Mother’s Day by John Burgman
Behind one man’s extraordinary defection from North Korea was one extraordinary woman.
By John Burgman
Not long ago, I met my friend Joseph for coffee at a sandwich shop on Jongro, one of Seoul’s busiest thoroughfares. Joseph is originally from North Korea, but he had carved out a nice life for himself in South Korea, snowboarding, playing monthly pick-up soccer games with other North Korean defectors in Seoul. Six months earlier I had left my job in New York and traveled to South Korea largely fueled by my interest in the life stories of North Korean defectors like Joseph. I had interviewed many of them to better grasp the obstacles they encountered on their journeys. Some of the anecdotes I’d heard were unpleasant—friends lost or abandoned, education struggles—while others were uplifting. Some defectors I’d spoken to had landed good jobs in South Korea and were happily starting careers after living as poor refugees for a long time. But what often roused me the most in all the life stories was the degree to which family bonds held strong, the relentless devotion and tenderness that dwelled at the core of so many otherwise horrific memories. And no single person embodied this more than Joseph’s mother, which was exactly why I wanted to meet Joseph and learn more about his mother’s life that day.
It is no secret that family life in North Korea can be particularly awful. Even though the North Korean government, in genuine communist style, supplies meticulously rationed food to its people, it’s rarely adequate for everyone, and was especially insufficient two decades ago when North Korea’s self-sustaining approach began to show some major defects—a period of time known in Korean as gonan-ui hengun, “high-difficulty season,” but known as Arduous March to much of the English-speaking world.
Joseph recalled people in North Korea trying to raid his grandmother’s potato garden during the period, and he remembered other people trying to steal firewood, which caused ongoing anxiety for his family. This was at a time when Joseph was also busy at school, memorizing the curricula about leader Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Every young student in North Korea is required to pass a test to enter the lowest rung of a communist youth party. More tests—and more rungs—continue for years and lead ultimately to the most exclusive communist groups in adulthood.
The parents of North Korean youths, whether they internally agree with such systematic indoctrination into the world of North Korean communism, must support it. “A lot of adults in North Korean society had realized long ago that the whole system was broken, the ideology was broken, and they wondered what the government was doing” Joseph told me. “But the children, since we were getting brainwashed, believed it.”
It was practically unthinkable to rage against the system, as there was simply no alternative, no other known ideology to turn to. The freedom to think outside the political box did not exist, and for all intents and purposes, neither did a world outside of North Korea’s mountainous and rugged borders.
Except China. China existed in a big way to Joseph’s family and other North Koreans, as there had long been some mutual back-scratching among the two countries that continues to this day. North Korea, for example, imports many of its goods from China, since many other nations simply refuse to do substantial business with the country. China, in return, has an informal agreement to deport North Korean defectors back to North Korea. While there is a South Korean embassy in China, where North Korean defectors can gain asylum, it is heavily guarded by Chinese police—just waiting to catch defectors before they can reach the sovereign embassy property. A recent news piece from Amnesty International reinforces this, stating, “China considers all undocumented North Koreans to be economic migrants and if caught, forcibly returns them to North Korea where they risk incarceration in the political prison camp system where conditions remain horrific.”
The moral of the story for North Korean defectors in China, as a result, is: Don’t get caught in China. Which was exactly what happened to Joseph’s mother in 2003, and for all intents and purposes, she should be dead right now.
“I am proud of my mom,” Joseph said. “My mother always thought about family. She was very strong, and she always wanted to make wise choices for the family. It’s due to her decisions that I am alive today.”
Joseph’s mother, who sometimes goes by her chosen English name, Grace, was now quite removed from the original life she knew in North Korea. She was born five years after the end of the Korean War, and had a modest childhood in the North Korean countryside. As a young woman, she got a menial job near her hometown in Rajin, and it was there that some of the earliest seeds of travel and escape were planted. “My mother never mentioned her childhood much,” Joseph told me. “But I know she worked at a hotel. The hotel was open to foreigners. People from Russia and China stayed there. Foreigners and people working on foreign investments.”
