Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Incredible Stories from North Korea

Yesterday we had a rare opportunity to host a dinner for a young North Korean defector named Kim Jin-Sung.  A full 24 hours later I am still processing what I heard and learned from him, most of which was so incredible that it was hard for me to comprehend or even imagine.

Each summer our long time family friend Karen opens her home to several college students who come from underprivileged backgrounds and spends time with them.  She started doing this through her church that sponsors a handful of promising young people from South Korea to attend English programs in the U.S.  While they stay with her and her husband John, she takes them down to Washington DC, shows them around Philadelphia, and tries to provide encouragement and motivation for a better life ahead.  In recent years her church developed a relationship with a church started by a North Korean defector in Seoul and this summer, one of the students she is hosting turned out to be this young man.  A few weeks ago when she mentioned how she was hosting someone from North Korea, we hoped that we could meet him as well.  Yesterday, around 3:30 in the afternoon Karen and Jin-Sung came over to my parents’ house for a visit.

The first thing that struck me about Jin-Sung was his smile.  He has a very open and kind face that immediately puts everyone at ease.  I liked him right away.  Then I noticed his small stature, which he later explained was due to malnutrition.  He said that in North Korea his height is considered average so he was shocked to see so many tall people in South Korea.  I’d venture a guess and say he’s about 5′ 1″ or 5′ 2″; he mentioned in passing that when he first arrived in Seoul at the age of 15 he was 4′ 7″.  On his end, his eyes were on a Stanford banner we have in our family room.  He gave me a sheepish sideways glance, and said that he’s studying electrical engineering and it’s his dream to go to graduate school at Stanford.  I liked him even more.

We sat down to talk and for the next 6-7 hours I asked him everything I was curious about.  I think my parents were skittish about bringing up certain topics or thought it rude to prod and probe.  As I know so little about North Korea (or even about South Korea for that matter) I took the chance to ask him what I wanted to know, but I tried to be as respectful and sensitive as possible.  He was incredibly gracious about answering all my questions (some of them were so simple and dumb that I think my parents thought I was a bit nuts…  I asked him whether they learned music in school – yes, but they learn songs about the “Great Leader”; whether people dated & how – yes, couples meet usually at night, no PDA ever (not even hand-holding); what weddings in North Korea were like- simple affairs at home, etc).  I can’t thank him enough for his time and his thoughtfulness in educating and enlightening me.

I wanted to jot down as much as I remember of our conversation.  So here it is below in random order, without any comments or my feelings about them.

: Dad asked whether it’s true that North Koreans are starving to death.  He asked Jin-Sung whether he’s witnessed anyone who died that way because he can’t actually believe it.  Jin-Sung replied that he has seen countless people die of starvation, a few each week maybe, mentioned 300 people dying in a village.  He said when you have had little or nothing to eat for years and years, a few days without food can and will kill you.
: Once there was an organized revolt, an uprising against the government   The entire village was flattened by bombs and everyone was killed.  The government made a list of those who lived in that village, rounded up all the relatives of those people and killed them, too.  That scared everyone off.

: There are ~25,000 escapees from North Korea living in South Korea today.  They prefer the term “new settlers” in Korean.

: The North Korean government used to kill in public those who tried to escape and are captured.  But now there are hundreds of thousands who try every year, which made killing everyone impossible.  Now if/when they’re captured, they are sent to labor camps.  They return from labor camps half dead and ruined, but they usually attempt to escape again.  His father was one of them.

: After his father returned and told the family about what it’s like outside North Korea, it took them a few years to gather enough money and plot their escape.

: The river they crossed (to China) is guarded at the narrowest points (he said the currents can be dangerous and one false step can mean death) so they bribed the soldiers, which was still very risky.  His family of four (his parents plus his older sister) was lucky enough to evade capture and made it safely to China.

: Once in China they found refuge and help at a Korean church.  For 6 months they lived in hiding, afraid of being captured everyday.  The parents went to work where no one would question their non-Chinese/ North Korean status, and the two kids stayed behind and did Bible study.

: Jin-Sung read the Bible cover to cover 40 times in those 6 months.  He still reads about 5 pages each and every day.  He left the church and pored over other forms of organized religion for several years, but returned to the Christian faith eventually.  He credits his faith for pulling him through all the difficult times.

