Park Ji Woo was born in North Korea and escaped with her mother when she was 9 years old. Today Park is 24 and studies English in New York City. Her column about life as a North Korean defector living in New York City appears on NKnews.org. Park will be joining Gawker at 3:30pm for a live chat here.
My name is Park Ji Woo. I am glad to be able to share my story with you.
I was born in North Ham-Gyong province, North Korea, which is located in the far northeast of the country. It is extremely cold in winter. When the North Korean food distribution system collapsed in the early 1990s, my father, who was a doctor and the breadwinner for my family, couldn’t bring us food anymore. Like other North Koreans, my parents had no idea how to get food when they stopped being paid at their jobs. They sold the family’s furniture, television, and radio, but we still didn’t have enough money for food and clothes. My younger sister and I were always hungry, particularly in the winter. Since there was no food in the farms during winter, the price of food was unbelievably high. It goes without saying, they had no money to buy warm winter coats and shoes for us. My younger sister and I wore a pair of cotton, rubber-soled shoes during the winter that were not warm and got wet easily after being out in the snow. Our feet were always frozen and my mother forbid us from riding sleds, but we insisted on going outside to enjoy the snow. As a result, we suffered from frostbitten feet and hands.
One day, my sister and I had so much fun riding the sled that I didn’t realize my shoes fell off! I looked for them for a long time, but I couldn’t find them. I was freaked out because I knew my mother would be really mad at me. I walked home on bare feet in the snow. When my mother saw me, she said nothing and just wiped my feet because my left heel was bleeding. She put my feet into a container with cold water. That was a well known remedy for frostbite in North Korea because it made your feet warm up fast even though it was really painful. I screamed as the cold water became red with my blood. My mother cried. The next day, she gave me her winter shoes and she wore her flats, which were thin shoes meant for the summer. She didn’t have money to buy new winter shoes for me. That winter, her feet were frostbitten, too.
Since the summer of 1996, the famine went worse than expected. The government still didn’t give us any food. I vividly remember that many people died in the street because of hunger. I saw many children, who were my age, begging for food in Jang-ma-dang (North Korean Market), even stealing food. We only had one meal a day for three months. Even my 6-year-old younger sister, the youngest person in my family, wasn’t spared starvation. One morning, somebody knocked on our door quietly, when my younger sister and I were eating our only meal of the day. I thought that it was my mother, who went to the farm to look for food. I opened the door happily, but who I faced was a short, skinny girl. She looked about 8 years old, same as me. She had a pale and fearful face. Behind her, a little boy was smiling at me. He looked about five years old and had a red, dirty face. They wore ragged clothes. The girl finally said “Would you please lend us some food? We haven’t had anything to eat since two days ago. My parents went to Cheng-jin to get food and said they would be back in 3 days, but they haven’t come back yet. When they come back, we will have food to eat and I can give you back your food. I swear.”
I looked at her earnest face and said “I am hungry, too. I have no food to give you.” I closed the door coldly and locked it quickly. Even though the girl kept knocking the door desperately for a while, we ate all the corn porridge, which was all we had for the whole day. Now I feel sorry for them. Sometimes it makes me cry. I don’t know where they went and if anyone gave them food or not. I hope they met good people who were willing to give them food. However, at that time, sharing food was a crazy behavior for me, and for most North Koreans because everyone clearly knew that one day we would die in the street because of hunger if we didn’t look for and save food as much as we can. We had to compete for getting one more ear of corn. Sympathy was an extravagance for us.
On top of the hunger, my father contracted typhoid from his patients in the hospital. My mother sold everything we had, even the linens that my grandmother handmade for her when she got married. They were not only wedding gifts, but also an expression of a mother’s love for her daughter. My father was hospitalized for 3 weeks, where he regained his health speedily. But after his hospitalization, he was a changed man. He often yelled at my mother and complained about the food. My mother tried to endure all his anger and complaints. She usually skipped her one meal a day because she wanted to save more money in order to buy meat for my father, like most North Korean women, she made sacrifices for her husband and family. I asked her why father were always angry about everything. She said hunger and poverty made my father became more sensitive and aggressive.
Despite of the all the effort that my mother put in, they decided to divorce. That day was my 9th birthday. I woke up earlier than usual and I saw my mother was packing her things. My father told me I should stay with him and younger sister would live with my mother. My mother said “We decided to live separately and I will live in your aunt’s house. You can come visit and see your sister and mom.” I didn’t know what to say. It was my birthday, how could my parents tell me they were going to get a divorce instead of saying “Happy birthday” to me? At that moment, I hated both of them. I thought they were brutal.
In one evening in late December, 1998, my mother went my house and told me she was going to China to restart her life. She said if I wanted to go with her, she would bring me to China. She also told me my father had made the difficult decision to allow her to take care of me in China and he would raise my younger sister instead. I was only 9 years old. All I knew about China was that it was a rich place full of delicious food and warm clothes. I was not old enough to know what it meant to escape from North Korea. I happily said “Yes” without any hesitation. My father cried a lot, but said nothing. I left the apartment that I had lived in since I was 5. I turned my head slowly and looked up at the window to our apartment. My father stood there with tears. My mother told my younger sister that she was going to my grandmother’s house and she would come back tomorrow. With a smile on her face, my sweet, trusting younger sister said “Bye-bye, mommy and older sister!” My mother kissed her forehead and said nothing, like my father did to me.
At midnight, my mother and I walked to the border. It almost took us 4 hours. We hid our bodies inside of the forest, close to the Tumen River. A soldier was running toward us and waving his hands to us. My mother said, “Run, as fast as you can!” I didn’t know what happened, I just ran like crazy. When my mother stopped running, I finally realized that the river had frozen over and there was no one following us. My mother told me we were already in China. I asked her who the soldier was. “I gave him money for guiding us to go to China. I promised him we will be back in two days. I lied to him, we will never go back to our country! Do you understand?” She said quietly, but strongly. I didn’t understand hat she was saying so I told her that it seemed like I could go back home whenever I wanted to because North Korea and China were so close. But mother said “No, we can’t!” so seriously that it made me terribly sad.
I stared at the frozen river. My home, North Korea, was already behind us.
Illustration by Camille Smithwick for NKNews.