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July 2, 2013

My Escape from North Korea - Page 2

After growing up under one of the harshest, most isolated regimes on earth, Eunjin Jung, along with her family, risked death to become one of only 146 North Korean defectors living in the United States.

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Her uncle's execution erased Jung’s social status, so 10 years later when she met Kyungsoo Kang, another low-status coworker at her job (one of his relatives had defected to south Korea), Jung reasoned that they could build a life together. They married shortly after and had a daughter, Mina.

Not long after Mina was born, Kang came home from work one day ashen with fear. "I have to report to the police," he said urgently. "I think they caught me on the phone." (A few days prior, Kang had called his family in South Korea. International calls are illegal in North Korea, but some opportunists sneak in cell phones from China and charge citizens to make a brief call.) Before Jung could say good-bye, Kang hurried out of the house. 

Terrified that her husband was being tortured, Jung walked to the police station the next night with Mina, where she made a deal with the officers: In exchange for Kang’s freedom, Jung would give them most of her salary for years to come. "It was a terrible arrangement," she says. "But I had no choice."

As the trio walked home, Jung was overcome with despair. There’s no hope of life getting better for us now, she thought. Since her uncle’s execution, the government had kept close watch over her family; now the surveillance would only intensify. Jung knew she’d never be able to set aside any income for her family. "I’d hoped that things might be better for Mina," Jung says. "But at that moment, I realized her future would be as empty as mine, unless I did something. Even if we died trying, we had to leave North Korea. Lots of people had escaped; maybe we could, too."

But despite his family’s assurances that life was better outside of North Korea, for Kang, the prospect of risking his life for the unknown was too frightening to consider. "Let's wait," he begged. "It might be safer to go in the future.” Jung was adamant that they had no other choice. "We're starving!" she argued. "Do you think things are ever going to change?"

Unbeknownst to Kang, Jung called his relative. Together, they made a plan: His family in South Korea would transfer money to a Chinese agent who would smuggle the family to freedom. (The cost of a defection broker varies wildly, but typical fees range from $1,500 to $7,500; average annual salary in North Korea is $1,000.) Jung was determined to take the huge risk. "There was a possibility we might not make it," she recalls. "But I had to try for Mina."

Defectors, so-called because they forfeit allegiance to the North Korean government merely by leaving the country, almost always travel in one direction: north, toward the Tumen River that runs between North Korea and China. (The border with South Korea is one of the most heavily militarized in the world, and, as such, is impossible to cross.) The morning of her escape, months after her initial phone call to South Korea, Jung persuaded her husband to walk north with her and Mina. Kang still didn't know about her plan, so Jung said good-bye to her parents and siblings alone. While she desperately wanted to carry a photo of her relatives, Jung knew that if she was caught, a single photo could send them to a prison camp. As they drew closer to the border, Jung told Kang the truth: "Mina and I aren’t going home," she said. "We’re crossing. Will you come with us?" Without time to let fear sink in, Kang agreed.

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