The World Bureau brings together Youth Policy’s Youth and Justice page with The Chicago Bureau, a collaboration of professional journalists, university faculty and students who report news vitally connected to international youth issues. Here they bring us a rare glance into North Korea, the oft maligned “hermit kingdom” about which so little is known. Through the stories of young people we are invited to consider the complexities of the nation, and offered an unusual glance at Western society
I first meet Yeon Hwa Kim, 27, and Hyo Seong Choi, 23, in front of the blood sausage stand where they work at the local Korean supermarket in Northern Virginia.
I’m stumbling over my Korean and glancing at my mother, hoping she’ll translate what I’m trying to say. The two look at me without much expression, almost confused, while I tell them I’m a college journalism student who wants to discuss their escape from North Korea and talk about refugee life in America.
Kim’s face melts into a smile and she agrees to do the interview. She says she gets how tough college is and then asks, “But why’d you chose such a difficult topic?”
Kim, a petite figure with a pale face made even more so by the contrast of her straight black hair, meets me in a café the next day. Her makeup is precise with crisp lines drawn just above her eyes, and she’s dressed in a loose, baby blue T-shirt and skinny jeans.
My mother is with us again, and she offers to pay for the iced coffee that Kim has just ordered. They argue, kiddingly, but given the tradition in Korea that the older generation typically picks up the tab, my mother ends up paying.
Still, the brief protest is a show of manners learned back home and carried over in a society that sometimes pays no mind to them. Choi hangs back, watching with a wide grin. He has a square face and messy hair, dons a white T-shirt and brown cargo pants and looks like he just woke up.
The stories begin.
Kim left North Korea at 15 when, she says, “life just seemed so hopeless,” and both describe a stretch from the early 1990s to the early 2000s when at least a million North Koreans starved to death. The deaths reached their peak during a two-year period from late 1996 to 1998. And North Korea’s chronic food shortage is far from over. According to the United Nations,North Korea’s grain production will drop 13 percent this year due to heavy rain and flooding.
But before the 1990s, Choi and Kim say there was plenty of food to go around and they were told the government threw away extra meat.
This surprises us – my mother, especially, because she was born in the early 1960s, a little less than a decade after the Korean War; she had always been told North Koreans were starving under Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il’s predecessor.
So any association of North Koreans with a high quality of life amazes my mother and me. Kim and Choi laugh at the look on my face. Is this the first I heard of it, they ask? I suddenly felt naïve as I nod ‘yes’ in response.
One morning when she was 15 years old, Kim says she woke up and her mother wouldn’t let her leave the house. For years, Kim would wake up only to hear of the death of another neighbor; her grandfather and aunt starved to death. But on this morning, her mother made sure Kim stayed inside until four bodies, the family of Kim’s friend from elementary school, had been cleared from their living room.