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GLOBAL | summer 2004


North Korea: One Refugee’s Story

Choi Jin I seems like any middle-class South Korean woman in Edhae, a shopping district in Seoul, South Korea. She ducks inside a store and emerges carrying a chic handbag. “I bought this yesterday,” she says, shyly. “I’m just picking it up.”

Five years ago, such a purchase would have been unimaginable for the now 44-year-old Choi. In 1999 she defected to South Korea, where she is one of 3,000 North Korean refugees. In her former life, she had been a renowned poet in Pyongyang, North Korea. But her life had descended into tragedy under the country’s isolated, authoritarian regime.

That life had never been easy. Her alcoholic father battered her mother, who finally killed herself, and Choi learned to distrust authority from the lessons of her own home life. When she realized the Pyongyang regime was a sham, she said so. “I would say out loud: ‘Kim Jong Il is a dog.’ My friends told me to keep my mouth shut.”

She refused to write poems that flattered the regime. “There were poets whose job was to praise authority. I don’t think that’s art. I wrote what I considered art.”

In her early 20s, Choi fell in love with another poet, but he was exiled after his father attempted to assassinate former leader Kim Il Sung. Choi vowed never to marry and to concentrate on her writing instead. Nevertheless, prodded by friends, she did marry — a nuclear scientist considerably older than herself — and gave birth to a son. The marriage was hardly idyllic. Her husband’s family wouldn’t permit her to write.

Choi applied for divorce, but the government wouldn’t grant it. Worse, when her husband’s son from his first marriage was caught embezzling, Choi was exiled together with her husband’s family to the countryside — where the family promptly rejected her. “I slept in the train station. I hocked my clothes, shoes, and socks for any bit of food. My husband would see me begging in the streets and would look the other way,” she recalls.

Facing starvation, Choi crossed the muddy Tumen River to China. Since that country sees North Koreans as illegal migrants, she had little choice but to marry a Chinese man, as do thousands of North Korean women fleeing to China. They’re a valuable commodity there, since China’s one-child-per-family policy (mandated to stem runaway population growth) plus cultural preference for male babies has led to a shortage of potential brides.

“My husband was uneducated,” Choi says. He hated that I was educated. He wouldn’t let me write or even learn Chinese characters.” She left him but became involved with other men, again for survival. Her third husband was the most brutal of all, and when he started beating Choi’s 3-year-old son, she took the child and fled. She found a human rights activist who promised to lead her to South Korea — a journey involving a six-hour, icy trek. When she arrived in Seoul, she was amazed at everything: the wealth, the freedom of movement, “the line of cars flowing like a river.”

Today, Choi is earning a graduate degree in women’s studies at Ewha Woman’s University. She plans to write about her experiences. Not poetry, though. “I can’t. Not right now. I need to do something else. I need to raise people’s consciousness about the plight of women fleeing North Korea. For now, that’s my priority.”