19-year-old North Korean's dangerous journey leads her to Boise State

awebb@idahostatesman.comSeptember 19, 2013 

  • THUMBNAIL HISTORY OF NORTH KOREA 1946-1990 AND THE YEARS LEADING UP TO THE MAJOR REFUGEE EXODUS

    • Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

    • The peninsula split in 1946. Kim Il Sung (the first of a dynasty of dictators) became the leader of the communist north, supported by the Soviet Union. The U.S. government supported South Korea.

    • In 1958, Kim Il Sung divided the North Korean population into three classes based on family background: the loyals (25 percent), the wavering (55 percent) and the hostile (20 percent). The divisions remain today.

    • Initially the North's economy, including mineral mining and other industries, was significantly stronger than the South's.

    • The 1980s brought big changes. The economy of South Korea surged while the North's economy stagnated.

    • The trend continued into the 1990s with the cessation of Soviet aid and a series of crop failures in the North.

    • During the mid-1990s, 1 to 2 million North Koreans (out of a population of 25 million) died of starvation. Larger numbers of North Koreans started to flee across the Chinese border during these years.

Eun Hyang Kim is a quick-to-smile student at Boise State just beginning her academic career. At 19, it's hard to believe she already has a full life of adventure behind her.

Kim escaped from North Korea in 2011. She's enrolled in an intensive English program at the university.

North Korea, which has been controlled by a dynasty of dictators since World War II, is known as one of the most isolated, closed societies in the world. Just this week, North Korea refused to cooperate with a United Nations probe into alleged human rights abuses.

Kim's journey took her through China, Laos and Thailand — across thousands of miles, over mountains and rivers.

Her route followed a circular route. She had to travel some 5,000 miles south to Thailand before circling back safely to South Korea.

Kim will spend a semester at Boise State thanks to sponsorship from the Idaho Korean Association. The group, which has about 2,000 members in the state, promotes awareness of Korean culture.

Next semester, Kim will enroll in Nampa Christian High School. She'll live with a host family and experience the life of an American teenager, before returning to South Korea. Her sponsors have hopes that she can return to Boise State as a freshman in 2015.

Kim carries a big red backpack filled with grammar books. Like so many of fellow students, she is never far from her smartphone.

Her first impressions of Boise, her home since her plane landed in August, are that it's a safe and quiet place. She's learning English steadily.

For now, she speaks through interpreter Ben Chon, a member of the Idaho Korean Association and chaplain at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.

A THREAT FROM MEN ON MOTORCYCLES

Kim was born in Yanggang-do, a city near Baekdusan, the tallest mountain in the country.

Her family never thought of moving. Not only does the North Korean government control citizens' access to media of all kinds, it controls families' abilities to travel.

But life was happy, Kim said, if spare. Her parents couldn't find jobs, so her mother began what the government considered an illegal trade: picking medicinal herbs in the mountains and selling them at the market.

This attracted attention of the authorities. One day, three men on motorcycles sent by the government showed up at Kim's house to threaten the family. Her mother fled to South Korea.

Kim's mother worked several jobs in South Korea to save $5,000 — a massive sum for her — to hire a "broker" to smuggle Kim out of North Korea. Brokers are similar to the coyotes who help people travel illegally from Mexico across the U.S. border.

Kim's journey, at the side of the broker and an ever-changing group of other refugees, took three months.

They left North Korea in January. Their first hurdle: crossing the Yalu River into China. Crossing in winter made for a comparatively easy trip. Kim and the others were able to run, rather than swim, across the frozen expanse.

The broker had paid the guards at the river to look the other way.

North Koreans who flee face substantial dangers. Some are shot trying to escape; others are jailed and sent back to North Korea. Some female refugees face sexual assault, even forced marriage.

RIVERS, MOUNTAINS AND CROCODILES

Once Kim and the others reached China, they encountered more obstacles. Kim, now traveling with two old women, a small boy, a baby and three adults closer to her own age, crossed a mountain into Laos. The broker arranged for a Laotian man to meet them and drive them to the Mekong River, the border of Thailand.

This crossing was more frightening than the others, said Kim. The boat barely supported eight people. It shook. Crocodiles lurked in the water.

Once in Thailand, Kim faced what might have been her biggest challenge: Thai authorities found the refugees and took Kim to prison for two months.

The prison stay was standard for people fleeing North Korea, said Kim. She knew she would get out eventually, but prison was a "horrible experience." It was hot by then, and Kim lived alongside criminals, sweltering in a series of four different prisons.

When authorities finally released her to South Korea, they held her in a kind of boarding school while they determined if she was a spy.

Finally, they released her and reunited with her mother. The two had not seen each other for a year and a half.

"I hugged her, we cried," Kim said through Chon's translation.

She was struck by how thin her mother had become. All the work she'd done to raise money to pay for Kim's escape showed in her face and body, said Kim.

A NEW CHAPTER

In South Korean, Kim was finally able to live with her mother as a free person. She enrolled in a high school for North Korean refugees in August 2012.

An Idahoan teaching at the school, Stephen Merrill, worked with the Idaho Korean Association to set up a program supported by private donations to pay for a student to study in Boise.

Kim was selected from six applicants.

Ideally, said Chon, Kim will return to South Korea to complete her senior year of high school, then return to Boise.

The association has applied for a Rotary grant to support Kim's future studies. It is collecting donations and hopes to create a permanent program to help young North Koreans, said Chon.

Even when North Korean students manage to make it to South Korea, they face an uphill battle. The educational system in North Korea doesn't prepare them to compete with their peers in South Korea, said Chon.

Being able to come to the U.S., to learn English and solidify their academics in other ways will give them a chance for a successful life in South Korea.

Many Korean-Americans feel a responsibility to help their former countrymen and women, Chon said.

"We want to give them the chance to dream," said Chon. "There is no way at all that can happen unless people like us reach out."

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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