North Korean defector: ‘I wish I can go back for a day’

In part two of a series on North Korean defectors, Al Jazeera speaks to NG Hyeong, 81, who fled during the Korean War.

korean defectors nam gyu hyeong [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Nam Gyu Hyeong doubts he will ever be able to go back to his hometown in North Korea [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Seoul, South Korea – Around 31,000 North Koreans have defected to 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.

READ: Part 1 – ‘Korean government doesn’t treat defectors as people’

In part two of the series on North Korean defectors, Al Jazeera speaks to 81-year-old Nam Gyu Hyeong who fled as a 14-year-old student during the Korean War and worked his way up as a lawyer.

He now owns a section of the Naemdaemun market in South Korea’s capital Seoul. 

“It was 1950 and I was a 14-year-old student. The US military was stationed near my town near Hyesan city in North Korea.

“One afternoon, me, my 40-year-old cousin, his son and some seniors from school hopped on a military truck. We made it as far as the Geoje Island south of Busan where we were kept in a refugee camp for a year.

“There were too many people in the camp so some of us were signed up to live with local families around the camp. The family I stayed with took really good care of me. 


“In South Korea, I didn’t feel different and never received different treatment for being a North Korean.

“After we left the camp, we went to Busan before one of my seniors, who was kind of a police chief there, helped me out. I was just hanging out in the area for around two years and just getting by.

“I then worked as an official in a small town in the North Chungcheong Province for a decade. While working, I would study at night and managed to get a law degree from Chungbuk college.

“I then moved to Seoul and worked in a court for about four years before deciding to start a business with my friends. 

“Things moved well from there on and I’ve been here in Naemdaemun market for three years now. My business partner has passed away and I now own this market.

“I don’t remember much about my hometown in the North. I left my family there. My parents are probably dead but my sister and cousins might still be there. I haven’t been in touch with anyone since I fled.


“I still keep in touch with the people that I fled with. Four of them have died. And because we’re old and busy, there aren’t that many opportunities to meet up.

“There used to be a lot of gatherings among defectors from the North but I guess the new generations don’t really care too much.

“South Korea has been really nice to me. It’s given me so much and I feel happy. I wish I can go back for a day and see my hometown but I doubt much of my family is left. I just want to see what has changed and what life is like now.

“But I doubt that would be possible.”

As told to Faras Ghani and Hae Ju Kang. 

Source: Al Jazeera