‘Father of defectors’ on life after North Korea

In part one of the series on North Korean defectors, Al Jazeera speaks to YH Kim who fled his country in 1988.

korean defectors school
North Korean children are given free classes on the premises to help them settle down in South Korea [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Seoul, South Korea  Around 31,000 North Koreans have defected into South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Almost 71 percent of those defectors are female, most in their 20s and 30s.

Only a few take the most dangerous route through the Korean Demilitarized Zone that a North Korean soldier took late last year.

Most of the North Koreans defect via the long and expensive journey that takes them into China after crossing the Yalu River.

This journey takes the individuals to China’s southern border into Vietnam and Laos before they arrive in Thailand.

They are often flown into South Korea from Thailand. Some even opt to go to the US, according to Liberty in North Korea, an NGO based in the US and South Korea.

But their arrival into South Korea does not signal an end to their worries and problems.

In the first part of the series, Al Jazeera speaks to Kim Yong-hwa, 64, who fled North Korea in 1988, formed the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea in Seoul to look after those who continue to arrive and face difficulties settling in and is hence called by some as the Father of Defectors.

“I joined the Korean People’s Army in 1970 but left to work on a railroad safety project a decade later.

“In 1988, there was an accident and I was [accused] of not being loyal to the state. If I had stayed, I would’ve been shot in public just like the four others who were also blamed for the accident.

“So I fled to China before going to Vietnam, where I was caught carrying a gun. I got help in escaping but was caught again by the police who put me in a detention centre. There were only two flights a month to North Korea, so, while at the centre, I assaulted an officer with a food tray and was sentenced to two years in prison.


“I spent almost two years there and then managed to escape by attacking a guard who came in to give me food.

“If you’re trained to be like a captain in the army, you have the basic navigation skills. I managed to arrive in Laos, where I was again caught and sent to a labour camp where I spent nine months, surviving only on sugarcane and bananas.

“I managed to escape and entered China by crossing the Mekong River. I had no food and survived by eating snakes on the way. I then met a Korean couple which gave me money that enabled me to buy a boat and that’s how I arrived in South Korea.

“But then I was accused of being a spy and imprisoned again. I was then accused of being Chinese and managed to run away. In 1998, I escaped to Japan but was imprisoned because someone told the authorities I was a spy. 

Park Jung-oh looks after the evening classes that take place for North Korean children [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Park Jung-oh looks after the evening classes that take place for North Korean children [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

“I got very ill and kept fainting. Fortunately, there was a civil group that heard my story and helped me get released. I was then given Japanese residency and in 2001, I finally arrived back in South Korea.

“The Korean government doesn’t treat defectors as people and the society isn’t interested in them.

“I founded the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea in 2005 after an incident in Gangwon province where a female defector died in a car accident and her body was placed in the refrigerator for 20 days and not given funeral. No one wanted to deal with that.

“The Ministry of Unification gives around 200,000 Korean won ($188) as a funeral fee for each defector, but that’s not adequate and extremely disrespectful because a lot of them don’t have a family here. If they die, they’ll die as mummies.


That’s why I decided to make this organisation which also provides study space for young defectors or children born to North Koreans.

“Our group sends money, clothes and medicine to defectors who are having a difficult time in China. There are a lot of young women in China who are sold in the sex industry or as wives. Men are also treated as slaves and they’ll be forced to work on farms but won’t be given any money.

“I’ve saved almost 6,000 defectors so far and the media calls me the ‘Father of Defectors’. But the job isn’t done yet.

“I don’t know where my family is. I heard through people that they were killed after I fled. I didn’t speak to them after I fled North Korea.

“It’s really hard to imagine that the situation in the North would change. It’s not something that could happen in my lifetime. But if the Kim Jong-un regime was to fall, I would take my weapons across the border and take revenge. But for now, I don’t think I will waste my time thinking about something that will probably never happen.”

As told to Faras Ghani and Hae Ju Kang 

Kim Yong-hwa doubts humanitarian aid will reach the North Korean people [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Kim Yong-hwa doubts humanitarian aid will reach the North Korean people [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera