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'As Long As I'm Dead, My Family Is Alive': Defector Recalls Daring Escape From North Korea

North Koreans look out of a tram as it passes by a department store in central Pyongyang. While some basic shopping is permitted, most North Koreans lived in poverty and rely on the state ration system for survival.
North Koreans look out of a tram as it passes by a department store in central Pyongyang. While some basic shopping is permitted, most North Koreans lived in poverty and rely on the state ration system for survival.

The rise and fall of Dzhon Khen Mu, ending with his dramatic escape from North Korea, began with a box of ginseng roots.

As a hotel manager in his hometown of Pyongyang, the capital, Dzhon was one of the few North Koreans to be in close contact with foreigners.

North Korea's totalitarian laws bar its citizens from speaking freely to foreigners, so Dzhon's interactions with hotel guests were restricted to several state-sanctioned courtesy formulas.

It was a simple, innocent gesture of hospitality that changed his life forever.

"Delegations of Japanese Koreans often stayed in our hotel," Dzhon tells RFE/RL in South Korea, where he sought refuge after fleeing the North in 2003. "One day, I gave one of these Japanese a box of ginseng as a gift. To show his gratitude, he gave me $300. This is how it all started."

Commercial activities were long prohibited by North Korea's ostensibly collectivist leadership. But in the 1990s, as famines swept the country and killed hundreds of thousands of people, a thriving black market emerged in the reclusive nation. In 2002, with the launch of the country's first industrial park, authorities finally lifted the ban and allowed citizens to engage in business.

Dzhon says he seized the opportunity and ventured into trade, using his $300 -- a small fortune by local standards -- as start-up capital.

"I learned to buy clothing in China for almost nothing," he says. "These clothes were written off by large stores and stuffed into huge vacuum-storage bags. The bags would then be packed into 100-kilogram bales. I would buy these bales for $100 each and sell the clothes in North Korea."

Dzhon also purchased used bicycles and a number of other items that were in demand back home.

Soon, he had amassed as much as $87,000 and a further 1.3 million Japanese yen ($12,700 at today's exchange rate), a colossal sum in a country where most people still subsist on the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars a month.

While some basic shopping was now permitted, Dzhon says most North Koreans lived in poverty and relied on the state ration system for survival. Each citizen received a daily ration of rice, soya paste, and sugar. Some items of clothing were also provided by the state.

"Underwear and socks were handed out for the whole family at the same time, once quarterly," he says. "Shoes were provided more rarely. Everything was scrupulously recorded: such a person received such a number of underpants, so many meters of fabric, during such a period of time."

Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Jong Il are displayed on the side of a building in Pyongyang.
Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Jong Il are displayed on the side of a building in Pyongyang.

Dzhon's flourishing business made him one of North Korea's wealthiest men. But under one of the world's most despotic regimes, his growing financial clout put him in great danger.

"Large amounts of foreign currency in private hands pose a threat to the authorities, especially if this money is not shared with the state the way it wants," he says.

Dzhon says he never initially planned to flee his country. Despite the draconian rules enforced by the authorities, he had a job he enjoyed, a beloved wife and two children, and enough cash to live as comfortably as North Korea allowed.

But when his business colleagues started disappearing one after the other, he says, he knew it was time to go.

"I had no other choice," Dzhon says. "I became really scared when I learned that all my business partners were missing, and then people told me how and where they were killed."

Business in North Korea is under close scrutiny from the security services. Those deemed to have built up too much wealth and influence, he says, are either jailed or executed.

"I was perfectly aware of the fact that I was next," Dzhon tells RFE/RL. "It was just a matter of time -- tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, in a week. But they were definitely coming for me."

Dzhon also says he knew that he would not be able to cross the border with his wife and children; it was simply too risky. So he decided to leave them behind but fake his own death in order to shield his family from the repressions that befall relatives of defectors.

For a $50 bribe, he obtained a forged death certificate testifying that he had died in a car crash.

"I did this so that they would think I was dead," he says. "This was the only safe option for them. If they had known that I was alive and that I had fled but not have reported it to authorities, they would have been severely punished."

Dzhon crossed the border into China, never to return.
Dzhon crossed the border into China, never to return.

On a cold April day, Dzhon left his home, never to return. He made his way to the border with China, where he told the guards he was a shuttle trader traveling to China to buy another batch of goods. Once across the border, he says, he jumped into the car of a waiting friend who lived in China and had promised to help him escape.

"There was snow on the mountains, I remember it was terribly cold," he says.

Dzhon spent four months in China, lying low and waiting for a counterfeit South Korean passport. He then used that document to enter the South Korean Embassy in China, where he applied for political asylum.

South Korea first put him on a plane to the Philippines, where he caught another flight to Seoul.

"This is common practice, defectors are almost always sent to South Korea through a third country, not directly," he says.

At Seoul's airport, Dzhon was met by South Korean intelligence agents and taken in for debriefing. He was then sent to a special camp set up to help North Korean refugees adjust to life in the South.

"It's very difficult for people who have lived all their lives in a socialistic country to adjust to a capitalist lifestyle," he says. "In the North, the party tells you what to do your whole life -- you don't make any decisions. The South forces you to make all the decisions yourself, and at first this is incredibly difficult to understand, accept, and apply to life."

Dzhon is now 60. He works as a broadcaster at National Unity Radio, a South Korean station that seeks to broadcast to the population in the North.

Although he fled more than 13 years ago, he still has nightmares about being caught by North Korean secret services. He says he continues to keep a low profile, never posting any comments or photos on social-networking sites. He has changed his name since defecting and refused to be photographed for this story.

"I think fear will stay with me for the rest of my life," he says.

Dzhon never remarried. He never yielded to the temptation to contact his family in Pyongyang, either.

"If the party finds out that I'm alive, and that I'm in South Korea, my relatives will be in big trouble," he says. "As long as I'm 'dead,' they are alive. This is what I think about every day."

Written by Claire Bigg in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Roman Super in Seoul
The original Russian version of this story can be found here