: He is in contact with some people in North Korea, which Dad thought was impossible.  Cell phone calls can be made- with luck and by bribing officials who travel back and forth from China, mobile phones are smuggled into North Korea.  People take the phone into the mountains and call the outside world.  They have to set date/time for the next call in order to plan ahead and for safety.

: There is next to no electricity (they may have some every six months or so).  He remembers studying by diesel light, which was terribly smoky and made the walls black.  He’d wake in the morning with black soot inside of his nose.  They used wood and coal for fuel.  He lived in a coal mining town and his father worked as a cold miner.

: They had no running water but the water from the mountains/nature was great as there is no pollution.  When asked about what he missed, he said  the sky…  Especially the night sky because he could see the stars so clearly.

: Fish are long gone, as are forests and trees.  Anything edible has been consumed.  A lot of people died from plant poisoning from eating too much grass/green plants/poisonous things in nature.

: He grew up believing that North Korea was the wealthiest country in the world, imagining how much worse everyone else had it.

: The three most important songs in North Korea are in this order- #1) a song praising Kim Il-Sung, #2) a song praising Kim Jung-Il, #3) National Anthem

: Military service in North Korea is for 13 years.  You enlist at the age of 17 and are discharged at 30.  Everyone wants to serve in the military because it means you get fed and it also means there is one less mouth to feed at home.  You have to be picked to serve in the military & a lot of women want to serve as well (13 years for them, too).

: With a big smile Jin-Sung said “I like white rice.”  His favorite food is meat.  He said having one meal a day in North Korea would be considered very good.  He’s heard older people say that things were better during the war because at least back then, no one died of starvation.

: Families and neighbors are encouraged to report others to the government, everyone is always watching each other.  While hiding in China, they were afraid of being reported by other Koreans (Korean-Chinese) who were rewarded for reporting North Korean defectors.

: Jin-Sung was born in June, 1989 (23 now) and as a North Korean defector he doesn’t have to serve in the South Korean military.  There is mandatory military service for all South Korean men; they serve for ~20 months.

: At school they are taught biography and history of the leaders, Korean language, math, music, etc.  They are also taught that enemy #1 is America, enemy #2 is Japan, enemy #3 is South Korea.  He knows of other young North Korean students in Seoul who entered university without having learned a single word of English (whereas English is taught early on in South Korea and is an obligatory subject).  The North Korean students have an incredibly difficult time adjusting.  I recently read a NYT article entitled “Young North Korean Defectors Struggle in the South.”  Jin-Sung’s story was very much the same.

: While there is nationalized/government health care in North Korea there is no medicine in hospitals.  You need to bribe hospital officials to receive care.

: International/outside aid doesn’t reach the general public in North Korea.  Rice is sold to purchase more weapons for the military.  He would hear about rice being received but never see any.  One time UN volunteers monitored the distribution of rice to the North Korean population.  As soon as the UN people left, the soldiers swooped in and confiscated all the food.

: Animal feed does, sometimes, reaches them.  He said he thinks it’s better to send animal feed because the military can’t get $ for it and the people who receive corn or animal feed eat it themselves.

: After 6 months of hiding in North Eastern China Jin-Sung’s family traveled by train, traversing the great land mass over Mongolia to Vietnam (he said that many die during this long journey or get captured and sent back to North Korea).  They spent 2 months in hiding in Vietnam then traveled to Cambodia where they spent another 2 months.  They waited in Thailand for 2 more months for their paperwork to be done and for the South Korean government to accept them into the country.

: He learned what coffee is from watching South Korean soap operas.  Video tapes of Korean soaps and movies are smuggled into North Korea, and are extremely popular.  Most people used to believe that South Korea was living in extreme poverty, but with so much information seeping into North Korea now everyone knows that it is exactly the opposite.  They know that the North Korean government is feeding them lies.

: With so little access and news coming out of North Korea, and no way for the outside world to know and support the North Korean people it’s next to impossible for them to stage a successful revolt (he compared it to Egypt and how vastly different the two countries are in that regard).

