The North Korean Defector

What Kim Hyuk has carried with him on his harrowing journey from the streets to the speaking circuit.

21420_130621_ThingsCarried_Web_201.jpg
21420_130621_ThingsCarried_Web_201.jpg

Kim Hyuk, 31, can divide his life into two parts -- one for each side of the divided Korean Peninsula. These days, he lives in a small studio apartment 50 miles south of Seoul. He holds a master's degree in public policy and gives speeches about his experience on behalf of the South Korean Ministry of Unification. But growing up in Chongjin, a factory town in North Korea's frigid northeast, he was a street beggar and illicit cross-border trader, dashing into China to pick up iron and jewelry that he could sell back home. Arrested after one of those night raids, he spent 20 months in a North Korean "re-education camp," where meals were fist-sized helpings of corn husks and leaves.

When Kim escaped for good on Christmas Eve 2000, crossing the Tumen River -- the same route used by defectors today -- he left what remained of his family and possessions and began a perilous 353-day journey through China to Mongolia, whose border police ferry refugees to freedom in South Korea. He took with him only a couple of clothing items, some vitamins, 100 Chinese yuan (about $12), a lighter, a razor, and a safety pin. "The lighter, because I smoke," he explains. "The razor, you can use to slash yourself. And the safety pin, you can use it for getting out of handcuffs. You can also use it for suicide if you swallow it. If I had been repatriated to North Korea, I would have tried to kill myself."

When he arrived safely in the South, Kim was treated as any other defector: with an interrogation by intelligence officials and a mandatory stint at Hanawon, a government resettlement facility. It was this time of transition that he says ranks among the toughest. He has built a new life now, but he's still not sure what remains of those he left behind. His mother died when he was young, and he figures his father and older brother died of starvation, though he's not certain. These are the few things Kim acquired as he went from one life to the next.

Kim Hyuk, 31, can divide his life into two parts — one for each side of the divided Korean Peninsula. These days, he lives in a small studio apartment 50 miles south of Seoul. He holds a master’s degree in public policy and gives speeches about his experience on behalf of the South Korean Ministry of Unification. But growing up in Chongjin, a factory town in North Korea’s frigid northeast, he was a street beggar and illicit cross-border trader, dashing into China to pick up iron and jewelry that he could sell back home. Arrested after one of those night raids, he spent 20 months in a North Korean “re-education camp,” where meals were fist-sized helpings of corn husks and leaves.

When Kim escaped for good on Christmas Eve 2000, crossing the Tumen River — the same route used by defectors today — he left what remained of his family and possessions and began a perilous 353-day journey through China to Mongolia, whose border police ferry refugees to freedom in South Korea. He took with him only a couple of clothing items, some vitamins, 100 Chinese yuan (about $12), a lighter, a razor, and a safety pin. “The lighter, because I smoke,” he explains. “The razor, you can use to slash yourself. And the safety pin, you can use it for getting out of handcuffs. You can also use it for suicide if you swallow it. If I had been repatriated to North Korea, I would have tried to kill myself.”

When he arrived safely in the South, Kim was treated as any other defector: with an interrogation by intelligence officials and a mandatory stint at Hanawon, a government resettlement facility. It was this time of transition that he says ranks among the toughest. He has built a new life now, but he’s still not sure what remains of those he left behind. His mother died when he was young, and he figures his father and older brother died of starvation, though he’s not certain. These are the few things Kim acquired as he went from one life to the next.

Chico Harlan is the Washington Post's East Asia correspondent based in Seoul.

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.