A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 8/26/2011.
By Kim Young-jin
Standing on the snowy banks of the Tumen River that separates North Korea and China, in 2003, Kim Eun-joo was told by a guide not to look back toward the Stalinist country she was leaving for good.
The teenager, also caring for her younger sister, had good reason not to.
After living for years among the hordes of vagrant street children known as “kkotjebi,” her harsh life had stripped away her ability to dream.
As a child she had pilfered, hawked goods and even slept in a hole in the dirt to survive. The narrow strip of frozen water before her was little in comparison.
“There’s a saying in North Korea, ‘If you are dying, you are stupid,’” Kim said in a recent interview in Seoul, where she now lives. “You have to find your own means to survive. You don’t dream under those circumstances.”
Living in the South after finally arriving five years ago, Kim, now 25, has used those survival instincts — and a bit of help from rights groups — to shepherd herself and her sister towards a successful life.
Kim has worked as a hairdresser to put her sister through nursing school and now wants to get a degree herself, with the help of a local human rights group.
Her story will be highlighted Saturday at a special concert organized by the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), a Seoul-based NGO that helps youth defectors.
The “2011 Beautiful Dream Concert,” which will be held at the Goyang Aram Nuri Arts Center in Gyeonggi Province, will screen a short film about Kim and two other former street children to highlight the need to support youths who defect.
Her journey has been fraught with hardship.
Living not far from the northeastern city of Rason, a special economic zone cordoned off by electrical fences, Kim fell into street life after her parents separated and her mother became too ill to work.
She soon took up with other kkotjebi — literally, “fluttering swallows” — who typically sell goods, pick pockets and beg to survive. Some get caught up in prostitution.
Such children appeared in the mid-1990s after a famine that killed an estimated one million people. Shocking video footage periodically surfaces of them digging through the garbage or wandering fields for food.
Living near Rason, Kim had a better, but more dangerous option. Tunneling under the electric fence and evading authorities, she and her friends frequented hotels where she could sell eggs and potatoes to Chinese workers.
At night, the kkotjebi boys would dig a hole in the mountainside for them to sleep, heating up rocks for warmth.
She would faithfully return and give money to her mother, who was taking care of her sister. But the fact she was the only one to be living on the street began to gnaw at her, and the anger boiled over one harsh winter night.
“My mother was sick, so I was sent to my grandmother’s house at dinnertime. But even though they knew I was there, they didn’t tell me to get inside and eat. So I just went home in anger.”
Wooed by stories of a better life in China, she broached the idea to a group of friends. Eventually they set off, paying a local worker to help them. Kim’s sister persuaded her to take her along.
Telling the story of their defection, Kim, whose voice barely rises above a whisper, breaks into a smile.
On the opposite bank, Chinese children played with a sled, their voices ringing out. Without looking out for border police, the group made the exhilarating dash across the frozen water.
“For five girls to defect like that by ourselves was miraculous. We were so young and innocent. We didn’t really know what could happen if we got caught,” she said.
For defectors, especially youths, crossing the border is only the start of the challenges in leaving the Kim Jong-il regime behind.
Activists say some 10 percent of new defector youths come alone, another 40 percent with a sibling or distant relative.
Kim found housing with a family taking care of young refugees. But going to school or even leaving the house was treacherous due to China’s policy of repatriating North Koreans, who receive harsh punishment, including torture, upon their return.
An NKHR board member on a trip to China met Kim, who told him she wanted to live in the South to get her education. The group, hearing her story, eventually went back to get her, using brokers to bring her through Laos, Thailand and, finally, Incheon International Airport.
“I stepped outside and thought, ‘I hope this is not a dream,’” she said.
Through a burst of intense study, Kim managed to pass equivalency examinations. She sent her sister off to school, but with government subsidies wearing thin, Kim was unable to go herself.
There were no places like the markets where she had once skillfully hawked products to get a job. During adjustment programs and everyday life, Kim found herself having to introduce herself over and over, a daunting task for a shy person in a society that often attaches negative stereotypes to defectors.
With perseverance, however, she has been able to adjust. Her coworkers at the salon accept her as do the clientele, who ask curiously about her past.
With her sister well on her way to graduating, it is now finally Kim’s chance to pursue a career. She is mulling whether to study hair design, accounting or nursing, with full funding from NKHR.
Only one thing has threatened to take some of her time: Kim is engaged to be married to a South Korean man this fall.
“Now I have him to ask questions whenever I need to,” she said, adding that she feels more comfortable in social settings.
She said when she sees clips of kkotjebi wandering in the streets or foraging for plants, she feels deep pangs in her heart — but never shame.
“I wish they would move and find something better. It hurts to see them because I was like that, too,” she said. “But I never felt pity for myself. Anyone in that position would do the same thing to survive.”