I met my husband, Oh-jooyean, in 1996, while working in a market near my hometown of Yonan, North Korea. I was 22 years old; he was 26. A year later, we went to the police station to get married. We stood before an officer and pledged to love each other, live peacefully together and forever love and respect our eternal leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
We settled in the northern province of Yanggang-do, not far from Baekdu-san, a famous snow-topped mountain that’s mentioned in our national anthem. Like everybody in our town, we lived in a “harmonica” townhouse—a type of building consisting of a long line of attached one-room cells. We didn’t have a fridge in our room, and we rarely had wood for heat. My husband and I worked in a factory or farm field—wherever we were assigned—and we survived on rations and a measly wage that was barely enough to buy a kilo of rice. We grew whatever vegetables we could in a small plot in front of our house and foraged for plants in
Our daughter, Hae-kyung, was born the same year we married. She had big, beautiful eyes. Even when we had no food, I was always happy looking in her eyes. Like most kids in our town, she suffered from malnutrition and was very small.
When Hae-kyung was six years old, I got pregnant again. That’s when I started thinking about the river. I remember going to visit my sister-in-law, who lived about a 30-minute walk from us and close to the Tumen River, part of the border between our province and China. The river was only about 50 metres wide at that point, and every time we visited I would think about slipping across—which people often did, to sneak money or food back into our country.
One day in December, I decided to give it a try, even though I was nearly nine months pregnant. I wanted to buy my daughter a new pair of shoes as a New Year’s gift. I waited until it was dark and the area was clear of patrolling soldiers, then waded across a shallow part of the river and made my way to the closest town.
I returned to the river the following night, with shoes and a bag of rice. I’d made it most of the way across before a group of soldiers spotted me. They yanked me out of the water, and one of the soldiers, thinking I was smuggling money or drugs under my clothes, hit me hard in the stomach with the butt of his gun. When I collapsed, he hit me on the side of my head, crushing the front of my skull, and I passed out.
I woke up about a half-hour later, covered in snow. I could see the soldiers off in the distance. They must have thought I was dead. I stood up and started running, trying to make it back to my sister-in-law’s house. I made it to the door and threw the rice and shoes inside just as the soldiers grabbed me. I pleaded with them to let me go, but because I didn’t have money to bribe them, they took me to the police station and locked me in a tiny cell for two days without food or water. It was so small I couldn’t stand or lie down, and my stomach ached. I knew I was losing my baby.