translator: joseph genireviewer: morton bast when i was little, i thought my countrywas the best on the planet. and i grew up singing a songcalled "nothing to envy." and i was very proud. in school, we spent a lot of timestudying the history of kim il-sung, but we never learned muchabout the outside world, except that america, south korea,japan are the enemies. although i often wonderedabout the outside world, i thought i would spendmy entire life in north korea,
until everything suddenly changed. when i was seven years old,i saw my first public execution. but i thought my lifein north korea was normal. my family was not poor, and myself, i had neverexperienced hunger. but one day, in 1995,my mom brought home a letter from a coworker’s sister. it read, "when you read this, our five family memberswill not exist in this world,
because we haven’t eatenfor the past three weeks. we are lying on the floor together, and our bodies are so weak,we are waiting to die." i was so shocked. this was the first time i heardthat people in my country were suffering. soon after, when i was walkingpast a train station, i saw something terrible that to this dayi can’t erase from my memory. a lifeless woman was lying on the ground, while an emaciated child in her arms
just stared helplesslyat his mother’s face. but nobody helped them, because they were so focused on takingcare of themselves and their families. a huge famine hit north koreain the mid-1990s. ultimately, more than a millionnorth koreans died during the famine, and many only survived by eatinggrass, bugs and tree bark. power outages also becamemore and more frequent, so everything around mewas completely dark at night, except for the sea of lights in china,
just across the river from my home. i always wonderedwhy they had lights, but we didn’t. this is a satellite pictureshowing north korea at night, compared to neighbors. this is the amnok river, which serves as a part of the borderbetween north korea and china. as you can see, the river can bevery narrow at certain points, allowing north koreans to secretly cross. but many die.
sometimes, i saw dead bodiesfloating down the river. i can’t reveal many detailsabout how i left north korea, but i only can say thatduring the ugly years of the famine, i was sent to china to livewith distant relatives. but i only thought that i wouldbe separated from my family for a short time. i could have never imagined that it would take 14 yearsto live together. in china, it was hard livingas a young girl without my family.
i had no idea what lifewas going to be like as a north korean refugee. but i soon learned it’s notonly extremely difficult, it’s also very dangerous, since north korean refugees are consideredin china as illegal migrants. so i was living in constant fearthat my identity could be revealed, and i would be repatriatedto a horrible fate, back in north korea. one day, my worst nightmare came true,
when i was caught by the chinese police, and brought to the police stationfor interrogation. someone had accused meof being north korean, so they tested my chineselanguage abilities, and asked me tons of questions. i was so scared. i thought my heart was going to explode. if anything seemed unnatural,i could be imprisoned and repatriated. i thought my life was over.
but i managed to controlall the emotions inside me, and answer the questions. after they finished questioning me, one official said to another, "this was a false report.she’s not north korean." and they let me go. it was a miracle. some north koreans in chinaseek asylum in foreign embassies. but many can be caughtby the chinese police, and repatriated.
these girls were so lucky. even though they were caught, they were eventually released,after heavy international pressure. these north koreans were not so lucky. every year, countless north koreansare caught in china and repatriated to north korea, where they can be tortured, imprisoned,or publicly executed. even though i wasreally fortunate to get out, many other north koreanshave not been so lucky.
it’s tragic that north koreanshave to hide their identities and struggle so hard just to survive. even after learning a newlanguage and getting a job, their whole world can be turnedupside down in an instant. that’s why, after 10 yearsof hiding my identity, i decided to risk going to south korea. and i started a new life yet again. settling down in south korea was a lot more challengingthan i had expected.
english was so important in south korea, so i had to start learningmy third language. also, i realized there was a wide gapbetween north and south. we are all korean, but inside, we have become very different,due to 67 years of division. i even went through an identity crisis. am i south korean or north korean? where am i from? who am i? suddenly, there was no countryi could proudly call my own.
even though adjusting to lifein south korea was not easy, i made a plan — i started studyingfor the university entrance exam. just as i was startingto get used to my new life, i received a shocking phone call. the north korean authoritiesintercepted some money that i sent to my family, and, as a punishment, my familywas going to be forcibly removed to a desolate location in the countryside. they had to get out quickly.
so i started planninghow to help them escape. north koreans have to travelincredible distances on the path to freedom. it’s almost impossible to cross the border between north korea and south korea. so, ironically, i tooka flight back to china and headed toward the north korean border. since my family couldn’t speak chinese, i had to guide them somehowthrough more than 2,000 miles
in china, and then into southeast asia. the journey by bus took one week, and we were almost caught several times. one time, our bus was stoppedand boarded by a chinese police officer. he took everyone’s i.d. cards, and he started asking them questions. since my family couldn’tunderstand chinese, i thought my familywas going to be arrested. as the chinese officerapproached my family,
i impulsively stood up, and i told him that these are deaf and dumb peoplethat i was chaperoning. he looked at me suspiciously, but luckily, he believed me. we made it all the wayto the border of laos. but i had to spend almost all my money to bribe the border guards in laos. but even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailedfor illegal border crossing.
after i paid the fine and bribe, my family was released in one month. but soon after, my familywas arrested and jailed again, in the capital of laos. this was one of the lowestpoints in my life. i did everything to getmy family to freedom, and we came so close, but my family was thrown in jail, just a short distancefrom the south korean embassy.
i went back and forthbetween the immigration office and the police station, desperately trying to get my family out. but i didn’t have enough moneyto pay a bribe or fine anymore. i lost all hope. at that moment, i heardone man’s voice ask me, "what’s wrong?" i was so surprised that a total strangercared enough to ask. in my broken english,and with a dictionary,
i explained the situation,and without hesitating, the man went to the atm, and he paid the restof the money for my family, and two other north koreansto get out of jail. i thanked him with all my heart,and i asked him, "why are you helping me?" "i’m not helping you," he said. "i’m helping the north korean people." i realized that thiswas a symbolic moment in my life.
the kind stranger symbolized new hopefor me and the north korean people, when we needed it most. and he showed methat the kindness of strangers and the supportof the international community are truly the rays of hopewe north korean people need. eventually, after our long journey, my family and i were reunitedin south korea. but getting to freedomis only half the battle. many north koreansare separated from their families,
and when they arrive in a new country, they start with little or no money. so we can benefitfrom the international community for education, english language training,job training, and more. we can also act as a bridge between the people inside north koreaand the outside world. because many of us stay in contactwith family members still inside, and we send information and money that is helping to changenorth korea from inside.
i’ve been so lucky, receivedso much help and inspiration in my life, so i want to help giveaspiring north koreans a chance to prosperwith international support. i’m confident that you will seemore and more north koreans succeeding all over the world, including the ted stage. thank you. (applause)