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July 2, 2013

My Escape from North Korea

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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When Eunjin Jung reached the crowd, it was already close to to a thousand people strong. In a grassy field near her small North Korean hometown, three stakes rose from the ground like barren flagpoles. Normally, local children played soccer here, but today it would be a government execution site. At the top of a windswept cliff, the crowd jostled one another for a better view of the field below. As the executioner read the names of the three condemned men into a megaphone, Jung, a recent high school graduate, looked up in shock: she recognized the second name. There must be some mistake, she thought, terrified. They're not really going to shoot my uncle—are they?

Jung, now in her early 30s, was born under the brutal leadership of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current dictator Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s nuclear program was recently in the spotlight, when the country threatened South Korea and the United States, but a human rights crisis has been raging there for decades. After the Soviet Union (which North Korea, without much farmland of its own, relied on for subsidized trade and aid) collapsed in 1991, the North Korean government refused to risk destabilizing its choke hold over its people by opening up its economy to international trade. Instead, it has built one of the most isolated regimes on earth, allowing only state-run radio, TV, and internet so its citizens can't discover that the suffering and repression they experience—no civil rights, no freedom of speech or religion, and widespread torture and public executions—aren’t the norm elsewhere. Out of an estimated total population of 25 million, up to 200,000 north Koreans are currently in political prison camps; 400,000 more have already died there. And even after the four-year-long famine ended in 1998, in which 900,000 to 2.4 million people starved to death, access to food is still a daily problem.

"Every day after school, I'd go to the nearby mountains and hunt for potato seeds to eat," says Jung. "Only the kids whose families had money and food could play with their friends." Even the middle class can go hungry: Although Jung’s father had a stable military job, her five-member family didn’t have enough food to go around, especially since most of their money went to caring for Jung's sick mother. The thin porridge of rice, corn, and potatoes her family scraped together from government rations barely got them through the harsh winters that were often made worse when the electricity cut out, a frequent occurrence.

Still, Jung didn't know any other way of life. Because the government controls all public information (there was even a speaker in their home that broadcast a steady stream of government propaganda), and she had no reason to doubt its constant message that they lived in the world's safest, happiest country. At school and at home, Jung was taught to worship her country's leaders as gods and suspect everyone else, including her friends and neighbors, as potential threats to the regime. Each week, all North Koreans had to attend hours-long "self-criticism sessions" in government-assigned groups. "I had to write down all of my sins, like failing to clean the house well enough or neglecting my homework, and then publicly announce them to everyone," says Jung. These were often followed by "mutual-criticism sessions," where friends and family members were expected to inform one another to the group (and to the government) and suggest ways to improve. "The sessions made it impossible to forget that someone was always watching," says Jung.

One evening shortly after she graduated from high school, Jung walked into her house after her shift as a warehouse guard to find her parents in the middle of a tense discussion: Jung's uncle had been arrested for selling scraps of metal and sentenced to prison. But many North Koreans resorted to under-the-table activities to feed their families; it was simply a part of life. so a few weeks later, when Jung heard the executioner read her uncle’s name, she was shocked that he'd be killed for the infraction—and her stomach filled with dread. Her uncle's demise would doom her, too. Within North Korea's sociopolitical system, each citizen's perceived loyalty is based on her family background and determines every aspect of life: where she can live, work, go to school, and even whom she can marry. In other words, one "criminal" in the family means that every other member is guilty by association. Jung looked around at the crowd surrounding her: Does anyone realize I’m in his family? she wondered. Then the shooting began.

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