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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

North Korean defector in her 20s: ‘I didn’t want to die like that’

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Kang Gyuri (24, alias), a defector who arrived in South Korea by crossing the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in a wooden boat last October, shared her experiences on June 21 at the 2024 Unification Cultural Event “Connecting at Cheonggyecheon” talk concert held at Cheonggye Plaza.

She explained that the hardships faced by North Korean residents had worsened significantly due to the pandemic.

Having completed her education at the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, Kang appeared on stage wearing sunglasses and a hat to conceal her identity while speaking with Minister of Unification Kim Young-ho.

Kang, who personally experienced the changes in North Korea after the COVID-19 outbreak, explained that the border closure cut off the supply of Chinese consumer goods, and the North Korean authorities stopped grains sales in local markets, or “jangmadang,” leading to skyrocketing prices.

 

Kang Gyuri (24, alias), a North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea by crossing the East Sea in a wooden boat last October, listens to a question from Minister of Unification Kim Young-ho during the 2024 Unification Cultural Event “Connecting at Cheonggyecheon” talk concert held at Cheonggye Plaza on June 21. [YONHAP]

“The number of people starving to death increased because they couldn’t afford food, and many of the ‘donju [masters of money]’ went bankrupt,” she said. “Those who had stockpiled Chinese goods before the border closure were the only ones who benefited.”

Additionally, Kang reported that the North Korean authorities significantly intensified crackdowns and punishments related to South Korean and other foreign cultures, maintaining strict control.

For example, young people, influenced by South Korean dramas, preferred using the southern speech style over the traditional North Korean style in conversations and text messages. However, by 2022, due to increased crackdowns, using the South Korean style became nearly impossible.

“I saw 19, 20, and 23-year-olds I knew being executed by firing squad for watching foreign videos,” she said. “I didn’t want to die like that.”

She compared life in North Korea to “having your face wrapped tightly in plastic wrap with only a few needle holes for breathing,” describing it as suffocating and painful.

When asked if she was afraid when escaping, she replied, “The attempt for freedom itself made me very happy. When we arrived in Sokcho, a fisherman who found us asked where we were from. When we said we were from the North, he welcomed us warmly, which made me feel emotional and brought tears to my eyes.”

BY JIHYE KIM, YOUNGNAM KIM   [kim.jihye6@joongang.co.kr]