herding goats and sheep found her. He couldn’t lift her, but he fetched her husband.
Even when she earned release from the camp in 2001, her hardships continued, and both her daughters died during a flood. Kim decided to defect. But during her first attempt in 2005, border guards caught her and sold her to a Chinese broker for 3,000 yuan. Because she looked so much older than her 43 years, he found he could not sell her to sex traffickers. He sold her instead to a restaurant owner for 2,500 yuan, where she worked until authorities repatriated her in 2008. In 2009, Kim escaped for a second time and successfully made it to South Korea.
But even for ordinary North Koreans, who never experience the political prison camp, life is often unbearable. I also spoke with Pak Tae Kyeong, a woman in her mid-30s who defected in 2008.
Pak was a teenager during the so-called “Arduous March,” the severe famine that from 1994 to 1998 resulted in the death of an estimated 3.5 million North Korean people.
“There was nothing to eat,” Pak said through the interpreter. “You will never understand that someone will basically starve to death without having a bowl of rice, or a handful of rice to feed themselves.”
Kim remembers the execution of one woman who, so desperate for food, had killed and cooked her 9-year-old daughter.
To escape the famine, Pak’s older brother defected to China. But within a few months, Chinese authorities repatriated him. He spent seven months in a reeducation camp. After his release, he returned home a shell of the “very tall and big” oppa (brother) she remembered. He couldn’t recover from the starvation and torture and died two days later.
When that happened, Pak realized North Korea offered her no future. Even though she had a respected job as a schoolteacher, she did not make enough to support herself. She began to ask, “What’s the purpose of my life? Is it just an everyday struggle to find the food … or can I do something other than seek my own survival?”
One day, she was talking on the phone with her sister, who had successfully defected to South Korea. As they spoke, she could hear a crisp sound of her sister chewing. “What are you having?” Pak asked. “An apple,” her sister responded.
Apples are Pak’s favorite food, so half-jokingly, she asked, “Can you just send a box of apples to me?”
“If you come to South Korea—I’ll get you a truck filled with apples,” she promised.
The image of a truck full of apples began haunting her thoughts. Eventually, Pak decided to defect. Her sister hired a broker, and six months later Pak made it to South Korea. While she has not gotten a truck full of apples, she eats at least one every day.