: The Kim dynasty/family of rulers are God-like in North Korea.  North Korea is essentially a kingdom and the high ranking communist party members are the aristocrats.  All the best schools and professions are reserved for them, based on birth.  Unless you are one of them there is absolutely no way for you to rise above and beyond (rare exceptions are made if you show incredible potential and are deemed worth “investing”).  You know your limitations and place in the North Korean order at birth, which cannot be challenged or questioned.

: Every house has a photo of the North Korean dictators.  The Great Leaders are revered and so God-like that when he was young Jin-Sung thought “they didn’t even go to the bathroom.”  It was almost shocking to find out that they had children because it meant they had wives.  The new leader, Kim Jong-Un saying he wants peace or showing his wife in public took him by surprise.

: The North Korean defectors in South Korea face numerous challenges and most struggle.  They used to receive from the South Korean government ~$30,000 + apartment per family but now what they receive doesn’t help much ~$2,000.  They get little to no support, and find discrimination at school and at the workplace.  South Koreans often complain “why should my tax $ go to help you?”  South Koreans also discriminate against Southeast Asians who work as laborers; Jin-Sung said North Koreans are treated like second class citizens and lumped in with the Southeast Asians.

: One of his closest friends who was also defected from North Korea committed suicide because he couldn’t cope with his new life in South Korea.

: Jin-Sung went to elementary school in North Korea and had no other formal education in South Korea until university.  He studied on his own to get the Korean equivalent of our GED (high school diploma), studied for his college entrance exams, and was accepted to Seoul National University for electrical engineering (SNU is the best university in South Korea).  He gets tuition subsidies from the South Korean government, but is on academic scholarship and has to keep a certain GPA to continue receiving aid.  He said he has to study a lot; when asked about going to karaoke or dance clubs, he answered that he went to a club once but didn’t like it very much.

: Jin-Sung’s older sister is getting married next year.

: Jin-Sung’s church has about 50 college students who are all from North Korea.  They speak of doing well and succeeding in society to gather more power in order to lend a louder voice to help the North Koreans living in South Korea.  There is no advocate for them and it’s up to the younger generation to take up that role once they are better established economically.  They feel it’s the prerequisite to be taken seriously, and to fight the stereotypes and discrimination they face.  He said that South Koreans in general respond and respect only to those with money.  Appealing to their sense of duty or humanity has gotten them nowhere and is not effective.

: His impression of the United States has been very favorable; Americans seem open-minded, abundance and grand scale of…  everything, from grocery stores to corn fields.  Gesturing with his thumb and forefinger to indicate a space about half an inch wide he said “if a big country like the United States can feed all the people here, how badly does one government have to function to starve to death the citizens of such a tiny country like North Korea?”

: He said that the realities in North Korea is so much worse than the worst we can imagine.

He spent the summer studying English and just returned from a week-long trip to New York.  He was visibly tired by the end of the evening and I felt terribly sorry that we kept him over as long as we had.  But he was all smiles and positive words as he told us how this trip to the States has inspired him to follow his dreams.  He had no doubt in his mind that he’ll return to further his studies.  I told him to dream bigger than he possibly can, and that there are great things for him to discover and enjoy in his future.  What a fantastic young man!  It was an absolute privilege to have met him, and he gave me a lot to think about and reflect.  I truly wish him all the best and hope to see him again one day.

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7 Responses to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Incredible Stories from North Korea

  1. Wow, what an incredible story. I find it sad that South Koreans find it hard to open their hearts/minds to their neighbours…its something that is reported on often and its terrible to hear.

  2. bennettxing says:

    Wow. Thanks for writing down all the small details of your conversation. It is hard to imagine and your notes made it more real.

  3. Kate says:

    Hi! I just returned from a trip from North Korea. your notes on everything he described about North Korea is true.. The country is in bad shape. There are talks though of opening an economic zone close to China. Illegal cellphones are in abundance because of the close proximity between border towns of China and North Korea. North Korea is really a fascinating country though, you can never find a place like it nowadays. for more info, I wrote more about my experiences here Thanks for sharing Jin-Sung’s experiences. I hope his dreams come true.

  4. Jina @ Soy and Ginger says:

    Fascinating, thank you so much for this valuable post!

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