When Joseph’s mother was old enough to change jobs, she became a fish vendor in the inland North Korean city of Hwoe-Ryeong, where she eventually met and married Joseph’s father. Joseph’s father was a famed painter of Kim Il-sung propaganda billboards all around town, and together the two started a family. Joseph, who also has a sister, remembered the family being happy initially, but always hungry. “My parents were good parents when I was very young,” Joseph recalled. “Our house was modern enough, my sister and I would get new toys. At that time, there was enough money in our family. Especially my mother—she tried very hard to do the best she could.”
Daily life was simple and actually manageable for a while. Joseph and his sister studied hard, played games like hide and seek, soccer, and a popular Korean Hacky Sack-type game called jaegee-chagee—games that required no electronics, batteries, or electricity, which were scarce commodities. But Joseph got the sense that his mother and father were masking the economic strife that had fallen upon their family and many other North Koreans by the mid-1990s.
“I started to see more people starving in the streets,” Joseph recalled. “As time went by, I’d see more and more people. I could see people who we would call goet-jaebee, which is a term for beggar children. I could see them in their dirty clothes, especially in public market areas. They were homeless because their family had sold all they had.”
The hardship culminated with Joseph’s mother leaving the family and defecting into China to find something—work, help, money, or food—but not before making a big promise. “My mother promised me and my sister that she would return to us in North Korea in three years,” Joseph recalled. “She said, ‘Wait for me.’” It was a monumental assurance, as slipping into China was a potentially capital crime. Joseph’s father, as well, went secretly into China, leaving Joseph and his sister alone.
When Joseph was 16—exactly three years later—his mother kept good on her promise and returned to North Korea the same way she had escaped—by covertly crossing the Tumen River. But Joseph’s father was not with her. Joseph’s mother and father had separated in China—something that was explicitly forbidden to do in North Korea.
“In North Korea, my parents hadn’t been legally allowed to divorce,” Joseph said. “But my family had become very unhappy. My father drank. There wasn’t enough food, so everyone was angry. I saw the abuse as part of life in North Korea. My parents would argue, and sometimes my father would hit my mother or throw something at her. I would try to separate them. But there’s a different mindset in North Korea—North Korean police think domestic abuse is just a family problem. ‘Solve it as a family.’ Once my parents were in China, they didn’t feel like there was a reason to stay together. They just didn’t enjoy being together anymore.”
Joseph credited his mother with having a clear vision of an ideal future for the Joseph and his sister. “She had a strong feeling that we would all starve in North Korea. Either way—going to China or staying in North Korea—we could die. But my mom thought it was better to go and try to survive than to lie down and die in North Korea.”
Joseph, his mom, and sister now planned to defect as soon as possible into China. Life in North Korea held no promise, only foreseeable poverty and famine.
In less than a week, all three of them were crossing the ice-cold Tumen River into China, their wet clothes literally freezing within seconds of exposure to the air, Joseph’s mother leading the way.
“The main thing I was feeling was the danger,” Joseph recalled. “I never thought I was betraying my country by leaving because it had been so hard to survive there. Even though I had been brainwashed, the strongest feeling I had was that I had to stay with my mom. Family is more important than national pride.”
But the dangers of the single night almost pale in comparison to the tireless work on the part of Joseph’s mother to ensure safe passage of the whole clan from China to South Korea.
“From what I guess, only about 1 out of 10 defectors in China reach the South Korean embassy by jumping the embassy walls. Most get stopped by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea and executed,” Joseph told me.
With such bad odds, the idea of the whole family leaping the embassy walls, even out of desperation, was out of the question. Instead, Joseph’s mother saved money for an alternate plan.
“I don’t know how she saved enough money, to be honest,” Joseph admitted. “I think a lot of the money probably came from missionaries. She found a broker in China who took my sister and I on a boat to Laos, and then on another boat on the Mekong River to Thailand.”
Once in Thailand—first hunkered down at a rustic coastal outpost, and then in a church—Joseph and his sister were able to make connections with aid workers, gain unblocked access to the South Korean embassy in Bangkok, and eventually fly safely to asylum in Seoul, South Korea.
Joseph’s mother, however, who hadn’t had enough money to join the broker’s river caravan to Laos, had been forced to stay behind by herself in China, where things were about to get more grim.
