Ri Il-shim, now 15, is an honor student in Seoul. Back in November 2005, a 12-year-old Ri shivered as she crossed the frozen Duman River dividing China and North Korea. The bitter cold only partially explained why she was trembling. She was making her third attempt to escape from North Korea. After crossing the river with her two brothers, she hid and waited for the sun to rise.
When Ri was 8, her mother disappeared and her father forced her to quit school and took her to a remote mountain village to do farm work. When autumn came, her father crossed the Duman River with his three children. A week later, they were caught and sent back to North Korea. The family spent 80 days in prison.
Her father disappeared a year later, and Ri and her brothers were put in solitary confinement. Unidentified people came to their cells and beat them until they bled, but Ri and her siblings said nothing about their father. A year later, they were told that their father was in South Korea.
In October 2004, they crossed the Duman River for the second time. She and her brothers stayed in a strange room for several days. Other North Korean defectors also began gathering in the room and their number almost reached 100. A man took the money he received from the defectors and ran away. Worse, he reported them to Chinese police. Despite enduring more beatings, Ri was determined to escape again.
Eventually, Ri and her brothers made their third attempt. The three siblings and eight other North Koreans reached the border between China and Mongolia, and walked and walked in the middle of the vast desert.
After eventually arriving in South Korea, Ri was placed in fourth grade at an elementary school. Since Ri had had no chance to study in North Korea, she could only read and solve simple math problems at the time. She stayed up all night trying to memorize everything she learned at school. Because she never forgot the hardship she endured, she quickly improved her grades and emerged as one of the school’s top students.