This is the story of a woman who left her family in North Korea and crossed the river into China, desperate to save her newborn baby’s life. She agreed to share her story with the fifth estate on the condition that she remain anonymous, to protect her family still living in North Korea. She’s also co-writing a book with Toronto author Susan Elizabeth McClelland called ‘The Stars in Between the Sun and the Moon’.
Lucia Jang is not her real name, but this is her story as told to Gillian Findlay.
"I thought North Korea was the best country in the world, that no country lived as well as we did because that’s what we were taught.
Where ever I went, even at home, there was always a picture of Kim Il Sung. We called him father. We were taught he was so special we couldn’t even look at him. We thought he was a god.
In fact when he died, I couldn’t believe it. How can a God die? Like everyone else I cried. I cried more than when my own mother and father died. I cried for three days. But on the fourth day, if you didn’t cry your loyalty was in question. So I forced myself to cry some more, even though I had no more tears."
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea faced food shortages. By the 1990s, people began to starve.
"We thought it would all be over soon so we did our best. We’d go to the mountains and eat grass. Whatever we could put in our mouths we ate. We had no choice.
In the train stations you’d see people, children and adults just lying there. You’d think they were sleeping because they weren’t moving. But then you’d kick them and you knew they were dead. It was shocking. You’d see the station officers dragging the bodies out. But then life was so hard sometimes we thought starving wasn’t the worst option. Rather than struggling so hard to live, it would be so much easier to die."
As the famine worsened, escape began to seem like the only alternative to death. But the only possible way out of North Korea was across the Tumen River into China, across a border where North Korean guards had orders to shoot defectors on sight. One day, Lucia decided to try to cross that river with a friend.
"I couldn’t worry about what would happen next. All I could think is, I can’t get caught. The rocks in the river are covered in moss. You had to be careful not to slip. So we were basically clenching our teeth all the way across.
I didn’t know how to swim. We discovered that where the water is calm its deep. Where it’s not calm it’s shallow. So we had to go where it was more turbulent. But of course that’s where the patrols are."
They were lucky. Lucia made it across the river and into China, a country so close, but about which she knew nothing. Her first impression was the food.
"They gave us bean paste, red pepper paste, even kimchi. To us, it tasted like honey! How well they ate! But the thing that shocked me the most is that they were feeding rice to their dogs! In north korea we had no rice to eat but here they fed rice to their dogs."
For years, Lucia kept crossing the river, bringing back food to keep her family alive. Then she learned there was another way to make money in China - to sell herself for sex.
"If I wanted to live I had to do it. I had no choice. The only question was how much you’d be sold for."
She was sold for 5000 Won, or about $700 Canadian. She never saw that money.
"I would just work as hard as I could, get whatever I could, and then send it back home."
She thought if she worked hard, her owner would protect her. But then, there was a police crackdown and Lucia was sent back to a detention centre in North Korea.
"Oh it was very difficult there. First, you had to sit in a particular way. Like this. And you have to look straight ahead for 12 hours.
Except the 30 minutes they let you eat. Wake up at five in the morning until 10 or 11 pm. If the guards were in a bad mood they wouldn’t let you sleep. If you fell asleep, everyone in the room had to go stand up. And you’d kind of nod off while standing. But if you fell down the wooden floor would make a hollow sound …and then the guards would come. They’d ask ‘which room was that?’ And because you’d get into even more trouble if you didn’t tell, everybody would point to the room."
Lucia eventually managed to bribe her way out, and headed back to China. But again, there was a police crackdown. She was arrested, and this time she knew it would be worse. This time, Lucia was pregnant.
"Women who got pregnant while living with Chinese men were forced to abort their babies because we couldn’t have Chinese blood in North Korea. So when that I happened to me, I figured I’d be forced to have an abortion and then be sent to a labour camp."
It was too late for an abortion. Instead, she was sent home to wait a different fate.
When the baby comes out, it is to be killed and the mother is to be sent to a labour camp. They told the Doctor to kill the baby after it was born.
Lucia wasn’t going to wait for that. She hid with a relative in the mountains until the baby was born, then once again, went to the banks of the Tumen River. She knew this crossing would be her last.
"I had to go to China to save my child. I couldn’t stay in North Korea. There was nothing to eat, nothing to clothe the baby with. Everything was so scarce….O my heart is pounding with anxiety just thinking ….
My biggest fear is what would happen if the baby cried. He was sleeping so I put a sweater over him and I ran into the river. I couldn’t breathe.
The water started coming up…quickly….and I’m trying to catch my breath. And just then the baby’s foot touched the water and he startled. Like this. Even wrapped in the plastic bag he must have felt it. I knew I had to go very, very fast before he starts to cry.
The full moon was shining very brightly. But suddenly there was a cloud. It covered the full moon. And I thought to myself, where did that cloud come from to cover the moon?"
Lucia and her baby were safe. But there could be no staying in China this time. With the help of Christian missionaries she, too, boarded the underground railway. Destination: South Korea.
"It was like a picture. We couldn’t take our eyes off it. There were so many cars. And I thought: where are all these cars going? Why so many cars? In North Korea there were no cars.
In North Korea we’d been taught that South Korea is a gangster country: it’s poor, hungry kids have to beg on the street, and when you’re sick they won’t treat you unless you have money. And while the poor people don’t even have milk to drink, the rich bathe their dogs in it. Once we got there, we knew that everything we’d learned about South Korea was a lie.
Once we arrived our eyes were opened, we realized this is how the world really lives. It’s just North Korea that’s different. Once I saw everything I knew what I’d been taught, it was all lies."
Now Lucia Jang lives in Toronto. The baby she carried out of North Korea on her back in that plastic bag is now 10 years old. Recently, she was accepted as a landed immigrant in Canada. She is working with Canadian writer, Susan McClelland, to record her life story in a book.
Everyone who escapes North Korea wishes it would open up, so that at least before we die we can return to our homes.
It will be my dying wish, to visit my parent’s graves, meet my brothers and sisters. They must be old now.
If not me, then my children at least. That’s why I’m writing this book so that they will know where their mother came from.