It is not often that an opportunity comes around that we immediately realize is special. There are those rare occasions, when we are invited into a home, or meet someone with an interesting story, where we realize how lucky we are to be in that place at that time. One of those situations came about when we met a North Korean defector during our Korean DMZ Tour.
Our DMZ tour left Seoul and made a few stops on the way to the ultimate destination, the Joint Security Area. One of our stops was at the Mt. Odu Unification Observatory, which sits on top of a hill overlooking the confluence of the Hangang and Imjingang Rivers. On the other side of the rivers sits North Korea. There is a small museum, with information about the history of the war, the DMZ, and a lot of hope for the future.
It was also the spot where we could see into North Korea. Unfortunately, it was a dreary day, and we could barely see across the river. Our guide provided some detailed explanations though of the, essentially, Communist propaganda villages across the way on the North Korean side. They are there to give off a vibe of prosperity, but instead, they are empty, derelict, and obviously not the haven that the North Korean government had hoped they would be.
What was most interesting about our stop at the observatory, though, was the special guest who our Korean DMZ tour company arranged to join us.
Hearing the Story of a North Korean Defector
There are only a half dozen companies who are authorized to take tourists to visit the DMZ, and our company is the only Korean DMZ tour company who has a North Korean defector on their payroll. At first, I wasn’t sure what this meant, until we stopped at the observatory. We were asked to sit in a mock up of a North Korean primary school, with everyone sitting on tiny wooden chairs.
Our guide introduced the North Korean defector, a lovely woman, whose name we were asked not to share, and whose picture we were asked not to put on the internet. She didn’t speak English, but spoke through the guide, who provided a brief history of what she did to escape North Korea, with her daughter, mother, and sister. She escaped into China, then Laos, Cambodia, and ultimately Thailand, where she was then brought to Seoul. She left her husband behind, who had a position in the government, meaning her daughter now lives without her father.
Having not only taken great risk to escape from North Korea with her family, and leaving her husband, the woman continued to relive the stories, by answering many of our questions, quite frankly. She offered her views on the Communist propaganda that exists in North Korea, and the access to information that is now seeping across the border. Information is getting through, on the black market. North Koreas are slowly starting to learn how comfortable South Koreans live, and that the United States is not as evil as it is made out to be.
She looked back almost fondly on the reign of Kim Il Sung, when North Koreans had enough food to eat, and it seemed that the centrally planned political and economic system worked. In the last few decades, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and under the guidance of Kim Jong-Il, things took a drastic downturn. More recently, famine spread, and the people are often left unsure where their next meal will come from.
She had a business in North Korea, essentially selling products on the black market, to save up some money. When she had a good amount of money saved, the government instituted a currency devaluation, making all of her hard work just disappear. This is about when she decided to save money to make their escape. She worried about her daughter’s future in North Korea. In Seoul, she said she is able to have a business, to have money, to have freedom, a mobile phone, to send her daughter to school – things that many of us take for granted.
Towards the end of the Q&A, someone on the tour asked how her daughter felt, being separated from her father, possibly forever. The woman broke down in tears, and the room became heavy with emotion. She could not answer the question at first, although she found some words eventually, offering up the hope that they will be reunited in the future. It was a touching moment.
She left our tour after lunch, because she cannot visit the DMZ itself. Actually, no South Korean citizens are allowed to take a tour to the JSA, particularly one was a North Korean defector.
When she left our tour, I made sure she knew how brave she was, not only for escaping North Korea, but also in continuing to share her story with strangers. It was brave of her to take the risk in sharing her experiences, to help us understand what it is like just across the border.
This was not part of the program for the tour we originally booked. It is only offered by one of the tour companies. I consider ourselves lucky that we were able to spend the few minutes with her that we had. How often do you get to engage in that kind of dialogue with a North Korean defector?
We were supported during our stay in South Korea by the JW Marriott Seoul, although they have no direct affiliation with the tour company.