The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story (27 page)

The border between North and South Korea is narrow, and the distance from Pyongyang to Seoul is barely 120 miles. Yet the two countries are as far away from each other as any in the world. I thought of my mother and Min-ho. I had called them on New Year’s Day. Min-ho gave me the upsetting news that our mother was in the hospital. She had severely scalded herself at home. This added to the confusion of guilt and loss I was feeling.

A hydraulic whine, and the wheels were being lowered for landing.

Would I ever see her again?

PART THREE
Journey into Darkness
Chapter 37
‘Welcome to Korea’

I joined the crowd of disembarking passengers, not knowing where to go or what to do. It felt like a race. People wheeling carry-on luggage scurried away as fast as they could. A few peeled off into the restrooms, and I wondered if they, like me, were buying time before some encounter with destiny at the immigration barrier.

For so long I’d thought of my arrival in Seoul as the end of a long personal journey. I had not given much thought to what would happen once I’d got here. I found myself dashing along with everyone else, in small nervous steps. A sign coming up ahead directed any transit passengers away from immigration. My ticket would take me to Bangkok, if I wanted a way out. My stomach was filling with butterflies. I breathed in, slowed my pace a little, and committed myself to the confrontation ahead.

The crowd fanned out into lines behind the immigration counters. I joined one for foreigners. We moved steadily forward, one person every minute or so, until there were five people standing in line between me and the immigration officer. My mouth was dry but my palms were sweating. I had no idea what I would say to him. With a mounting anxiety I watched him look carefully at each person, scan their passport, check a screen. Four minutes and it would be my turn. I heard the commotion behind me and saw the line lengthening as passengers arrived from another flight. When I turned back, the line had moved forward again. Only three people in front of me. I was starting to feel stage fright, and embarrassment.
Two people in front of me.
There was no way of avoiding a public spectacle when I stepped across the yellow line and declared myself an asylum seeker.
One person in front of me.

My courage failed.

I left the line, and went right to the back.

As I stood there I noticed a room over to the right. Through an open door I could see officers in navy uniforms working at computers, and three people sitting in front of them – two women who looked Southeast Asian, and a man who looked Chinese. I guessed there was something wrong with their documents.

This would be less embarrassing than the immigration counter. I walked into the office. No one looked at me.

My heart began beating so fast it made my voice sound strange, like a tape recording. ‘I’m from North Korea,’ I said. ‘I would like asylum.’

The officers all looked up.

Then their eyes drifted back to their screens.
The man who had looked up first gave me a tired smile.

‘Welcome to Korea,’ he said, and took a sip from a plastic coffee cup.

I felt deflated. I had thought my arrival would create a drama, but at the same time something primal in me reacted. He had just used the word
hanguk
.

North and South Korea refer to themselves by different names in Korean. The South’s name,
hanguk
, means country of the Han, a reference to the Koreans’ ancient ethnicity. Its official name, in English, is Republic of Korea. The North calls itself
chosun
, a name that derives from the time of Korea’s Joseon Kingdom. Its official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Such is the hatred and ignorance created by a bloody history and by propaganda that we in the North grow up associating ‘
hanguk

with
enemy,
and all things bad.

‘Well done for getting here,’ he said. ‘Please wait a minute.’

He returned with two men in the same navy uniform, and a woman in a dark skirt suit. One of the men carried a small scanning device. They asked for my passport and scanned it. They shook their heads and tried again. Something wasn’t right.

‘Are you really North Korean?’ the woman said. When she’d addressed her male colleagues she had not used honorific forms of address. This convinced me that she was the senior one, the intelligence agent.

‘I am.’

‘Your passport and visa are genuine,’ she said. ‘North Koreans don’t come here with real passports. They have fakes.’

‘It is a real passport, but that is not my real identity. I’m from North Korea.’

I realized with alarm that she thought I was a Korean-Chinese pretending to be North Korean so that I could get citizenship in the South.

