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SETTLEMENT STORY
SETTLEMENT STORY
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I am grateful to South Korea for this life
NKRF Date 2023-04-19 Hit 602

 I am grateful to South Korea for this life

 

For Lee Yeong-joo who had repatriated twice and defected from North Korea three times, each day living in South Korea is special. 

It’s because she is living in the future, which was the dying wish of a friend who died in a prison in North Korea. 

She cannot forget her past and feels a responsibility to be happy on behalf of them as well. 

Here is the Lee Young-joo that I met whose story has been made into a North Korean Human Rights Film < You Don’t Know>.  


The spring has arrived even in the branches of trees that still look to be bare. The branches that are cradling new beginnings are everywhere. As I am heading to our meeting in the busy streets of Yeongdeungpo-gu, those trees that survived the winter particularly caught my eyes.  


I must survive to meet my daughter. 


In 1958, Lee Young-joo’s grandfather was purged from North Korea as a sectarian.  When the children were old enough to understand, her father called them and sat them down. He said sternly, “We must live as if we do not exist in this world”. So Young-joo led a life as if she did not have a life."

1997 was the time when people were starving to death. Whether it was good or bad, she kept it to herself and followed just like everyone else did, but waiting for death while alive was unbearable.

She had to do something to survive, so she crossed the river. For the first time, she could feel a civilization in a new land that was very different from the one she grew up in. On the other side of the river, in the village on the North Korean border, having a North Korean wife and a North Korean daughter-in-law meant that my husband’s family had to keep it quiet. 

Because if any one of the people in the village reported on her family, then the whole family would be in trouble. She felt guilty because she was from North Korea, seeing how her family had to keep it quiet because of her. As her daughter was born and growing up, she was concerned that she had no status. She did not want her daughter to face any discrimination because she was North Korean, so she made a big decision. 

First, I left in February 2006, but I was arrested by the police in Weihai (a small fishing village on the eastern coast of the Shandong Peninsula) and was repatriated to North Korea.

However, while under the investigation, she was able to escape back to China. 

In March 2007, I escaped for the second time but was arrested again.  “The interrogator who studied in North Korea, asked questions in the fluent Pyongyang language and I spoke in Chinese, as I was familiar with the Chinese language. She said it was difficult to hide that she was escaping because there was a group of them.  She shuddered as she recalled her prison life in North Korea.

 “I will never forget the three years of my life spent in Chongori Concentration Camp. It’s a place where you are alive and dead as a number. As I was with people who died there, I thought to myself that I was not an animal and that I must survive to meet my daughter. And I should tell the world all the horrible things I had to endure.”

 She had to sleep in a very narrow place, was worked until passing out, and the dogs would play with human bones because the dead bodies were not properly handled. She wanted to live like a human being even if she only had one day to live.   

She did not forget her time in the North Korean concentration camp and wrote an expose book on the horrors of North Korean prisons called “The North Korea’s Inner Life that King Jong-un Must Know”. 


After working hard, Lee Young-joo was able to get a license to work as a nursing aide and now she is proud of her job in caring for elderly people. 

 

I am grateful to South Korea for the opportunity

In October 2010, she got out of prison alive as she wished. 

As soon as she was able to walk, she set out to China to find her daughter against her mother’s tearful wish to stay. Once she held her daughter in her arms, she felt like the world was on her side. As soon as her health recovered, she sat her daughter down. 

  “When we get to have a life in South Korea, I want to be a proud mother. Can you help me to be one?”

 “How can I help you?”

 “You can encourage me. I feel like I can do anything as long as I am with you.”

In July 2011, the journey that Lee Young-joo was willing to risk everything for succeeded. She finally made it to South Korea. Having a life in South Korea was her dream and her guiding light. The present life she lives was the future that her friends longed for but did not get. She is thankful for every day she gets to breathe and live and she is grateful to the South Korea that made it possible.   


Lee Young-joo is really happy to take care of elderly people. Her dream is to open a nursing facility for elderly North Korean refugees.


How should I die?

After settling in South Korea, Young-joo worked many jobs but the job of social worker really became her love. ‘I can work for myself and help others at the same time”. Young-joo decided to become a social worker. She could not solely focus on her studies but after working hard, she was able to get a license to work as a nursing aide and now she is proud of her job in caring for elderly people. She is really happy about being able to take care of elderly people regardless of money or time. Her dream is to open a nursing facility for elderly North Korean refugees.

One day, an elderly man who lived in the apartment downstairs called. 

He was from North Korea and living alone. He was immobile and needed a caregiver but due to the poor environment, his North Korean accent, and being an elderly male patient, it made it difficult to find one.

 “How should I die?”, said the elderly man and these words pierced through her heart.

 “I should try rather than turning away and carrying this guilt for the rest of my life. I take care of him now and when it’s me, maybe there will be somebody who will take care of me.”

It was not easy to practice what she decided to do. She would run to check on the patient whenever she got a call that the patient fell off of his bed and it was hard to take care of the patient all by herself. By the time she got one of her colleagues to help her to lift the patient and change his diaper and clean, it was the morning before they knew it. While providing care was a difficult job, when the patient passed away, she felt as if her parents had died.

 

The one person that has been on my side


The person Lee Young-joo is most grateful for in her life is her husband. It was with the help of her husband that she was able to survive the extremely poor conditions of the North Korean Concentration Camp. Her husband needed the money to support his wife so he came to South Korea leaving behind their daughter in the care of his parents. Young-joo, her husband and their young daughter had to survive for each other in the North Korean prison, South Korea and in China, respectively. 

They bicker and are not too friendly at times but they are each other’s life partners who genuinely understand each other.  Her wish for her daughter who is all grown up and wanting to be an animator is this, “I want you to share stories of my country. You have the reason to have a fulfilling life”, which is also the message that she reminds herself of often.