My Brilliant Korea

Life after North Korea: Seong-hee's story

Blogging | July 9, 2012

I dunked the tea bags up and down, then reached into the fridge for some milk.

“Would you like to try milk in your tea, Seong-hee? It’s how we do it in Australia”.

Seong-hee looked a little startled by the suggestion, but grinned, and then nodded enthusiastically.

“Yeah, milk in tea, it can be a new experience”.

In the big scheme of Seong-hee’s life, milk in tea must be one of the smallest risks she has ever taken.

The biggest would be boarding a small boat to China alone in 2003, leaving her country of North Korea, never to return again.

I first met Seong-hee when she attended Far East University for a summer program in June of last year and, at the time, I desperately wanted to interview her about her life.

How had she come to be here?

Did she miss North Korea?

Had she travelled to South Korea alone? Where were her parents?

I was fascinated to think that despite our similar ages, she, 28 at the time, and I, 30, our lives had been so vastly different that we might as well have grown up on neighbouring planets.

Despite my desire to speak with Seong-hee, I never worked up the courage last summer to ask her if she would agree to an interview, mostly because, a year ago, her face would cloud over at the mere mention of North Korea.

I simply hoped that one day she would trust me enough to talk about her experiences.

That day was today.

And so begins her story.

Seong-hee grew up in the North Korean capital of Pyeongyang, the daughter of her police officer father and art professor mother.

She had, she says, a wonderful childhood.

“I was always very happy,” she says.

“My mother and father had a good relationship. I had two brothers, and since I was the only girl, I was the favourite”.

Since her family had money and power, Seong-hee and her brothers never went hungry.

They enjoyed a diet very similar to that of those living across the border in South Korea, eating rice, noodles, fish and kimchi every day.

She was known as something of a soccer star in the city, which helped to ensure her popularity among her fellow students.

She studied hard, and remembers winning school quizzes, which involved correctly answering questions related to North Korea’s self-declared eternal leader, Kim Il-sung.

In school she was led to believe that Kim Il-sung was something akin to a god among men.

Although the Korean alphabet, Hangul, was created by King Sejong in the mid 15th century, Seong-hee and her classmates were taught that it was in fact Kim Il-sung who had master-minded Hangul.

When North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994, the position fell to his son.

The country was poorer than it had ever been, but Seong-hee’s family was counted among the lucky ones.

As her father was a policeman, and her mother had a position of prestige at a local university, Seong-hee’s family continued to be given food and money from the government.

Seong-hee says she had heard rumours of people starving outside of Pyeongyang, but never believed it until she saw it for herself on a trip to her grandmother’s house.

“That was the first time I realised that life outside of Pyeongyang was not good,” she says.

“I saw many hungry people. I didn’t understand why they had no rice, no food. I didn’t understand at all.

“They were very thin. I saw some people trying to feed a baby but he had already died so he couldn’t eat the food.

“I was so surprised, I thought wow, it’s real”.

In 2003 Seong-hee’s mother orchestrated her daughter’s escape from North Korea.

Her mother knew some Chinese people who owned a boat, and Seong-hee walked out of her home, without even a bag, boarded the boat, and sailed to China.

When she stepped off the boat, she could speak only two words of Chinese.

“I could say “yes” and “no”, she says.

The then 19-year old quickly became completely overwhelmed and began planning her move back to North Korea. It was around this time that she learnt that her father had passed away.

“I bought clothes for North Korea and prepared some North Korean money,” she says.

“I was very homesick. I missed my friends, my brothers, I missed the food and my house. There were many things and many reasons I wanted to go back.

“But my mum refused to allow me to come back, she said I must stay in China”.

Seong-hee cried every day, but gathered strength from her daily one to two hour telephone conversations with her mother.

She would send gifts, such as cakes and clothes, back home on special occasions.

After she had been in China for two years, Seong-hee’s mother caught her friend’s boat to visit her daughter in China.

Upon her return to North Korea, Seong-hee’s mother was arrested and held in custody for eight months, after a neighbor spoke to police about her suspicious movements.

“My mother had never experienced anything like that before, and she caught a disease while she was in prison,” Seong-hee says.

Seong-hee’s mother died two months after she was released from custody.

“When my mother passed away, I was filled with disappointment and sadness. I thought if I didn’t come here, maybe my parents would still be alive”.

Seong-hee still wonders about the fate of her brothers, but no longer misses her life in North Korea.

These days she studies Chinese language and culture at one of South Korea’s most prestigious institutions, Yonsei University.

When she graduates, she hopes to set up an online business, exporting baby clothes to China.

South Koreans cannot tell that she is different by her face or clothes, only by her voice.

People often try to guess what South Korean province she comes from, and they usually guess the region, Gangwon-do.

“So I just say, yes, Gangwon-do,” she says.

“If I say I am from North Korea, they have so many questions. The questions never stop.

“But if I say Gangwon-do, the conversation finishes”.

Seong-hee, who is currently dating a South Korean journalist, says she hopes she will have children one day and plans to tell them about her heritage.

“I want to tell them my original nationality, because they need to understand their identity,” she said.

“I want to say to them that these are my experiences, because I am proud of what I have done”.

I tell Seong-hee that I have been wanting to speak with her about her experiences for some time, but had previously been unsure if she would want to speak with me.

“Your face seemed dark when I mentioned North Korea a year ago, how were you feeling on the inside?” I ask her.

She nods thoughtfully and takes a final sip of her milky tea.

“I think maybe a year or two ago, I was still very shy to talk about that.

“But now I’ve changed my mind, my mind is open.

“I am free”.

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About Blythe Seinor

When Blythe was a journalism student at the Queensland University of Technology she interviewed the former Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid.
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