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The life of a North Korean refugee doctor
NKRF Date 2024-01-08 Hit 280


The life of a North Korean refugee doctor


During the 'Arduous March' in the 1990s, the light in the eyes of malnourished children brought to the hospital was gradually fading, and doctors were left feeling helpless.

Dr. Kim Jieun, who served as a pediatric doctor at a hospital in Pohang District, Cheongjin, Hamgyeongbuk-do, North Koreae, also had to endure the daily agony of being unable to provide adequate care.



The hospital had run out of IV fluids entirely.

"I would look around the room on my way out after work, 

wondering how many of these children would still be here tomorrow.

Every time I finished my shift, I could feel the lingering expressions of hope and anticipation at the back of my mind.

The only thing a doctor could do was to weep alongside the parents who were grieving over their dying child. 

I couldn't continue in my role as a doctor any longer."

In March 1999, she made the daring decision to cross the frozen Dumangang River into China. 

In her arms, she held a letter her father had left behind as his last will and testament.



My father’s will and testament.

Dr. Kim was born in Cheongjin in 1966. 

Her parents had brought their family to North Korea in the early 1960s to escape the Cultural Revolution in China.

During her school days, she consistently ranked at the top of her class.

Her childhood dream was to become a lawyer.

However, due to her Chinese heritage, she was unable to enroll at Kim Il Sung University, as North Korea had stringent policies regarding individuals' family backgrounds.

So, at the urging of her mother, she pursued a different path and enrolled at Chongjin Medical College. She successfully graduated from the college in 1988 and was subsequently assigned to work at Pohang District Hospital as an internal medicine doctor.

For a decade in North Korea, she served in both internal medicine and pediatrics.

In July 1994, when her father, who had been seriously ill for a long time, heard the news of Kim Il-sung's death, he became lost in thought. He then handed a letter to his daughter.

Then he gave a letter to her. 

"Take this letter to the primary party secretary at the hospital," he said.

The letter, which the daughter read along with the party secretary, contained the following:

"I dedicate my daughter to the party. This is in place of my past party fee as a member who served in the Labor Party for a long time."

When the daughter returned home, her father asked her, 

"How did the party secretary react when he received the letter?"

"He liked it very much," she replied.

A few days later, the father quietly handed another letter to his daughter.

"You must keep this letter with you. And when there is a way out, you must go," he said.

When Dr. Kim opened the letter, she found a long list of addresses, including those of her father's relatives in China, including his sister.

After giving her the letter, her father began fasting and refused to eat. 

Despite the family's pleas, he passed away nine days later.

For a long time, a question haunted her: 

"Why did my father leave two conflicting letters?"

As the Arduous March unfolded, a significant number of people began fleeing to China. 

Even those who had been repatriated to North Korea would often vanish again within a few months.

Dr. Kim couldn't help but wonder what was so compelling about China that people would attempt to escape there, even after experiencing capture and torture.

She eventually opened her father's letters and understood their meaning

The first letter was sent to the Labor Party, serving as insurance in case his daughter chose to stay in North Korea. The second letter was meant to seek assistance from relatives living in China if she decided to flee the country.

In March 1999, he made the perilous journey across the Dumangang River and reached her aunt's house in Yongjeong, Yanbian in China.

However, she realized she couldn't rely on her aunt and relatives indefinitely.

Believing she should be in a larger city, she traveled to Beijing, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Korean professor's family.

With the assistance of the Korean professor, she managed to travel to Thailand and, ultimately, arrived in South Korea on March 14, 2002.​ 



A reason to live

In 2003, Dr. Kim found herself alone, in tears, writing her will. 

It had been a year since she had arrived in South Korea.

"I really tried to take my own life. I just couldn't see the future."

Like many North Korean refugees, she began attending church when she first settled in South Korea. 

There, a kind-hearted woman approached her and struck up a friendship, addressing her as a sister.

"You don't have a job yet, right? Why don't you come and spend some time with us?" the woman suggested.

"There's a network company where you can meet many people, integrate more quickly, and earn a good income."

Dr. Kim initially believed the network company was an IT firm focused on cutting-edge technology.

She saw the opportunity to use her spare time for studying, which appealed to her.

However, in less than six months, she had lost all her savings.

There was a bigger reason why she wanted to end her life. 

Upon arriving in South Korea, the government validates the educational credentials of North Korean refugees.

Dr. Kim's medical degree and experience were recognized. Still, according to the laws at that time, she was not allowed to take the licensing exam or attend a medical school in South Korea. 

Her dream of practicing medicine as a doctor had been shattered, and as she wrote her will, her life flashed before her eyes

She reviewed her past, wondering if there had been even harder times than the present. 

She contemplated why she wanted to end her life now, given that she had a warm home and food to eat. After all, she had managed to escape the dangers of being sent back to North Korea after being arrested twice in China.

And she identified four reasons to live. 

Firstly, she concluded that her desire to end her life had stemmed from her own pride and greed.

She realized, "Who says I have to be a doctor? I can work at a company." With this realization, she began to feel better.