“After my sister and I arrived in South Korea, we contacted my mom in China to tell her that we arrived safely,” Joseph said. “And my mom told us that she hoped to join us soon.”
It wasn’t to be. First, Joseph’s father, now fully estranged from the family, was caught in China and sent to a prison in North Korea for defectors. Joseph eventually got word that his father died in the prison, which Joseph attributes to the underfeeding and constant stress of prison life in North Korea.
But secondly, while trying to arrange passage out of China, Joseph’s mother was accosted by Chinese police as well. She was arrested and sent back to North Korea too.
“If you were a North Korean defector and you get caught in China,” Joseph explained, “you got either ‘blue-stamped’ or ‘red-stamped’ by the Chinese police. If you were just trying to live peacefully in China, you’d get a blue stamp, which was like a misdemeanor—maybe only a couple years in a North Korean prison. But if you were caught trying to leave China, or caught with a broker, you’d get a red stamp—it was much more serious, and likely meant execution.”
Joseph’s mother was able to finagle officials into giving her the lesser sentence, although that still meant serving arduous prison time in North Korea.
One of the requirements of North Korean prison life for Joseph’s mother was to work in the fields with dozens of other prisoners. It was backbreaking labor under the scorching sun—the type of grueling manual labor that likely contributed to the death of Joseph’s father while in prison. And the fieldwork, Joseph’s mother knew, could kill her as well. But it also had an unexpected perk.
All the prisoners, en route to the day’s task, walked past a train station. At one point, they saw that a train was just starting to exit the station, so a large group of the prisoners, fueled by desperation, made a run for it, and tried to jump onto the train.
There were only two North Korean guards in charge of all the prisoners in the field, now in charge of stopping the mass escape party. As a result, over a dozen prisoners successfully hopped the train as it was pulling away from the station. However, the prisoners hadn’t considered that the train itself might be housed with security guards, which was exactly the case. The ticket inspectors walking the cars happened to be military men, and thus the whole escape was quickly squelched for all involved.
But Joseph’s mother wasn’t one of the prisoners involved. In the mêlée and chaos, she had a hunch; the same instincts that had kept her alive throughout her life were leading her away from the group. Rather than running with the masses to the train, she ran the opposite direction, into the woods surrounding the labor field.
It would prove to be one of the boldest moves she would ever make. She continued running and walking all night, enduring unfamiliar terrain and rough forests, as well as the ever-present fear of likely having authorities hot on her trail. But she had an advantage that many North Koreans on the run did not have—a network of people. Many North Koreans never leave the district in which they are born, nor meet many people beyond their immediate community. But Joseph’s mother knew people in other parts of the country; her job as a fish vendor in Hwoe-Ryeong, practically a lifetime ago, had allowed her to make connections with other vendors, secret clients and customers and traders. As a result, she was able to gain refuge that night in a home belonging to someone she knew from those long-ago days, a friend who now gave her money for a train ticket.
Disguised in new clothes—as opposed to the prison attire she had been donning—and with her body covered in cuts and blisters from the wilderness trek, Joseph’s mother purchased a train ticket to her grandmother’s house in the countryside. There, she spent a month recovering from the malnutrition of prison life and the harshness of her escape from it. When she felt healthy enough to continue her journey, she made the defection that she was now quite familiar with—across the Tumen River into China, her fourth time crossing the perilous water.
This time, the results would be different. Once again in China, Joseph’s mother eschewed the southbound route to Laos and Thailand, and instead went northeast into Mongolia, safely connected with a South Korean embassy there. She set foot in South Korea in 2004, but would still struggle for years to keep Joseph and his sister on the straight and narrow path there.
Such abrupt assimilation from a Cold War upbringing to a megacity like Seoul was a difficult pill to swallow for the whole family. Joseph, in particular, often got defensive at the new society that seemed to be moving too fast for him to keep up. “I got into a lot of fights and arguments because of cultural misunderstandings, or people looking down on me for not knowing things that are basic to South Koreans,” Joseph said, referring to things as substantial as operating high-tech cars or as simple as pizza and other foods that were unknown to him. The fights landed Joseph in handcuffs and police custody at least 10 times to his recollection, and at times resulted in the U.S. equivalent of more than a thousand dollars in fines.
