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N. Korean Refugee Finds Freedom but Loses Family on the Way

October 27, 2002|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL -- It was bitterly cold in his North Korean village the night of April 8, 1997, Yu Sang Jun recalls. With no heat, he huddled under a flimsy blanket with his 4-year-old son, Chul Yoong. It had been days since their last meal, watery soup boiled from grass. For five days, they had been too depleted to move.

Early in the evening, Yu heard the child say: "Daddy, I want some noodles." Father and son drifted back into a hazy sleep. When Yu awoke, his son's body had grown cold.

Close to death himself, Yu hugged his son and slipped into unconsciousness.

The next morning as the sun rose, Yu's older son, Chul Min, 7, summoned neighbors. Officials of their farm cooperative in northeastern North Korea rolled the boy's body in a futon and took it away -- another victim of a famine that had killed one in every 10 people in their village of 800 and propelled as many as half a million people across the border into northeastern China.

Yu's mother had died three months earlier. His wife, weak since the birth of their younger son in 1993, had moved in with her parents, a five-day train ride away, where food was more plentiful -- at least for a while.

During the famine, Yu's family subsisted primarily on what a rabbit would eat. Some villagers also ate mice, snakes and cicadas. Schools, which had fed lunch to the children, were closed.

Yu rose each morning by 4 a.m., foraging in the woods for roots, bark and leaves before scrambling to report to the farm for the morning meeting. Farm workers listened to the proclamations of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, before heading into the barren fields.

Around sundown, Yu and the boys would eat their grass soup. They would go to bed, Yu says, "as soon as the spoon hit the table."

In a sense, Chul Yoong's death offered his father and brother a chance to live. Village officials gave them about a pound of tofu and several pounds of rice mixed with cheap grains from a small stash they kept in the school. Yu distilled some of the rice into liquor and sold it. Hearing that there was plenty to eat across the border in China, Yu sold the rights to his three-room house for the equivalent of $8, bought shoes for Chul Min and some food, and they left forever.

Traveling in North Korea requires government permission, but Yu sneaked aboard an old train and hid his son in a bathroom. The train was so crowded on the 17-hour trip to the Chinese border that Yu could hardly breathe. The train halted for about five minutes before pulling into each station. Yu would jump out a broken window, then get back on when he was sure the police checks were completed.

Father and son spent a night hiding in a field near the border, where North Korean guards passed within 100 yards of their hiding place. Rain, fog and new spring leaves shrouded them.

As the guards changed shifts at about 7 a.m., Yu grabbed his son and they ran piggyback through 30 yards of icy, waist-deep water, emerging not far from the Chinese city of Sanhecun. Peasants passed by on ox-drawn carts but spoke only Chinese. Chul Min walked beside his father or occasionally rode on his back, but never complained.

Finally, they spotted a woman in traditional Korean dress, one of the millions of ethnic Koreans living in northeastern China. She and her husband fed them a lunch that included the luxury of pure white rice. They gave Chul Min dry clothes. A bus driver allowed them to get on without paying, their emaciated frames an instant giveaway.

Over the next few years, Yu herded cows, made cement, guarded ducks and did other jobs. He dodged police and moved often. He learned that his wife had died back in North Korea.

The nomadic lifestyle wore him down, and Yu agreed to leave Chul Min with a Korean American missionary.

Relying on South Korean Chun Ki Won, Yu escaped to South Korea, where he worked in a chemical plant, a steel mill and a succession of other places, finally earning enough to pay a "broker" $4,200 to locate Chul Min in China. When he did, he asked Chun to help return the boy to him.

Chun included Chul Min in a group of 19 people he brought to the Mongolian border. There, he divided the group in half to make the North Koreans less obvious. But one group got lost for two days in the desert heat.

Chul Min, 10, died of dehydration.

Another member of the group slung the boy's body over his shoulder and brought it to Mongolia, where sympathetic border guards buried him.

After winning permission from the South Korean and Mongolian governments for Yu to travel, Chun took the boy's father to visit the grave.

They erected a wooden cross. Yu huddled over the grave and wept. In keeping with Korean custom, he burned some of his son's clothes.

Free in South Korea now, Yu is self-effacing, conscientious -- and depressed. Other North Koreans have had it worse, he says, and it has ruined them.

"Many lost their humanity -- down to the very depths of their soul because of the famine," he says. "Their hearts have been destroyed."

In China, Yu's thoughts were of survival and escape. "I had that hope, but now I don't have it any more," he says. "And I've lost all my family.

"I feel like I'm dying."

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