Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. ~ Alfred Lord Tennyson (Ulysses)
This is the story of North Korea, that is the darkest in the world at night and equally disturbing during the day. Of its 30 million people and one Choe Yong Taek who dreamt of freedom and food for all.
“Let us cross the border tonight. This is our last chance, everyone has left, what do we have here.?! Can you imagine the life we will have just 15 kilometers across the border.? Come on friend, let’s do it, let’s swim the Amnok tonight.” Jang Song-rim pleaded with his friend as night fell in the border city of Sinuiju. The vivacious and brightly lit city of Dandong was just across the border in China, a safe haven and popular spot for defectors and refugees from North Korea.
“The river is going to be ice cold. We will wear out in less than 3 hours, what will you do then Tongmoo* Song-rim.? Besides, our mission is coming to a great reality in a month, there should be no looking back now!” Yong-taek said, his filthy face faintly illuminated in the 10-watt bulb, flickering at the distance.
“There are missionaries who keep boats and canoes in the bushes, waiting for people like us who are trying to flee the country. There are options, Beijing, eventually to Seoul, if you can’t survive there we will go to Laos or Bangkok. ! Or even further away., anywhere in the world. ! Think of a new life where you dont have to worry about food every day! “. Song-rim was infuriated, by this time he was desolate and desperate. “You are going to bring us all down with you! I say, you are acting selfishly! We are going to meet the same fate as Ang, and she was only 23!”
Yong-taek, 27, took his eyes off the mortar and pestle in his hands and stared at Song Rim. “Ang did not listen to us, she died like our parents trying to cross the border. She was severely underweight and the cold weather got the best of her!”
Kim Bong-cha was mixing the herbs that they picked up in the farm that afternoon. She was going to make wild grass soup for the entire family. The delicate twigs, the ground up corn, the herbs made a flavorful daily delicacy. It was their only choice of breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also helped to keep one busy when both the boys in the house started screaming at each other.
Ang, Yong-taek’s sister and Song-rim’s girlfriend, had talked to her brother about selling herself up for sex in Dandong, China to make enough money to help them all cross the border into a world of Freedom, in this case, China. Women currently account for 80 percent of North Korean refugees fleeing through China. A typical boat ride, a subsequent taxi route avoiding border checkposts, a shelter in the Govt. subsidized apartment and a refugee stamp as part of an asylum program in another country – everything would cost them about 5000$ including fees and bribes. And if one wished to seek refuge in the United States, it would cost twice as much.
The trade embargoes and the economic sanctions to the country meant no imports to the country. The row of dilapidated apartments in the border town of Sinuiju were secretly home to bags of rice stolen from the Kim’s various warehouses. But for now, they will have to live on rationed food. The desire for a warm dish delicacy of toenjang seemed elusive. Atleast that was the case now!
History always repeats itself. And History says 220,000 people perished during the 1995-98 great famine. Studies from South Korea suggest that more than 2 million North Koreans died during The Great famine: A direct result of the completion of the enormous West Sea Dam in 1986; immediately followed by a countrywide famine due to the government having used the entire nation’s resources on its construction.
As May approached, the lean season for crops and agriculture had begun and the soil dried up and the land turned barren. Song Rim helped smuggle the bags of rice and dry beans with the help of soldiers into the dirty empty village houses in Sinuiju. They were to be kept there until the time was right for their distribution. And that time might be right around the corner!!
Yong Taek was a rebel since he was born. His friends remembered him from the days when he was punished severely for mocking Kim Il Sung’s pose in front of his iconic 65 feet bronze statue on a field trip day at school. He had a penchant for freedom, a thrill for the forbidden or so it seemed. He would gather a few of his friends having clandestine meetings with them, asking them why they did not have aspirations to take down the leader and create a free country for themselves. Why run away from the country they were born?? Why listen to a dictator in this 21st century.?? How cool were all those action movies that they saw, the language English that they did not speak but understood the difference between a Hero and an ordinary man?
