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 Jeon’s story of survival, hope and redemption. Part 1 can be read here.
Returned to marriage slavery
Jang So-yeon’s hopeless escape had hit a dead end. Returned to the village she had been sold to, she was confronted by her buyer.
“He beat me every night I rejected him,” she said. Villagers were perplexed at Jang’s resistance and contacted the ethnic Korean broker who had sold her. “We spoke on the phone,” Jang recalled. “I said, ‘How could you sell me, a person of your own nation?’ and he said, ‘You are so naïve! So foolish! Why cause problems?’”
With no money, no Chinese language skills and the threat of a forcible return to North Korea a constant, Jang’s options had expired. “I lost hope,” she said. “I felt no reason to live.” She attempted suicide with a knife – but her buyer’s parents rushed in and seized the blade. “The mother cut her hand,” Jang recalled. “I felt so guilty.”
The episode changed her view of the Hebei peasants. “They were not bad people,” she said. She resigned herself to a new life – and made herself a promise. “I thought, ‘My body is no big matter.’ I will live to tell my mother. I will survive.”
She then made her first serious attempt to communicate with her buyer, her wannabe husband. Although she spoke no Chinese, she had learned a number of characters in North Korea. She wrote: “You cannot buy love with money” on a scrap of paper. Her buyer turned serious. “After that, he respected me,” she said. “I would have no more trouble.”
Jang learned his name: Manim Guo.
To prepare for her new life, Jang wrote to her Chinese-Korean uncle in Longjin, in China’s northeast – she had memorized his factory address – asking him to send her a Chinese-Korean dictionary. He responded, and included a letter to the villagers, saying: “Thank you for caring for my niece.”
Jang gradually learned Chinese. She also traveled around back-country Hebei. To her surprise, she found North Korean women in nearly every village. Some relationships shocked her. “There was one beautiful lady living with a hunchback,” she recalled. “But they had a baby and they were living together.”
The women believed the relationships they had been sold into were preferable to returning to North Korea. But Jang could not accept her own situation. She toyed with the idea of somehow paying back what Guo had paid for her: Her price has been 20,000 yuan (nearly US$3,000) – a massive sum for a peasant. “He was such a poor guy,” she said. But she had no income.
She would stay in Guo’s village for the next two years. Then the couple decided to move to a city, Tangshan. There, they were both working on a chicken farm, when a defining moment came: Jang fell pregnant with Guo’s child.
Fighting against fate
She decided to abort. The operation went without a hitch, but the physical procedure sparked a psychological change. Acting on a whim – once again, without planning or preparation – Jang abandoned Guo.
On a freezing February day, she discharged herself from a hospital. “I wandered the city, I was cold and I was bleeding,” she said. “I spent two nights sleeping outside like a beggar.”
Once again, a total stranger took pity on her. A man took her in, gave her medicine and introduced her to a restaurant.
She worked there for eight months before – with the money she had saved from her wages – she returned to her uncle in Longjing. “He was so happy to see me,” Jang said. But he warned her that the area bordering North Korea was – unlike Hebei – dangerous for her. She could be kidnapped again, or worse, repatriated.
He took her to a remote frog farm in the Manchurian high country. Three North Korean escapees were working there and Jang became their cook. After several months, she asked her uncle for a salary.
“You ask me for a salary?” he exploded. “I am keeping you safe!” Dejected, Jang fled to Tangshan in Hebei.
There, she earned and saved money by working as a waitress. But one day she suffered a work injury, a badly cut finger. The isolation of her situation thrust her into depression. “There was nobody in the world to care for me,” she realized.
New skills, new life
Yet again, she returned to China’s northeast. With her savings, she fulfilled her childhood dream, enlisting in a computer course in the ethnic Korean city of Yanji.
She worked a series of jobs, before settling on math tutoring. All Koreans, even expatriate communities, prioritize education, explaining, in part, their success as migrants worldwide. That work bought her into contact with South Koreans.
Teaching the children of South Korean missionaries, she never spoke Korean, pretending to be Chinese. But one day, in the house, she heard the children, at the piano, singing a Korean song: “You are born to be loved.”
Jang, who had been leading a totally isolated life, burst into tears. Later, feeling an inexplicable guilt, she wrote the family a letter admitting she was a North Korean escapee.
The missionaries understood immediately. For security reasons, they burned her letter and treated her with kindness. They also led Jang to Christianity.
With computer skills under her belt, and having acquired a fake Chinese ID in Yanji, she relocated to Shanghai and found work in the city’s thriving real estate sector.
It was now 2005 – six crowded years since Jang had crossed the Tumen into China. Life was finally stable. No longer trapped in survival mode, Jang had time to think about her future.
Bluffing her way to freedom
By now, she was able to access the internet. Wonderingly, she read of North Koreans who had escaped to South Korea, but she “did not know what to believe.” One of them, on a Christian missionary’s website, was from her hometown. She tentatively sent the writer an email. He responded in minutes. His message was electrifying: “Come to South Korea.”
Activist missionaries from South Korea told her they would get her into the country’s Beijing embassy. Jang traveled to the capital and a contact there supplied her with documentation. But the missionary group first demanded her help. They planned to float helium balloons, loaded with anti-regime leaflets, from a hill in Dandong, a Chinese city on the Yalu, across the river and into North Korea.
The scheme was hare-brained, and for Jang, hideously risky.
In Dandong, the missionaries had pre-placed gas canisters for the balloons on the hill above the city, but found the police had removed them. They convinced Jang to go to the local police station and demand their return.
