Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Agonizing Trip to South Korea

It had taken Lee Chan, now 39, almost half of his life to make it to South Korea from the North.

His journey began when he was in the military at age 20 and became entangled in a dispute with a superior. According to his account, he tried to leave the North but was caught and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After his release, he held a series of jobs ranging from maintaining telephone lines to working in a fertilizer factory. His father, he said, died in the great famine of the late 1990s.

Then in late 2005, Mr. Lee made it to China and joined his mother, who had already been living there for a couple of years. After working seven months and earning enough to pay part of the fees to the smugglers, Mr. Lee made it to Bangkok and, following six months in the detention center there, arrived in South Korea, at long last.

Like all North Korean refugees, Mr. Lee was then detained for about a month by the National Intelligence Service. He was interrogated for several days before being put into solitary confinement, he said. He felt intolerably lonely, so he began keeping a diary for the first time in his life.

He wrote in a clear handwriting of his “suffocating” loneliness in solitary. With a broken television set in his cell, he wrote, “how am I going to get through the night?”

He wanted larger portions of food, but could not bear the humiliation of asking the guards, he wrote, adding that he could see “contempt” in their eyes. He longed for his girlfriend, though he could not hide his misgivings. “She lacks perseverance and temperance, just like me,” he wrote. “She cries a lot. She has the most beautiful eyes when she cries. I read in a book somewhere that if you are too emotional, you’ll have a lesser chance of succeeding in life.”

Mr. Lee then stayed for a couple of months at Hanawon, an institution that offers North Koreans a crash course on living in the capitalist South. History was retaught, including that it was the North, not the South, that started the Korean War. Mr. Lee said that he had already gleaned the truth from South Korean films and television programs increasingly smuggled in from China. Hanawon also offered computer classes.

[The New York Times]

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