I Fled North Korea to Buy My Mom’s Freedom
At just 15 years of age, Joseph Kim crossed a frozen river he thought might electrocute him to escape North Korea so he could buy his mother’s way out of prison.
As I walked beside the rails, I began to catalogue everything I’d ever heard about people who had escaped North Korea. Most refugees tried the border at night, I knew, when darkness hid them from North Korean guards. I was aware that guards often shot escapees who ignored their warnings. They were notorious for that. And Chinese soldiers often patrolled the far side of the river and sent the refugees back if they caught them. I heard that some escapees committed suicide rather than return.
Not many people tried crossing the border in Hoeryong; security was too tight. Most people went across farther north. I briefly considered that, but it was too far to travel and came with too many risks. I didn’t want to ford the Tumen at night, either. I was still afraid of the dark. Another thing that worried me was that, growing up, I’d been told many times that the river itself was electrified with 33,000 volts of current. I didn’t know if that was possible—my understanding of electricity was woefully lacking—but I also wondered if the ice-covered water would be too dangerous to try.
The sun was high overhead. Maybe no one expects people to escape at 1 o’clock on a clear winter afternoon, especially during Kim Jong Il’s birthday week.
The farther I walked, the closer I drew to the river. Soon I could see China, a gray smudge across the ice to my left. Now the argument in my head became all in favor of going. Mother needs money to get out of prison. I’ve run out of places to go for more than one night. Why not risk my life for a chance at something else? I’ll get money and return home and buy Mother’s freedom.
I didn’t want to examine my motives too closely. Whom was I running away for, my mother or myself? If I thought too much about that, I might discover something cold inside me.
I just said to myself: I have no other choice.
As I walked, the highway came into view to my right. A hundred yards up that road was a security checkpoint manned by North Korean soldiers—“tiger skins”—with automatic rifles. They checked the IDs of every driver and of the few walkers who came by. I expected they would stop me and my little adventure would be over. I would have to turn back toward hunger and isolation.
I walked on, stepping on the wooden ties that secured the steel rails to the earth. No one stopped me. I couldn’t see any soldiers milling around near the railroad tracks either. Where had they gone? Had they chased someone into the woods? With every step, my heart trembled a little more. If I’d known the Bible at that time, I would probably have thought of Moses parting the Red Sea. But I could only think of getting a bullet in the back.
Twenty yards more. My heart louder. Nothing. No one.
I was ten yards from the point where the track swooped right along a curve in the bank. The security checkpoint hovered in my peripheral vision. I saw figures now, but no one called to me. Instead of following the curve of the tracks, I stepped quickly to the left and scooted down the bank toward the river, twenty yards away. The ice covering the water was hidden by tall rushes and trees.
I ran to the little copse of trees and pushed my way through them. I dug my shoes into the silty soil at the river’s edge, getting enough dirt on them to steady my way on the ice. I’d often played on river ice as a boy. I knew how to walk it.
Am I doing this? I thought. Is it real? I was breathing hard from excitement. The absence of soldiers seemed like an invitation to escape. It was as if the universe had arranged itself for these particular five minutes to leave the border open to me.
But I was paranoid. What if it was a trap? What if the soldiers had hidden themselves in the rushes so as to entice me into escaping, and were waiting to pounce? I almost fell over in my hurry.
I broke through the last line of reeds and rushed onto the ice. China was seventy yards away. I knew the ice was thin in some parts. I’d heard of people falling through in a dash for freedom and freezing to death. Their bodies were found downstream in the spring, bloated and rotten.
A noise sounded behind me, a long, drawn-out yell. The soldiers! I glanced back in terror. It wasn’t the tiger skins at all but people driving on the highway. They’d seen me and called out, “Whooooooaaaaaah!” I thought, Are they yelling to the guards? But no, they’d just never seen anyone try to escape in the daytime. Their yells were sounds of pure surprise.
I ran toward the center of the river, the sand on the bottom of my shoes scratching at the ice. The opposite shore was bouncing in my vision. I was shaking with fear but making good progress. The ice, I’m sure, groaned beneath my weight, but my ears were filled with the sound of my heartbeat. Just let me make it, I thought. Just let me get there and I will be able to live for the first time in so long.
I slipped and ran across the ice, the tails of my coat flapping in the breeze. The roars of the people on the highway grew more and more distant. I reached the opposite shore and dashed for the tall reeds growing out of the mud. I had to catch my breath. It was as if I’d dared myself to do something I never thought I’d try—and I had done it. I was in China. I was shaking with nerves and excitement.
Excerpted from Under the Same Sky © 2015 by Joseph Kim with Stephan Talty. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.