We’re in a back room of a Korean restaurant, sat around a low table contorting Western knees into a cross legged position that probably hasn’t been attempted since school assembly days. For most of us that was a very long time ago.
We’re here to listen to this man’s story of how and why he escaped North Korea, and what he thinks about things there, and here, in this leafy Surrey suburb just a 20 minute train ride from London Waterloo.
He’s a youngish looking forty-something year old. He nods at our English-speaking questions, then looks to the women on his right to translate them into Korean. Even with the ‘lost in translation’ translation, his speech holds to a regular pace. Then she translates his words about “escaping from hell” in the same way – with the even tone you might use for giving directions or reading a shopping list.
He grew up trusting the system, he says. He grew up learning that it was good, and that South Korea and America were bad. It was only when he joined the army and travelled around the country that he realised that it wasn’t just his village that was suffering.
He began to experience doubt. When asked to cook a meal for the soldiers, the only way to get food is to steal it from a nearby farm. “How could this be good?” he says. When he visited his sister, she deprived her daughter of food so he could eat. He didn’t know she had done so – only finding out when his niece, left alone, came across a bag of corn supplies, ate and drank water too quickly for her malnourished stomach, so it bloated and burst. She died, and it was then he knew he could not stay in North Korea.
He didn’t know if it would be better somewhere else. He didn’t know anything about what it would be like on the other side of the river. He couldn’t tell anyone he was thinking of trying to get out. Every third or forth person was a spy. Army personnel were required to ‘confess’ once a week on anything they had heard or seen that was suspicious.
He says he felt he had to try anyway. He says he was curious.
His crossing took four and a half hours. The water was shallow and every 50 metres there was a guard. At one point he bumps into a rock, and finds it is a soldier sleeping.
I ask him if he thought he would make it.
He says no. But he was willing to take the risk.
In one pocket he had a knife, and in the other a candy bar. You die or not, he says. Had he been caught – and he thought he would be caught – he would have killed himself. And the candy bar? He says he thought he might need to do a lot of walking if he made it to the other side. He would need it for energy.
When he reached the other side, he says he saw an apple tree, and it was then he knew he had been deceived by his country. The ground beneath the tree was scattered with rotting apples. This was unthinkable to him, he says. That food would be so abundant that it would be left to over ripen and rot on the floor.
He says that escaping takes courage. He says that that river to him represented the difference between heaven and hell.
He says he has no regrets. He says though that he thought the regime would change within 10 years and he would be able to see his parents again. It’s been nine years now, and it hasn’t changed. And his parents are getting older.
And so the story ends, and we walk back out onto Kingston Road in South West London, bellies full and collars turned up against the February cold.
I can’t stop thinking about the guts of the man – to go it alone, with a knife in one pocket and a candy bar in the other, with no idea what it would be like on the other side. Just in the curious hope it might be better.
For the latest news on North Korea, visit www.nknews.org/. To visit North Korea there are a number of tour operators who will take you in from China. Try Political Tours for an in-depth look at the place and its people.