Then my hand luggage caught her eye.

‘This Samsonite is real, too,’ she said curtly. ‘It’s not a fake.’ I hadn’t noticed the Western trademark so I didn’t understand why she called my case ‘Samsonite’. I had bought it because it looked sturdy. Later, I learned that South Koreans are very brand-conscious. Only foreigners and defectors carry fakes. She looked me in the eye, as if she’d caught me in a lie.

‘Tell the truth now,’ one of the officers said. ‘It’s not too late.’ His tone was half threatening, half friendly.

‘I am telling the truth.’

‘Once you submit to an investigation by the NIS there’s no turning back. If you’re Chinese, you’ll be jailed, then deported to China,’ he said.

The National Intelligence Service was the agency that processed North Korean arrivals. I had heard that if they deported me there would be a huge fine to pay in China. There was also a risk that the Chinese authorities would discover my deception and return me to North Korea. I had made it to South Korea and now I was not being believed?

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

The man continued. ‘Tell us the truth – right now. You won’t get into trouble. We’ll let you go back to Shanghai.’ He paused to let this option sink in.

‘I am telling the truth. My name’s Park Min-young. I’m willing to be investigated.’

Even the truth sounded strange and dubious to me. I had not used that name in more than a decade.

‘All right.’ The woman shook her head. ‘It’s your decision.’

I spent two hours being questioned alone by her in a windowless room, and watching her taking notes. When I thought we’d finished, two other men in suits and open-necked shirts arrived. They were older, one in his forties; the other, with steel-grey hair, in his fifties. From the way she greeted them, I understood that they were her superiors. Then she left. The men started questioning me all over again, from the beginning. They also didn’t believe I was North Korean. The older man had an aggressive edge to his voice.

By this time I was tiring and getting hungry, and starting to lose the thread of the questions.

The irony
. In Shenyang, I’d had to convince suspicious police that I was Chinese, not North Korean. Here, I was trying to do the opposite.

After two more hours they told me we were going to the NIS processing centre in Seoul. They led me through a side exit to a waiting car and driver. By now it was early evening and dark. I had been at the airport for five hours. The vehicle was a gleaming civilian car that smelled new. I sat in the back with the younger man. We drove past the terminal building and looped around on a six-lane highway lit sodium amber by the streetlamps.

‘This is the way into Seoul,’ the younger man said. He was the nicer of the officers who had questioned me. His steel-haired colleague in the front said nothing.

I tried to assess my situation.
I’m not in jail. They haven’t put me back on the plane
. That counted as progress. This thought was quickly superseded by a less comforting one.
What would my friends back home think if they knew who I was with right now?
To North Koreans, the
Angibu,
as they call the NIS, was the sinister agency behind all road and rail disasters, building collapses, faulty products, supply failures and unexplained fires. Many people executed in North Korea, especially high-ranking cadres, are accused of having aided the
Angibu
.

‘We’ve been busy,’ the man said. ‘This is our second trip to the airport today. Just before you landed, 150 North Koreans arrived and are now being processed.’

‘How many?’

‘One hundred and fifty. Each week we’re getting about seventy from Thailand and about the same number from Mongolia and Cambodia.’

They were experiencing the biggest-ever surge of defectors, he said, caused by a huge crackdown on illegals in China – part of a social clean-up before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

He asked me what I felt about the country I was now in, and started giving me basic facts about life expectancy, healthcare, average income. It sounded like a spiel he’d given many times. His aim was to puncture the false beliefs learned from propaganda – that people here are impoverished and persecuted, that the American soldiers stationed in Seoul gleefully kick children and the handicapped. North Korean propaganda is so grotesquely over the top that, in debunking it, the South Koreans have no need to exaggerate. As long ago as the 1970s, when South Korea began rising towards the major league of world economies, all it took for North Korean defectors to unlearn decades of propaganda was a tour around a Hyundai automobile production line, or the Lotte Department Store in Seoul. This even worked with highly indoctrinated commandos captured after failed secret missions to the South.

