Escaping from North Korea doesn’t automatically bring easy life
July 4, 2008
SEOUL — No matter how smart North Korean defector Han Chang-kweon was, his family had decided his fate years before he was born.
Two of his uncles fought against North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. Another was a police officer for the hated Japanese colonial government, which ruled Korea from 1910-1945.
Han was earmarked as nabbun chulsin sungbun, or someone from an undesirable background.
He studied hard to compensate for his family history and became an acupuncturist.
But Han wanted to leave, and he bribed officials to send him to a remote North Korean-operated logging camp in Russia in 1992. At the time, he said, North Koreans believed their military would invade the South in 1995 if the two countries hadn’t reunited by then. Although Han, like the rest of his countrymen, believed North Korea would win the war, he didn’t want to fight for a nation that he felt had abandoned him.
Han escaped the logging camp in late 1992. He told officials he was going to Siberia to buy work tools, but took an eight-day train to Moscow instead.
"I almost had a nervous breakdown from worrying about being arrested," he said. He went to the South Korean embassy in the Russian capital expecting to be sent to the South, but was turned away. As he left the embassy, officials told him to come back in 10 years when the two Koreas reunited.
"Hide," they told him.
So Han went to Uzbekistan and worked as an acupuncturist for two years. In 1994, he went to the country’s new South Korean embassy and was among the first North Korean defectors to be accepted into the South.
But when he arrived in South Korea, he said, authorities interrogated him for six months and beat him daily with sticks, boots and other objects. He wasn’t allowed to sleep, and was forced to make written and oral confessions to acts he had never done, he said.
"They shouted that they were going to burn us to death and feed our ashes to the pigs," he said. "By that time, everybody deeply regretted coming to South Korea. They felt North Korea was better than this. You just did not want to do anything but take your life and end this life."
Officials told him they were trying to separate the spies from the defectors.
A spokeswoman for South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said the agency has never tortured defectors.
Han left South Korea in 2004 to seek exile in the United States. He traveled across the Mexican border into the Arizona desert, where he was caught by the U.S. border guards. After six months in a detention facility, he was allowed back into South Korea because the country didn’t want to hurt its image, he said.
Today, Han lives in a tiny government-run apartment in a neighborhood populated by defectors. He heads the Association of North Korean Defector Organizations, which represents 28 defector groups.
He learned after settling in Seoul that his family had been taken to a rural area of North Korea because he had left. His mother, brother, and 6- and 7-year-old sons starved to death, he said. He doesn’t know what happened to his wife.