But Joseph’s mother was a stalwart example of how to endure the adversity. “My mother always encouraged me,” Joseph said. “She didn’t complain about things. She didn’t complain about the wrong things I did. She would tell me to learn from everything and take everything as an experience.”
What gradually resulted was a global worldview on Jake’s part, thanks to his mother’s vision. “My mother was open-minded. She wanted me to try new things. She saw a desire to travel as something acceptable. Her thinking was that we had lived in North Korea in hardship, we had lived in hiding from the police in China. We had experienced all that, so why wouldn’t we be able to overcome any obstacles that came our way in another country.”
Joseph’s interest in traveling grew, as well as an interest in learning English, and a desire to study auto mechanics in other countries and work on exotic foreign cars. He developed a hope to someday use the skills to better serve a reinvented version of his North Korea homeland. “I don’t necessarily think that unification [between North and South Korea] will happen soon. But I do hope for it,” he told me at the sandwich shop on Jongro. “And if—or when—unification happens, I could go back to my hometown. I could be a frontrunner for the foreign car business in North Korea, since there isn’t one right now. So in a small way, I would help build the country in that way.”
When I was given the chance to meet Joseph’s mother face-to-face a few days later, it was on a warm night in a suburban district of Seoul. I had taken an hour-long train to get there, after which Joseph picked me up on his motorbike and zipped through the evening traffic, to the apartment he was sharing with his mother. With it all added up—transferring trains, coordinating our schedules, weaving between cars—the meeting felt amplified, like a pursuit of a celebrity. But when we arrived and I was finally introduced to Joseph’s mother in the apartment doorway, there was no arrogance about her, thankfully no superstar aura. She was wearing a black long-sleeved shirt, barefoot and simply lounging after a long day. “She’s usually wary of journalists,” Joseph said to me. “But I told her about you, and she said it was OK for you to come here.”
We sat in the main room of their apartment, a cozy wood-paneled space, and ate apple slices and talked. I thanked Joseph’s mom for allowing me into her home.
“At this point, it has been a long time since I lived in North Korea,” she said. “Now I try to forget the North Korean life. And I forget a little bit more each day. I want to forget it.”
Joseph was hoping to eventually move into his own place somewhere, in one country or another. Still, despite the success of their North Korean defection, there were hard financial troubles for Joseph and his mother. There was the ongoing stress of supporting a way of life from the ground up. Part of the reason why I couldn’t meet Joseph’s mother in previous days had to do with her grueling work schedule—working until 10:00 pm or even midnight. Joseph also kept busy with his studies.
For now though, the routines of South Korean life were comfortably familiar. Joseph had recently joined a weekly English language study group at the British consulate in Seoul. His mother had, I was surprised to learn, quit her insurance job that week. She was planning to open a restaurant in a month.
Joseph’s mother cooked a dinner for us—roasted pork and sprouts, and fried rice cakes called injolmi, all prepared in the way they would be in North Korea. I asked Joseph how he would celebrate the upcoming Parents’ Day holiday, the South Korean equivalent of Mother’s Day in time and sentiment.
“I’ll probably give her a little present,” he said. He thought to himself for a moment. “She really likes houseplants. One time for Parents’ Day I cooked her a meal. And one time we went out to eat. I don’t have a plan yet. Something small.”
Joseph and I were talking casually and more broadly about global trips by the end of the night—my long-term travel to Asia to interview North Korean defectors about their cross-national treks, and Joseph’s own interest in seeing many countries. We were, in essence, concurrent in the wonder and challenges of completely changing one’s scene for a wholly different scene, regardless of our backgrounds and circumstances being as different as they possibly could be.
“At this point, I’ve visited 10 countries in total,” Joseph said, counting them on his fingers. He was reflective, thinking about his future hopes and planned passage to Australia. “But you know, it wasn’t really traveling for me, for any of us—it was more like survival.” He paused. “I think now I’m ready to travel.”
John Burgman is a former magazine editor and Fulbright journalism grant recipient. His writing has appeared online and in print at Esquire.com, The Rumpus, Boundary Waters Journal, and other outlets. He received an MFA from NYU. He currently lives in South Korea.
Follow him on Twitter: @John_Burgman.