We were driving in fast rush-hour traffic along the Han River near Yeoido, a high-rise business district; great work-hives coruscated with light. I looked up and saw a vision of plated gold glass, which I recognized from TV dramas.

‘The Sixty-three Building,’ the agent said. ‘A landmark. Sixty-three floors. We don’t build them too high, or they’d be targets for a North Korean attack.’

So much light. So much wealth.

All this had been going on while I was growing up, less than 300 miles away to the north. I shook my head as the full realization of where I was struck me. For a moment I felt so excited I could hardly breathe. I was on the other side of my divided country. I was in the parallel Korea. It was vital and real: compared with the sloth and gloom of the North, the energy and light everywhere was astounding me.

We arrived at the monolithic processing centre of the NIS. Armed sentries stood guard outside. The huge gate opened automatically without a sound, and I felt my excitement wane. My ‘real investigation’, as the agents put it, would soon begin.

Chapter 38
The women

I spent my first night in Seoul in a general detention room shared with about thirty North Korean women. The moment I entered, faces turned toward me, and I knew I would have trouble. Most of the women were older than me. Their eyes took in my fashionable Shanghai clothes, and I saw resentment. I had come straight from the airport. They looked as if they’d spent years behind bars. Straight away, one of them demanded that I give her my clothes.

About twenty of them, I learned, had indeed just come from prison. They had escaped on an epic journey across China to Thailand, where they had been jailed by Thai police before being released to the South Korean embassy. The experience had brutalized them. They lost no time in making sure I learned every detail. Some 300 women had been packed into a space built to hold 100. Often, there wasn’t even room to sit. If they didn’t have cash to pay for a good spot, newcomers had to sleep next to a stinking latrine. In these conditions, tempers were continually at boiling point, and fights broke out. The Thai authorities released only a few detainees each week, so the wait lasted months. Since pregnant girls were given priority, some of the nastier women accused them of being queue-jumping sluts who’d deliberately conceived en route to Thailand. These accounts shocked me. I had thought that once defectors had made it out of China to another country they could safely claim asylum. But in many of the women’s stories, the real nightmare had begun only once they’d left China. The exceptions were the few women who had escaped via Mongolia, where the authorities had treated them well, housing them in decent facilities with their own kitchens.

Violence was so casual among the women that the NIS guards had warned them: physical fighting was a criminal offence and would hinder their progress toward South Korean citizenship. Despite this, heated rows erupted almost every day in our room.

Almost all of them considered me soft, and a fraud. ‘You would never have survived Thailand,’ was a common snipe. ‘You’re not North Korean, are you?’ was another. ‘You look and sound Chinese.’ I let them believe whatever they wanted – I owed them no explanation – but their attitude saddened me deeply. They were on the cusp of freedom, yet their negativity was so caustic it could have dissolved the bars on the window. North Koreans have a gift for negativity toward others, the effect of a lifetime of compulsory criticism sessions.

Lesbians were a frequent topic of conversation. In the humid crush of bodies in the Thai women’s prison, I learned, everything took place in public, including sex.

The dominant woman in our room was a large, imposing figure with hair cropped like a soldier’s. The others referred to her as The Bully. She’d established her primacy in the Thai prison by physically assaulting any challengers. I was told she was a lesbian, and that her girlfriend was in a separate room. The woman herself was candid about it, and made her attraction to me plain.

This was the first time I had ever known that North Korea has gay people. I am embarrassed to admit that I had thought of homosexuality purely as a foreign phenomenon, or a plotline in TV dramas. One woman in the room told me that homosexuals in North Korea are sent to labour camps, that they suffer alone and cannot even confide in their families. I had not known this either. In fact, this was the first of many things I was to learn about my country. My political awakening was only just beginning.

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