She did – and was promptly arrested and fined 10,000 yuan. Luckily, her faux ID held. The missionaries were deported.
Jang returned to Beijing. She found the South Korean embassy heavily guarded. The bungled Dandong caper had left her virtually broke and the missionary group was of no help. “I was exasperated,” she said.
Once again, Jang would act on a complete whim. With no plan, she took a taxi to the US embassy.
There were queues of people and multiple police. Approached by one, she brazenly waved her pre-prepared South Korean paperwork and demanded he step aside. He did so. “I could not believe it!” she said.
She was stopped again. She explained that her documentation was from a South Korean company working in the US and insisted that – though her name was not on a list – she had an appointment.
Her daredevil approach worked. She was waved into the embassy.
Inside, Jang was confronted by her first American. With her fate hanging by a thread, the situation descended into farce. Remembering an English phrase from high school, she asked the woman: “Can I help you?” Stupification. Jang swiftly recovered and managed to establish that she was North Korean.
The official turned deadly serious. Two South Korean diplomats arrived. Multiple interviews took place. Jang remained within the embassy for a week. After further interviews with Chinese foreign ministry staffers, she was allowed to travel to South Korea.
She had spent almost seven years underground in China. To this day she is unsure why Beijing released her as the official policy was repatriation. American pressure is her only explanation.
The promised land?
Landing in South Korea, she was immediately moved. “What got my attention was the landscape: the fields, the trees, the grass, the stones, the soil,” she said. “I felt like I was coming back to my hometown.” A Christian thought sprang to mind: “I thanked God that he had saved half of my country.”
Jang went through standard South Korean debriefing and acclimatization programs. Then, using the stipends Seoul offers defectors, she attended university, earning a degree in management, and undertook vocational training in Java programming. She subsequently worked at a startup as a programmer and was welcomed by Christian groups.
But she had one more task – getting her family out of North Korea.
In China, Jang had been in intermittent contact with her mother in Hamhung, via mail. Though she could not identify herself as the defector daughter due to mail censors, she knew her mother recognized her handwriting.
In Seoul, she hired a “broker.” Brokers are professional people smugglers, often North Korean defectors themselves, with underground networks in China and North Korea. Ever since the desperate years of the “Arduous March” kick-started a culture of corruption across the country, they have been extracting North Koreans via subterfuge and bribery.
Jang waited three months. The broker failed, demanding more cash. Jang retained a second broker. Months later she received a message: “Your mother is across the border!” From Dandong, she was able to take a ferry to South Korea. She arrived in 2007.
Jang’s two sisters were a different matter. Communicating via a broker, she tried to persuade them to come South. They refused and one accused Jang of being a South Korean spy. Jang gave up.
With her mother out – Jang, who had spent so many years surviving and hoping – was suddenly bereft of a mission. “I had achieved everything,” she said. “I lost the meaning of living.” She fell suddenly ill – possibly, an explosive decompression from her stresses over the preceding years. She was hospitalized for a month.
Recovering, she found her view of South Korea turned jaundiced.
The last escape
Although Christian groups were welcoming, South Korea’s furiously competitively, deeply networked, relationship-centric society is challenging for outsiders to penetrate. “I realized [South Korea] was not what I expected,” she said.
Like many defectors – 33,247 had arrived in South Korea from the end of the Korean War through to last month, according to the Ministry of Unification data – she found wider society to be cold, uncomprehending, even prejudiced.
“At the startup, the staff were well educated, but they all looked at me differently,” she said. “One asked me, ‘Why does our government support defectors?’ I was speechless.”
Jang was deeply insulted when, talking about her experience of being sold in China, one listener’s response was: “You must have been more beautiful then than you are now!”
Today, she is cautious about befriending South Koreans. “Some people say things without thinking, and defectors get easily hurt,” she said. She estimates about 80% of defectors are dissatisfied with southern life. “They tell me, ‘I can’t live here, I want to leave.”
That explains the growing numbers departing South Korea for third countries. An October South Korean media report estimates 749. And some North Korean defectors – estimates range from a handful to more than 100 – have even re-defected to the North. The media cited above has a figure of 28.
Keen to improve her English, and to travel, Jang went to Canada in 2011. She fell in love with the multicultural country. “In Canada, they don’t care about your background – wherever you come from, they don’t care,” she said. “That’s real humanity!”
She worked as a programmer, earned a diploma as a web specialist and was granted permanent residency. When she spoke to Asia Times in Seoul last week, Jang had just completed preparations to bring her mother to Canada.
The last mission
With her education, her excellent English and her personal history of fortitude and resourcefulness, her future in Canada looks assured. But she cannot shake off her past and Jang is intensely bitter about her home country.
“In China, I slowly figured out that we [North Koreans] were living a lie,” she said. “We were told we were living in the most advanced country in the world, but we were a country of slaves.”
During the “Arduous March,” Jang recalled the starvation, the scent of putrefying bodies hanging over Hamhung and her dead father. The regime built a huge mausoleum for Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. “People were dying, but they built a huge building for a dead body!” she exclaimed. “At that time, North Korean ladies were being sold to Chinese farmers!”
She has some strong advice for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who pursues amicable relations with Kim Jong Un: “Even saving one life is more important than getting along with Kim!”
Of her sisters who, distrusting her, opted to remain in North Korea, she said quietly: “They are looked over by God.”
As for her own future, one more last task lies ahead.
“I could have died [in China] without anyone knowing, so I don’t want to waste this gift of life,” she said. “I think I should help people in the underground in China – people sold by gangsters.”
Jang’s website is: http://crossingnk.com/