Secondly, she considered the countless North Korean refugees who face life-or-death situations every day. She felt that if she were to die after being fortunate enough to escape to South Korea, people would mock her.

Thirdly, her self-esteem played a significant role.

In North Korea, refugees are often labeled as traitors, and she wanted to succeed in South Korea to demonstrate to the people in her hometown that they, too, could live in a society where everyone has the opportunity to develop their abilities.

The last reason was more significant than the first three. 

She missed her son who was in North Korea, and the thought of her son believing that his mother left him to go to South Korea and recklessly end her life was unbearable. 

She overcame the urge to end her life and found a job at a South Korean company. 

Once she found the reasons to live, her face, which had been rigid, softened, and she started smiling more.

After working at the company, she became close to people, and the president and directors were supportive.

"We hear the reasons why you cannot practice as a doctor here, and it is unfair. You must fight."

With their support, she testified in front of the National Assembly audit in October 2004. 

Subsequently, she was granted entrance to a medical school. 

Given her prior experience as a doctor, she was told she could skip the first two years of pre-med and start as a first-year medical student, completing the remaining four years of medical school.​ 



Director Kim Jieun has continued her medical volunteer work in places like India, Indonesia, and Thailand. (Above)  

In 2017, she received a fold award at the Asia-Pacific Stevie Awards in recognition of her services in health and health-related fields. (Below) 



Time flew quickly. 

She graduated in 2009 and opened her oriental medicine clinic in Bucheon that year.

The media gave her the title of, ‘the first integrated oriental medicine doctor of North and South Korea’, highlighting her education both in North and South Korea. 

In an effort to repay the love and support, she started her volunteer visits to nursing homes and East Asia many times in 2014. 

She was known as the ‘successful North Korean refugee’, and many articles were written about her. 

The biggest personal joy was that she was reunited with her son. 

When her son was 13 years old, she had asked someone to bring her son to the Dumangang River and tried to convince him that he needed to go to his mother since his mom had moved far already.

Her son initially refused to come with her, expressing a desire to live with his grandfather.

However, after turning 19, he had a change of heart and asked if he could come to South Korea.

Her son asked, “Mom, can I come now?” 

She asked, “Of course, why did you change your mind?”

Her son replied “Do you want to hear the official reason or the unofficial reason?” (“Both please.”), 

"Hmm. Officially, there is no future here.

I thought good grades would be enough but no. 

The unofficial reason is I can buy a Korean car and I can see Song Hyekyo and Lee Jiah in South Korea.” 

Those two celebrities were the main actors of the popular Korean dramas at that time. 

A few months later, her son joined her in South Korea.

The investigation agency did not allow meetings between Dr. Kim and her son but they allowed them to communicate through phone calls.

Dr. Kim decided to express her love, something she had yearned to say for a long time.

It was a mission of hers

At the end of a phone call, she said, "I love you, son," 

but initially, there was no response. 

A few days later, she repeated her declaration, and this time, her son seemed to struggle to respond, saying, "uh, uh, ok." 

On the third phone call, she expressed her love once again, 

and this time, her son responded with, "I do, too." Dr. Kim felt immense joy.

Currently, her son has completed his graduate studies and is preparing to become a lawyer. 

Seeing her son grow into a loving and goal-oriented young man brings Dr. Kim great happiness.



Life is a marathon

Dr. Kim continued to advance in her career, moving to the position of vice president of a clinic in Gyeonggido in 2019.

She desired more time to focus on her studies 

and felt that her responsibilities as a clinic director left her with limited time for other pursuits.

Currently, she is pursuing a doctoral degree at a law school in Seoul and is working on her doctoral thesis. Additionally, she serves as a visiting professor at Ajou University.

The question that arises is why Dr. Kim is determined to pursue a doctorate in law.

“As a person who has been a doctor in both North and South Korea, I see my role as someone who can contribute to unification of North and South.

When the unification happens, the medical integration between South and North will also be an important issue. 

I want to learn about medical laws and regulations of North and South Korea so that I can think about the integrated system that would be reasonable. 

As someone who came here first, I would like to be a lever for the next generation.”

She compared life to a marathon. 

“The marathon is a competition where they cheer even for the last person finishing the race. 

As long as you don’t give up then you will make it to the finish line and no matter when you finish it, there is always somebody cheering for you, right?”

After listening to Dr. Kim’s marathon analogy, one wonders where in the marathon course she might be at right now. 

After hearing Dr. Kim's marathon analogy, one can't help but wonder where she stands in this marathon of life.

Has she reached a turning point?

What does she consider to be the finish line?

Would it be when she becomes the first integrated oriental medicine doctor in North and South with a doctorate?

If one must confess, I, the reporter, was a classmate at Hanawon. 

We both left Hanawon and took our first steps into the real world on the same day 18 years ago.

As I closed my notes, I looked at her and said these words.

“We did pretty good, right?”

“Yes. We did.”

Unable to tell whether it wanted to cry or laugh, our gazes filled with thousands of untold stories met.  ​