A Long, Hard Road to Freedom

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A Long, Hard Road to Freedom

Kim Hyung-deok's road to South Korean citizenship

January 1974: Born in Pyongan province, North Korea

October 1993: Crossed the border between North Korea and China by swimming across the Aprok River

May 1994: Rejected by the South Korean Embassy in Beijing

June 1994: Arrives on foot at Vietnamese border. Stopped by guards, he is imprisoned, but escapes after 12 days. Winds up at the South Korean Embassy in Hanoi, where he's again rejected. Walks back to Shanghai, tries to smuggle himself by ship to Seoul. Caught by Chinese police

July 1994: Released by Chinese police, he goes to Tsingtao and is refused by the South Korean Consulate

September 1994: Walks to Hong Kong, is arrested there and put into refugee camp. A week later, accepted as North Korean refugee to South Korea

On the last day of August, Kim Hyung-deok graduated from Yonsei University. At 28, he was older than most of the students receiving undergraduate degrees. Mr. Kim had also likely traveled a lot farther. In fact, his road to college success had taken him from North Korea to China, Vietnam and Hong Kong, with several stops along the way for arrests, stays in prison and escapes.

It was a road to freedom that Mr. Kim had taken, and much of that road had been made on foot.

It's been a busy year for Mr. Kim. Not only is he now a university graduate, but earlier this year he took a full-time job as a secretary for Kim Seong-ho, a member of the National Assembly and the Millennium Democratic Party. And on Sept. 9, his South Korean wife gave birth to a daughter.

Just nine years ago, his life was busy, but in a far different way. When he swam across the Aprok River from North Korea into China, he was wearing rags, starving and on the run from prison, where he'd been held for stealing food and other necessities.

On this day, sitting in a cafe at the National Assembly Members Building, Mr. Kim said, "The fuss over my graduation made me sad instead of proud. It's just evidence that South Koreans consider North Koreans to be incompetent."

That may sound like grumbling, but there's truth in it: Of the 1,475 North Korean defectors in the South, 56 percent are jobless. Taking a sip of orange juice, he says, "I feel lucky and blessed."

Mr. Kim is the eldest son of his family, with two older sisters and one younger brother. He dreamed of serving his country as a respectable government worker, but his father, a native North Korean, was forced to join the South Korean army during the Korean War. This stigmatized the senior Kim and his whole family. "Because he was politically suspect," said Kim Hyeong-deok, "my father never had a chance. Nor did any of his children."

Even so, Kim Hyeong-deok did not give up. He joined a special army outfit called the "Raiders," because he was told success there might help redeem him. But he soon found out the soldiers were more proficient at theft than fighting. As the North Korean economy declined in the late 1980s and early '90s, food became increasingly scarce. High-ranking officers let the Raiders steal food, and sometimes even urged them on.

In the cafe, Mr. Kim pulled out two black-and-white photographs of his elder sister, one taken in 1984 and the other in 1996. "See?" he said, eyes red. "My sister, who used to have a healthy complexion, is nothing but skin and bones in this most recent picture. This is the harsh reality of the present in North Korea." Fighting tears, he paused as he tried to find his words.

Tired of stealing and performing simple labor instead of being a soldier, Mr. Kim eventually decided to escape North Korea. His first attempt came on Oct. 20, 1993. He was caught before he reached the Aprok River, and was put into prison. "It was nothing for the guards to take a prisoner's life," Mr. Kim said. "To die inhumanly in prison and to be killed while running away, were actually the same thing."

Ten days later, he slipped past some prison guards and swam across the Aprok in 20 minutes.

"That was," he said, "the most unforgettable day of my life."

But this was only a start. In China, he had to hide, hungry and unprotected, until he found a poor family of ethnic Koreans who agreed to give him shelter. He stayed there for six months. When he finally made it to the South Korean Embassy in China, officials refused to grant him asylum. "They said that if they accepted me, it could worsen relations with China," Mr. Kim said.

If the South Korean Embassy in China would not accept him, maybe some other nation would. So he left for Vietnam, walking all the way, barely eating. At the Vietnamese border he was arrested by guards who thought he was a North Korean spy.

After escaping from prison in Hanoi, he found another rejection by the South Korean Embassy. Frustrated, Mr. Kim tried to smuggle himself into South Korea on a Chinese ship out of Shanghai, but the Chinese police caught him and took him nearly to the North Korean border. Just before reaching the border, the Chinese officer let him go. "I don't know why," Mr. Kim said. "I just thought that heaven had helped me once again."

Walking once more, he went to the Korean Consulate in Tsingtao, and again was refused help. Finally, he made it to Hong Kong. At a refugee camp there, he applied to become a defector to South Korea. On Sept. 8, 1994, after nearly a year of traveling across Asia, he took his first step in Seoul.

"Won't you call me your brother?" Mr. Kim asked his interviewer. "I have no one to call brothers or sisters here in South Korea."

His life in the South has been a lonely one. It has not been the fantasy of affluence and happiness he had imagined. He held various kinds of low-level jobs, mostly working as a laborer at Seoul construction sites. He missed his family and worried about what has happened to them. But the hardest part of his new life came from the South Koreans who considered him just an insignificant North Korean refugee.

"I don't know why the South Koreans are so coldhearted. All they care about is money, nothing else," he said.

Desperate for a sense of family, in 1996 Mr. Kim tried to escape from South Korea. The incident became big news in South Korea, that a North Korean defector had tried to go back to the North. But that is not what really happened, according to Mr. Kim: "I just wanted to go back to China, to the ethnic Korean family who had once treated me with such warmth." He was sentenced to eight months in a Seoul jail cell.

After prison, he finally got to experience something truly different about the South - voting. "In the North, special agents with guns in their hands watch people vote," he said. "That moment voting was the first time that I actually felt deeply attracted to democracy."

And he decided to stay - for good.

Beginning in 1997, his life improved dramatically. He was accepted by Yonsei University, and joined a Christian club at school where he met his future wife, Yoo Seong-hee. They got married last year and he started working for the National Assembly six months later. He's also working on a project to improve the lives of North Korean defectors.

And what of North Korea? "The two Koreas will be reunited in a few decades," Mr. Kim said, finishing his orange juice. "I am sure of it. I just can see North Koreans so unhappy of their conditions and unlike the past, it's not easy for Kim Jong-il to deceive his people while he has no food to feed them."

Thinking back on his life since leaving the North, reflecting on his new daughter and his new degree, he said, "I'm so overwhelmed that I can't put my feelings into words. But I can tell you this: For me, this is only the beginning."

by Chun Su-jin

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