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July 2, 2013

My Escape from North Korea - Page 3

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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The Tumen River fluctuates from 65 to 785 feet wide, and it’s not too deep to cross in a few minutes by wading or swimming, but if defectors are caught, they risk execution, torture, or imprisonment. A baby's cry could alert the border guards, so parents sometimes drug their children with opium or alcohol to keep them quiet. Instead of doing that, Jung put her life in a 2-year-old’s hands. Huddled on the riverbank, she looked her daughter in the eye. "If you make a noise, Mommy and Daddy are going to die," she said simply. "Do you understand?" Mina nodded, and Jung hoisted the little girl onto her back. Together, they stepped into the freezing water onto the slippery rocks. As Kang rushed alone across the river and into China, Jung and Mina struggled not to fall into the waist-high tide. 

"At that moment, everything I had been taught about Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il being gods just disappeared," Jung says. "It went out of my system. I decided to forget them and make a new life." She regained her balance and carefully made her way through the water with Mina. They stepped onto the far bank and crawled through a hole in a metal fence. They had made it to China. 

With the help of their broker, Jung and her family began a 2,000-mile journey across China—by bus, car, and foot—to Southeast Asia. Days later, they finally arrived at a safe house operated by liberty in North Korea, a nongovernmental organization that helps North Korean defectors. For the first time in her life, Jung knew she was safe. "I felt happy," she says of her time at the shelter, where her family gorged on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "But the memory of the family I left haunted me every day." One afternoon, she looked out through a window of the shelter and noticed a group of stray dogs eating leftovers. In North Korea, she would have done anything for a meal like that. 

After a few months at the shelter, her family boarded an airplane to the United States, where they were granted refugee status. (Although North Korean propaganda portrays Americans as violent monsters, the friendly American employees at her shelter dispelled Jung’s fears about the U.S.) "I don’t want Mina to have the same scars that I have," Jung says of her decision to move to an unfamiliar country. "I want her to flourish."

The family moved into a mobile home behind a Korean church in the western United States, and Jung began working 12-hour shifts as a dishwasher six days a week. Life isn't easy; she makes ends meet with food stamps. But those are minor challenges compared with what she's overcome. She dreams of becoming a seamstress and finds support in her newfound Christian faith. But it's the small freedoms that have surprised Jung the most, like the option to choose from a hundred varieties of canned soup, the right to own a cell phone, and the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a car. "In North Korea, you don't see women driving,” she says. “But I did it. I was circling around the parking lot, and all at once this breath of freedom came. I was just so happy." Mina, now 3, watches cartoons in English; Kang hopes to find a job as a chef. But every time Jung sees a waiter throw away plates of leftover food, her chest still tightens a bit—she thinks about her family in North Korea every day. "Someday, maybe, I will see them again,” she says. “If we use the same energy and mentality here that we used in North Korea just to survive, then we could be anything."

Editor's note: Because the North Korean government has a history of retaliating against defectors' families, the identifiable details of this story have been reviewed by Liberty in North Korea, a non-governmental organization that works with North Korean defectors.

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