Defecting North Korean Soldier Recounts Escape After Family Dies of Famine

Defecting North Korean Soldier Recounts Escape After Family Dies of Famine
A former North Korean soldier and farmer who defected in order to give his son a better life tells The Guardian his story — one of complete submission to his government and near-unimaginable loss for one lifetime.

Writing under the pseudonym Ryu Ki-ho, as the author admits to currently working in South Korea to foment rebellion in North Korea, the author describes how he slowly lost every member of his family to famine —  including his oldest son, who died on the desert route out of China to South Korea. Ryu notes he dedicated 11 years of his life to the North Korean military, where “life was surrounded by strict rules. I had never heard of the phrase ‘human rights.'” He noted that military life required even more submission to Kim Il-Sung, then the leader of the communist nation, than civilian life.

Ryu was denied a university education on account of having a family history in South Korea. As a result, he returned to the farmlands of his childhood, where his entire family save his oldest son died of famine. The famine was not a result of lack of food, necessarily, but of an absurd rural program called “pigs for presents,” in which all rural families were forced to pay outrageous sums of money for a pig to give to the military.

Ryu escaped with his eldest son to China, but the crippling fear of being deported made him thirst for true freedom in South Korea. He left his son in the care of friends and left for years to South Korea. When he finally received word that he could bring his son, after establishing himself as a refugee, he received the news: his son had died in the desert. “My son was left by himself in the desert and died on my birthday,” Ryu writes.

Like many survivors, Ryu is currently involved in activism in South Korea. He uses balloons to send literature encouraging North Koreans to rebel across the border and, though anonymous, continues to tell his story. The story aligns with many of the harrowing narratives of the few who escape North Korea’s brutal communist regime. Among the most prominent of refugee activists, Yeonmi Park, a 21-year-old who escaped with her parents, tells stories of watching her friend’s mother executed for watching a James Bond movie, and of her mother being raped in front of her in order to save her from Chinese extortionists.

In a speech at the One Young World summit in Dublin, Park insisted that the situation in North Korea is “like the Holocaust”: “We ignored it, and we said ‘never again,’ but now it’s happening again, and we are ignoring it.”