He despised the monotonous ceremonies celebrating the greatness of the Leadership, the ritualistic songs of praise written by his highness Kim Il-sung himself. A country that did have nothing to envy about.?? And if that was the case, why did people have fleeing on their minds?? Their society was made up of mindless color coordinated flag-wavers.!!
He was not interested in gathering a crowd for spraying graffiti on buildings or distributing anti-government pamphlets. These show of small discomforts and dissent — were the kind of discussions that would only stay within the four walls of homes and among family and friends. Prison camps, torture cells would await anyone caught protesting publicly; so the operation was top secret. The idea was to step up the game and be discreet about it.
As days broke one after another, Minsuh Son, a farmer woke up one Sunday feeling different. As he struggled to gather his thoughts and find out what was, he realized that the loud speakers which played patriotic music in the city streets each morning was replaced by a Public Service announcement. The people of Pyongyang were to gather around the Kumsusan Memorial of the late Kim Il-sung in an hour. He wondered if there was going to be a Nuclear attack and if they had to go underground or hide for the impending doom.
As the young and the old gathered together, the minister for National Security, Kim Yong-kyu addressed the crowd and answered why the urgent assembly had been called for. As newsmen from the Korean Central News Agency questioned him and clicked pictures, the wider rural public of North Korea tuned into through broken radio sets and old television boxes.
Yong-kyu read aloud from a paper in front of him.
“His highness, Kim Jong Il’s palace came under siege last night. The palace complex went completely dark for 4 hours. The measures were assumed to be part of the significant efforts by the Presidential Energy committee to conserve electricity and save the natural resources of North Korea. So, there was no sense of panic until the lights came back up after 4 hours. By that time, significant changes have taken place. Kim Jong-il is officially missing and we are not able to locate him as of now. Until things are resolved and we can trace him, the interim governance has ordered a ‘State of Freedom’ to the entire country of North Korea. The rules and restrictions of the current presidency are temporary suspended until further notice.”
“On an unrelated incident, North Korea’s twitter account was hacked sometime last night and we are looking into it. No damage to National Pride and Honor has been done and there is no cause for alarm.”
There is however a detail that was missing out of the government statement. And that was something Kim Bong-cha guessed, because as she stood there staring at the vast sky above her head, she squeezed Yong Taek’s palm in disbelief and overwhelming happiness. And what Minsuh Son did not know now, he might not know forever.
The soldiers that formed the security detail to the dictator formed the largest unbreakable chain of 250 soldiers that night. They worked with a couple of hundred palace personnel and workers in the dark to restore their own Human Rights that night. What they did and how they did it, the details remain as varied as the various versions of a popular folklore now. And Choe Yong Taek is a North Korean National folk hero!
About the country North Korea: The archaic, stubborn state of North Korea stunned the world by testing an atomic bomb for the first time in October 2006. Kim, the dictator, is genuinely interested in feeding his people, the proof of which is in the picture above.
The Strong and Prosperous Nation agenda was announced by Kim Jong Il in 1998 after a long mourning period following his father’s death where he urged his countrymen that, “every intellectual must open the doors to the era of a strong and prosperous country” by the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. There are media reports that in order to put up a great show of celebrations and prosperity, the food that is being produced is being hoarded away into storage units until the 2012 celebrations while millions and millions are starving to death.
Excerpts from an NPR radio broadcast from 2011:
In North Korea, the price of rice has increased 100 times since a year ago. For her daily meals, a 3-year-old child ingests alternatively food, a combination of ground corn, wild grass and twigs; her stomach cannot process the food and she will ultimately starve to death.”
Sources: Photos From The Telegraph, Wikipedia.org, The NPR, National Geographic
Translation for Tongmoo*: Comrade
NOTE: Originally Written On: Apr 11, 2011
Watch the real life story of a North Korean Defector who lived to tell her tale.
“Along my journey, I have seen the horrors that humans can inflict on one another, but I’ve also witnessed acts of kindness and tenderness and sacrifice in the worst imaginary circumstances. I know that it is possible to lose part of your humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the sparkle of human dignity is never completely extinguished and that given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again. Be free.” – Yeon-mi Park (North Korean defector)