'People were having to stea...just to live... Those who were caught were shot in public;Interview;Kim Hue G-n and Huh-chan Ha

1st October 1999 at 01:00

We had to go and watch. That's what made me realise it was no place to live

Kim Hue G-n (above), 32, a marine from Shinui in northern Pyong-an province, defected in 1997, with his wife, four-year-old son, his two younger brothers, his sister and his parents.

Why did you defect?

My grandfather used to live in the United States and fought in the Korean war - he was the first Korean American to fight with the US army there. That's how I realised it was better to live in a capitalist country than a socialist one. We wanted to live in a free country. That was our dream.

In the North people are not allowed to have their own possessions, they can't buy them. When I was a teacher, I got 600 grams of rice a day and less than $10 a month in pay.

And there was a shortage of food. We had to go to China to borrow some flour. People were having to steal just to live, things like copper, which they sold just to buy food.

Those who were caught were shot. They were executed in a public place and everyone was told that they had to go and watch it. One time I saw two brothers being shot. That's what made me realise it was not the place to live.

How did you defect?

My grandmother sent me money from America via letters smuggled in from China and we bought a boat.

I was a marine in charge of earning foreign currency abroad, by selling steel, copper, silk worms and medicines, to be able to buy weapons and food from the army and navy. This enabled me to travel around China and to register this boat as a naval vessel, which meant that the navy guards who stopped us in deep waters did not inspect too thoroughly, though we had to bribe the border guards.

The family hid below deck. We took no extra clothes, just a mobile phone, one ton of rice and one ton of corn.

What were the risks?

We were afraid for our lives. If caught, we would have had to spend our lives in a concentration camp. People die there from starvation. A friend of mine's father was put in prison for 10 years for using a piece of newspaper with (then president of the North) Kim Il Sung's picture on it as a tissue.

Huh-chan Ha (below), 38, single, defected in 1994. He had been training as a spy for the Communist Party and was sent to China disguised as a student, ostensibly to study English. His real task was to educate other students in the party's ideology. This is not his real name because his identity needs protecting.

Why did you defect?

While I was in China North Korean students mixed with South Koreans who were studying there too. This is illegal under North Korean law and it was reported to the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung. He ordered an investigation and I was stripped of my job and sent to work in a city hall in southern Pyong-an province.

I was made the scapegoat because the students were all children of North Korean officials. By law, if one family member is guilty, the whole family is made responsible and sent to a political concentration camp. Four students, all from low-class families, were sent to prison.

How did you defect?

I had to do it by myself. To get to another city you have to have permission from a police station. So I had to cling to the roof of a train for nine hours. If the train pulled into a station I would hang off the side to avoid being seen by the police.

Finally, I got to the border city of Mam Po on the banks of the Yellow River. I had to swim across it to get to China undetected. I spent one and a half years in China in hiding. It was very dangerous because many agents from North Korea were searching for defectors.

Eventually I fled to Hong Kong - but I had to swim the whole eight kilometres, risking sharks, to get there. Then Amnesty International helped me and I came to South Korea.

Were you afraid?

The worst thing was that I could not tell my family I was going. They would have been arrested after I left and tortured. If they had known they could have told and would have been sent to concentration camp - the North Korean Intelligence agency can torture anyone without permission if they think they are a reactionary, and they are merciless. I worry about my family a lot.

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